Problems with pricing web work

Really this should be titled the “£50,000 cup of coffee and the £5 Porsche” because that is how ridiculous the pricing of web development can seem to the uninitiated. There are strong responsibilities on both sides of the divide to make the process more open and predictable.


Note: this thought is dealing with the general issue of pricing any work for the web, the further complications dealing with problems arising from traditional Waterfall project management approach require a whole lot more thinking.

It is the responsibility of developers and designers to explain and make clear the options available and proposed approach for work that they do. What is obvious to you as a developer/designer may not be obvious to other business roles who are funding or managing a project. If you can’t explain in clear terms the justification for your work then how do you know there isn’t a better solution?

If you are responsible for commissioning web work or managing a digital project then you have to make the effort to understand the landscape. You need a reasonable grasp of what the work involves and the underlying technologies. Wearing “I am not technical” like a badge of honour is no longer viable.


In the 1990’s costing work for the world wide web was relatively simple. Often for small to medium sites one person would be be doing everything for you (design, html coding, hosting etc.). And in many cases they even charged by the page which, made things simple.

There were less options, barely anything for your website to integrate with and if you were lucky enough to have a content management system it was pretty rudimentary. Everything was new, and an animated gif image was exciting.

Expectations were low, having a website was significant in itself and limitations of software, hardware and bandwidth kept everyone on a clunky level playing field.

Responsibility and maintenance of the website usually fell to a technical role, someone who had at least a broad understanding of the technical elements and issues.

A website was a thing like a catalogue, it was spat out, and maybe got updated periodically.

This situation persisted into the 2000s where over the years increasing bandwidth, technology improvements and changing business models resulted in something very different.


Now design has to be undertaken by people with actual design skills, the implementation of web pages falls to a least two major technical skill-sets (possibly more) and for non-simple cases the hosting and server side of things can require specialists also.

Added to the mix are a vast array of free and non-free software and services that provide pre-packed functionality (with varying degrees of customisation options) and a vast army of plug-ins and apps and widgets etc. can can be slotted in at all levels.

Responsibility for a website often falls to a Marketing role. Somebody who understands the user facing areas of the web but may only have a limited understanding of the technical elements.

Digital is insinuating itself across the entire company, the website and its offshoots are insinuating themselves into other work-flows.

The pricing lottery

Sometimes when I am working for somebody and they ask me to cost some work, I can see them tensing. Without an understanding of where the various elements fit in, how data and information flow and where it sits; they have little idea what to expect.

Often they are pleasantly surprised (they just got something they thought would be expensive, much cheaper), occaisionally they are shocked at how expensive it will be; “I assumed .... I imagined it would be easy”.

Without at least a general understanding of how things work, technical debt, and the pros and cons of various software and architecture decisions the price to develop something could almost appear to be random.

Providers must take every effort to remove ‘smoke and mirrors’ and educate plus explain. Consumers need to attach value to understanding the basic principles.


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