The Imagination Factory

Determining True Web Development Costs

February 22nd, 2008 by Ted Bailey

Determining True Web Development Costs
When is a Bargain not a Bargain?

It has been estimated that over 116 million people now surf the internet. With that large a target audience, more and more businesses are finding it increasingly important to have a web presence. Indications are that while 60% of small to medium in the U.S. are ‘connected’ to the internet (compared to only 15% back in 1995 when we first began designing websites), only 20-25% have a web site or presence. These businesses do one of three things:

  • Attempt to do it themselves (either through internal staff or a niece/nephew),
  • Use local school/college or internet service provider resources, or
  • Turn to design firms such as the Imagination Factory to develop their web site.

Regardless of which they go, the most prevalent questions that get asked are:

  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?

The answer, unfortunately, is that it depends on many variables. Seemingly there appears to be no rosetta stone for pricing. As such, prospective clients attempting to make apple to apple comparisons amongst designers begin by asking hourly rates.

A recent call of this nature has prompted this article. After some initial discussion, invariably the client posed the rate question in the following fashion… “While I understand that providing me an estimate for OUR website is not possible with more discussion, what is your hourly rate? That should give us a basis for comparison”. The comments of this particular prospect started a thought process. Not the innocuous “Do you have an hourly rate?”, but the subsequent observation “…that should give me a way to compare.”

But will it really?

Interactive, multimedia & web design projects are as unique as the client themselves and the message being conveyed. Just as each client is unique, so then is their respective target audience. The audience to which this marketing/sales/educational communication must be tailored. While not all internal staff, students or internet service providers know this, most decent marketing and/or multimedia designers do ­ and design accordingly for it. Much in the same way that your local family doctor is not the one doing your heart transplant.

Ok… you’ve decided to contact/shop for a professional designer. Virtually anything that we as a society do, comes with a magic triangle. At the points of that magic triangle are:

  1. Cost,
  2. Speed or Time, and
  3. Quality.

The rule here is to pick any two. It is a balancing act. Shorten the turnaround Time while maintaining Quality generally means increasing Cost. Increasing Quality while maintaining Cost often means increasing the Time required to produce and verify results. Its the same whether you’re producing a CD-ROM, a website or building a “widgit”.

Do unqualified hourly rates tell the whole story?

In a word, No! For example, do we know that designer ‘A’ works as fast as designer ‘B’? Do we know how experienced designer ‘A’ is versus designer ‘B’? Although the web uses components of print and CD-ROM, designing for the internet is unique.

The internet promises the advantages of slides, the flexibility of video, the power of text, the impact of sound, the magic of animation all wrapped up in the processing capabilities of the computer. Whew! Ain’t that a mouthful? It can be quite overwhelming to realize and face the challenge of wearing the hats of a graphic designer, wordsmith, video/photographer, special effects artist, audio engineer, animator, human factor scientist and all-around computer/programming wiz.

Design is only part of the battle

Designing the site is only part of the task of successfully launching a website. Has the designer planned for how the audience will locate your site. Most surfers use things called ‘Search Engines’, ‘Directories’, or ‘Indexes’ ­ large, powerful databases of site addresses and descriptions. There are over 750 of them currently available, with more showing up everyday. Each of these services have their own way of storing/retrieving the information. There are certain specific techniques and codes, albeit generally invisible to the viewer of the page, that help ensure proper and correct placement in these search engines. Often the ‘unseasoned’ or cut-rate designer doesn’t take this into account.

Let’s assume for a moment that your audience actually finds your site. Has the designer planned and accounted for how they have arrived at the site? What browser (and version) are they using? Netscape? Microsoft Explorer? Mosaic? AOL? Compuserve? WebTV? Lynx (haven’t heard of this one? Few have!)? Each browser has unique characteristics and can present different design ‘opportunities’ (pronounced ‘headaches’). Design specifically for one browser and anyone using another might not be able to view the site correctly or at worst, view it at all. What works in the latest version might not in earlier versions.

How fast can you go?

How fast are people (your audience) accessing the internet? Many people are still surfing the web at modem speeds of only 28.8k baud. At this speed, they have a throughput of roughly 3kb/second. Designers who place a lot of fancy graphics or javascripts on a page without optimizing (compressing) the size as much as possible force your audience to wait for long periods before seeing the information they came to see. We’ve seen some sites where the intro graphic alone was 100 to 200kb in size. Add a few more graphics and you’ve got a page that takes almost 2 minutes to fully access. Would you wait? Neither will your audience.

To help speed up the downloads, some surfers cruise the ‘net’ with graphics turned off. Has your designer done the proper coding to ensure that the site will still make sense without pictures. Can you even navigate from page to page with graphics turned off? If you think that only a few people do this, think again. More and more sight- or movement-impaired people surf the web with a text-only browser, called Lynx. Using text only allows them to employ a special software to ‘read’ the page to them. Has your designer asked and/or ensured that your site is ADA (American Disabilities Act) compliant?

Paying too little might cost a lot

Superficially, while the budget designer might be able to produce a site that looks as good as the designer with the higher hourly rate, it might be costing you a lot more. How?


  • If you are mis-indexed your audience won’t find you.
  • If they find you, but get bored because they:
    • Have to wait a long period to see the information, or
    • Can’t see the information at all, or
    • Can’t make sense of the information, or
    • The information is boring, then

They won’t visit OR return and you will not obtain a good return on the investment. And make no question, the internet is a long-term investment. Cecil Beaton once said, “Perhaps the world’s worst crime is boredom. The first is being a bore!” Proper design (and hiring The Imagination Factory) helps to ensure that your message is never boring.

The Imagination Factory • 15 Ionia Ave. SW, Suite 220 • Grand Rapids, MI 49503 • phone: 616.356.CLIK (2545) • fax: 616.356.2546 • email: Contact Us Online

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