Project price or hourly rate?

There are various web design and freelance developer forums out there in web land and invariably on most of them this discussion comes up and is debated with fervent vigour as each developer has their own opinions on what is right and what is fair

A purchasers perspective.

As a purchaser of web design/development services I can bet that you are thinking, "Give me a price up front to complete this project."

With a written quote it gives you some security knowing what the cost is going to be at the end of the project. You can specify your project, pay your deposit, provide the required content, images and info and sit back and wait for the end product.

When the completed project is presented for you to assess, you can request some alterations, roll the site out and pay the remainder of your bill. In theory, it makes perfect sense to do it this way.

A web developers perspective.

The problem with web development is that it is almost impossible to define the end of a project. Almost every project I've done at a fixed price, the time frame has blown out due to the number of client requests to make last minute tweaks and modifications.

It's human nature to want value for money and to want to get the best possible product we can for as little outlay as possible. However, it is this very nature which makes project based pricing unworkable unless the fee is large enough to make it worthwhile.

Why project based pricing is unworkable.

Typically the sort of requests we have to deal with go something like this;

"Can you make the text a little darker and indent the bullet points a little?...  No, that's indented too far. Just something in between. While you are at it, my best friend's daughter's boyfriend builds websites and he said you should use Verdana instead of Arial...  Actually I think I prefer the original font. Is it much problem to change it back?... The popup tool tips are nice. But, can we have this one pop out to the left and this one to the right?... Actually, the one popping out to the right just covers that image slightly can we move the image further down the page?"

Don't laugh. This is NO exageration.

When we design and develop websites we define the functionality, workflow, design guidelines, etc. Usually we reference other sites as examples and document everything as much as we can. Then, using our training, experience and knowledge of best practices we build the site.

However, it is impossible to document every aspect of the project and often it's not until you can see something working online when you think of some extra functionality or ways you can "improve" the site.

As the purchaser, you are emotionally involved because this site is an extension of you or your business. It has to be perfect. And it would look so much better if the font-size was just one pixel bigger... and the orange headings were a slightly deeper shade... and the animation in the header was just a little faster... etc... etc... etc...

In the above examples, we aren't talking about fixing a lack of functionality, just differences in opinions and design preferences. None of which will improve the functionality of the site or it's ability to achieve it's goals. Is it fair then for the developer to spend the extra time making these tweaks for free?

The real question here is "Is website development a product or a service?"

In my experience, and I'm going to get shot down by some colleagues with this statement, most inexperienced developers or people new to freelancing will give you a project price. Most of the older, more experienced designers and developers will charge you by the hour.

When you buy a product, it costs you xxx amount. When you purchase a service you pay by the hour. You pay doctors and lawyers by the hour, you pay plumbers, electricians and other tradesmen by the hour. My lawn mowing man is paid by the hour.

After a discussion with you, I will provide you with an estimate based on an appoximate number of hours but at the end of the day you are paying for my ability, knowledge and of course, TIME to create your site. If you want me to create popup javascript tooltips that fade in and out of view, I can give you a fairly accurate estimate because I know how long it would take me to put something like that together. What I can't budget for is the modifications requested post production to try it at different speeds, in different shades, reduce the opacity slightly... no change it back again.

Is it fair?

When I first moved from project based pricing to hourly pricing, one of my regular clients wasn't overly impressed. He didn't think it was fair that it would cost him more if his project went over time.  I can understand this point of view completely. If a project goes over time due to an oversite on my behalf then why should my client have to wear that? He shouldn't. That's my fault. Sometimes, it does happen. But, the vast majority of over runs are caused by excessive requests for minor, unnecessary tweaks or late delivery of content (that's another article).

As a one person business, I can only work on one project at a time. When the window of time allocated to a project comes to an end, it affects every other client waiting for their project to proceed, and it starts costing the developer money. Every additional hour spent working for free equals two paid hours to get back in front.

Sorry for the somewhat cynicle tone. This article has been inspired by a recent event.

The most important thing is to clearly communicate and document the project as much as possible. As a client, your input is crucial and critical to a successful project. But, clients should trust in thier designers ability and the decisions they make as professionals, rather than trying to manipulate every aspect of the design based on personal preference.

To get back to the title of this article... if you would like to discuss a new web project with me you will receive a detailed proposal with an approximate fee based on the estimated amount of time to complete the project. If it looks like a project is going to go over time, then I will contact you in advance to discuss how to proceed. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a time nazi. There's always a little flexibility. Heck, it might even come in under budget.

You can contact us here.

john-pitchers-avatar smAbout John Pitchers

John Pitchers is co-founder and lead developer at Joomstore where his primary role is the design and development of Joomla websites. He is also the developer of the FocalPoint maps extension for Joomla. John has been building CMS based web sites since 2004, originally working with Mambo before it forked into Joomla. When not writing PHP, Javascript or CSS you'll find John carving up the hills around Baldivis on his longboard (long before Walter Mitty made it famous).

Find out more about John on his page and . Follow John on Twitter.

These posts may interest you...

Leave a comment