Tuesday, May 12, 2015

404 - Page Not Found

I failed to duck.

A couple of months ago, one of the bosses walked through on a Friday afternoon, looking for someone to assign a task to.  This was an urgent task, but it was not seen as important.  She was in a bind, and I was there.

The assignment was to represent our office in a committee looking at streamlining our external website.  OK.  In a culture where we hold as one of our major buzzwords 'transparency', well, that seems important.  So urgent.  Important.

Count me in.

The first meeting came to order, and the group lead explained the task to us.  We were to evaluate our offices' websites, to see if there were places we could gain efficiency - make it less likely that people have to click through page after page to get what they want.

At least, that was what I understood.  It turned out, though, that efficiency was not really the task at all. (I know.  Burrocrazy, right?).  What we were trying to do was to reduce the number of click-throughs - to the greatest extent possible - for its own end.

Wait. What?

The task is to reduce clicks. 

The contract we have with the web host is based on the number of clicks.  If you open a new page from within our system, we get charged. Another page: another charge.  So the mandate came down: Reduce Clicks.

The brainstorming for how to accomplish that followed a horrifying, but predictable pattern.  We looked at ways to isolate the internet user, and either force him off the site (shunting into another website entirely) or to bring the user to a phone number that they would call to get the information without further using the system.

We diagnosed a sniffle. And identified a solution: a noseplug. Voila! No more sniffles!

It was at this point that I nicknamed the committee "Club 404".  Because if we get rid of visitors to our website (by directing them to a page where there is a "404-Page not found error"), then we have reduced the clicks. (In case you are wondering, the leader of the group did not appreciate having her committee renamed.)

I thought the disconnect was a result of having labor and website paid for out of different accounts, so that the one hand didn't care about the expenses of the other.  That happens all the time.  It is how we explain getting new furniture in our office when we don't have enough money to pay our people.  And replacing $100k worth of carpet, but not the $250 for fixing the water fountain.

But the more I think about it, the real issue seems to be that the labor cost is fixed.  We aren't going to lay off people in order to reduce expenses.  So the money paid to put those 15 butts in the seats in that conference room is a fixed cost. We pay for that, whether or not they are in the conference room, at their desk, or in the hall.  Or answering the phone to talk to someone who couldn't find the information they were needing online.

The clicks, though, are a variable cost.  If we redirect internet traffic and send people to the phone lines, then we reduce our overall cost for that contract.  And in the process, we create 'savings' to the government.  Never mind that it is penny-wise, pound-foolish. We now pay a $75-an-hour manager to answer the phones to avoid a $0.00001 mouseclick.

It frightens me somewhat that I am able to see logic in such decisions. 


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