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Design and Price Point

This article, originally published in February 2011, makes an argument about the effects of design and price point. The recommendations contained herein also still hold true even after 10 years. So with some updated examples, and the knowledge of how it all turned out, I am reposting it with some updates.

The Situation

We had a small web design project for a client that sells a very expensive service. This is the story of how design connects to price point. Over many years this company had built a successful New York City based business. They had done so without ever having  a website! They came to us in he end ot 2011 having found themselves somewhat reluctantly being pushed into the web wading pool by their sales manager, who felt insufficiently supported by the brand. He needed online credentialing and support for his sale activities. This was not an unreasonable request.

Competitors exploiting their lack of web presence

After some discovery work it also became clear that their lack of a branded voice on the web was being actively exploited by some of their competitors. One company, in fact, even had a page specifically optimized to capture web traffic looking for our new client. Others were also engaged in similar, less sophisticated end runs around them, causing confusion among some of their business prospects.

Their lack of a branded voice on the web was being actively exploited by some of their competitors.

Design and price point

Their business is very exclusive and entirely referral-based. They have the best-in-class name recognition in their industry, and while they understood the need to build a website to reinforce their brand position and show legitimacy, some people in the company were concerned that this online exposure would attract unwanted attention from lower-end service seekers and result in wasted time and expense for them. We assured them that the design would telegraph the price point and that we could easily avoid this outcome by making it crystal clear what kind of service they provided, and it would be obvious to any visitor that this company was not selling on price.

Our original designs did this job with élan and were exactly in accordance with the brand strategy we had laid out for them. These designs presented the company as a very high-end, high-touch, service-oriented boutique, just as they understood themselves to be. They were very happy with the designs. We were happy that they were happy. All was good.

Then the tweaking began.

“We have to move the text over here,” they said. We countered, “If you do that, the user will have to track across the entire screen in order to read more. This will be annoying and cause problems on smaller displays.” “No, we have to do it.” These adjustments came in one after the other. “Can we center the logo?” “Can we get rid of the extension of the image over here on the left?” “Can we put more color back into the photography?” and so on, until by the end, we had a final design that was quite different from where we began.

With each change they made, the website became more standard, more typical, more like other sites.

This process is to be expected sometimes with clients who are assertive and stubborn and more to the point, who think that they are the customer, but what was unfortunate in this case, and why I’m writing about it at all, was that with each change they made, the website became more standard, more typical, more like other websites. The final product which stood the test of time and was in service for them over a 10 year lifespan did a good job of fending off bargain hunters, but without exception, every change we made lowered the asking price. We had designed a website matched to their desired price point. They made edits that resulted in an undershoot.

Since what matters in any design project is what you can get approved and out into the world we are ultimately to blame for not being able to convince them to keep focus on the real customer and allow a more bespoke design that tracked more closely to their desired price, but so it went and the final website was never a point of pride for us, but it did the job for them, pulling in the right prospects and pushing away the wrong ones. At the end of the day, it was an undershoot rather than a miss.

What might we have done differently? We should have been firmer in explaining the close relationship between design and price point!

Elements of design that effect price point

To add some detail into what connects design and price point, common and familiar designs indicate accessibility and an appeal to popular taste. They convey value and usefulness, but not high price. This business needed to speak to those with uncommon taste and extraordinarily high standards, so these compromises were pushing the designs in the wrong direction. A more standardized design implies a uniformity of service and perhaps, ease of use, but not high-end, high-touch service, which is what they prided themselves on. So in the confusion of who was the customer, and their substituting themselves—the guys in the decision room—for the customer, their taste in web design was leading the charge even though it was more middling than their actual customers. So instead of trusting us to meet the expectations of their customers, they overrode our advice, driving the offer price lower in the process.

In retrospect it’s clear that we did not sufficiently defend our designs and the thought behind them. We did not have a robust target customer persona pre-agreed to to help us push aside personal taste in design originating from the executives in the company.

Coming back to the connection between design and price point, here are a pair of well known, well user tested websites for brands everyone is familiar with: Lexus Lexus website

…and Toyota. The higher-end Lexus brand is almost all grays and blacks and uses a much more muted color palette and a simpler design. By comparison, the more mass-targeted Toyota Corolla page uses brighter colors and a slightly more cluttered design. Less is more—more expensive that is. The same principle applies nearly universally.

Toyota website

This is is one element of the argument we could have made to raise the offer price of the services on offer from our client.

[Pulling the same two examples ten years earlier the principle of design and price point still holds.]

Design-and-Price-PointThe place we ended up was just fine in terms of design, and the client was very happy. The website did the work it needed to do for them: It supported their sales process, legitimized their business in the eyes of prospects who are contemplating the choice of using them or going with a lower-priced supplier. It will gave them a respectable web identity that ended the ability of competitors to easily skim off their brand position online, and it supported and validated their existing business relationships.

It did not, however, do all that it might have done—elevate their brand to exactly match their self-perception as an ultra high-end purveyor of their service. This is too bad.

Looking back more than ten years, we should have worked harder to educate the client on what was at stake in the design directives we were being forced to comply with. We did not have all the tools for this that we have now, and we did not at the time have our team model fully worked through and operational. Had we then, we would have felt more comfortable with the kind of constructive conflict that highly functional teams have for the sake of achieving shared objectives.

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