Show me the money

David Humphreys
August 07 2009

In this month's edition, David looks at the different ways you can approach the way you communicate your costs for services and commodities on websites, we talk about how links should support users scanning behaviour and keep you up-to-date with upcoming usability events.

Show me the money!

. . . or at least how much its going to cost. - the user addendum

I have never seen anything turn a user off a website as quickly as the perception that they might get ripped off; users will sometimes suffer through the most terrible navigation or outrageous user interface, but the minute somebody feels like the site isn't being open and honest about how much they charge for their services their trust and sense of site credibility crashes.

Users like to get an overall sense of the cost of a product or service when looking at services on-line. Realistically there are two strategies and one approach that a company or organisation can employ regarding disclosure of costs on the website:

  • Strategy 1: Don't tell them anything - There are a lot of cases where it just isn't appropriate or useful to put your costs on the web. Any industry where work is highly customised to the client from building a fence to high end consultancy services are often going to vary from job to job. Ball park figures are often too dangerous as goalposts are likely to move regularly. We are yet to see a situation where ballpark figures are actually a useful tool that doesn't leave users with a dangerous impression. It is much better to provide a point of contact to discuss things further.
  • Strategy 2: Put everything online - Where service costs are often fixed or consistent, or products are highly commoditised the best strategy is to be open with all costs (including extras like postage). The ecommerce industry has this nailed (although too many of them still want customers to register/sign-in to discover my postage - arggh!) but a lot of service industries and providers are behind on this.

For example, recent usability testing with both schools and universities have shown that users come to the site with a reasonable expectation to discover how much their (or their children's) studies are going to cost them. Prospective university students were frustrated and distrustful of sites that did not clearly explain to the user approximately how much the study would cost them over the lifetime of the course.

Similarly, parents going to school websites wanted to be able to get a rough idea of how much all of the various levies, uniforms and other ancillary costs that were likely to arise from sending their child to school. Unfortunately most school websites they went to did not have this information available or in an easily accessible format.

The approach

So how should you approach the thorny problem of costs? Be open and transparent regardless of your strategy. If you are taking the 'Don't tell' strategy, tell users why and provide a point of contact that they can use to start the process of getting the kind of customised quote they need.

If you are going to put everything online consider the following guidelines:

  • Make it easy to find - Do your user research and make sure your navigation structure and site flow support user's cost information seeking behaviour. Service sites should have a dedicated section of the site and navigation explaining costs. For retail sites include a running shipping total for logged in users or provide a shipping quotation tool that does not require registration(see example from below).
  • Make it easy to understand - Costs can be complex (especially for services) and not all costs may apply to all users, but try and be as clear as possible about what the various impacts are. Universities are an excellent example because they cannot realistically tell a user what the costs of a university degree will be because subject costs are reviewed annually. But they can provide a good estimate based on current costs with clear caveats.
  • Make it complete and keep it all together - Don't make users hunt all over your site to try and discover every possible cost. Keep it together in the menus or on your content pages. Use effective cross linking strategies to help users find all of that information from one place.
    In recent testing users went to school websites expecting to be able to locate information about costs. Unfortunately, those schools that did provide had it dispersed across a range of web pages, prospectus documents and Prep Year program documents. Only 1 of 6 users tested were able to locate to their satisfaction enough information about the costs they would incur from sending their kids to the school of their choice, and the one who did still had difficulty.
    A simple page that listed all of that information or linked to the appropriate parts of the site (levies, sports fees, uniform costs, tuckshop etc.) would have helped these people immeasurably.


Employ one of two strategies for communicating costs:

  • Tell users nothing and channel them towards your preferred system for quoting; and
  • Tell them everything and be open and clear with them as much as you can.

Some general guidelines

  • Make costs easy to find on your site or make it easy to find the next step
  • Make costs easy to understand
  • Keep all of that information about costs together.

Usability tip

Match your links to user tasks to help them scan them quickly

Users scan links for those that most closely match their task at hand and often don't read surrounding text or headings. Accordingly, link names should be meaningful and match the keywords users are likely to be looking for. Look at the following two examples:
  • To read about our fantastic 1-day only sale click here.
  • Read about our fantastic 1-day only sale.
In the first example the users will generally scan to 'click here' only to have to go back to read the rest of the text. In the second example, when the users scans to '1-day only sale' they know immediately where that link will take them. If you want users to click on something, make it clear what they're going to get - it can really improve your click-through-rates!
Categories: Content,ROI