Are we giving away the right hours?

I’m fairly certain nobody who buys design is actually paying the true cost of design. Because nobody ever bills all their hours.

Be honest now—when was the last time you billed every single hour you spent on a project of any significance? It just doesn’t happen. We always give away hours. Here is a small selection of reasons why:

  • We wrote a lousy estimate and we’re afraid to ask for more money.

  • The scope has completely changed but we don’t know how to ask for more money.

  • We didn’t communicate risks early on and now we feel like it’s our fault the project is over budget.

  • The client keeps adding on a little extra thing here and little extra thing there, and each of those things seems trivial so we say, “sure,” but now we’re 20 hours in the hole.

  • We really, really, really need this work.

  • Client is important and high profile.

  • Job is for a good cause.

  • Client has promised more work to come, so this job is a loss leader.

  • Client is telling us how long things should take (which is approximately 1/3 the actual time it will take) and we’re too spineless to tell them to go to hell.

  • We overbilled on the last job, so we can afford to cut them some slack this time (rare).

In short: we give away a lot of hours.

In an ideal world, you would know more or less how many hours you are giving away and factor that into your hourly rate. But imagine that conversation with your client:

Client: “Your rate is twice what other people charge. Why?”

You: “Because I’m going to give you a whole bunch of free hours.”

Client: <pause> “Uh, I’d rather you didn’t and you just gave me a lower rate.”

Yeah, that’s not going to go over well. And of course, the reality is we never include with the client’s invoice all the free hours we gave them.

Which brings me to my next point: the fact that clients never want to pay for user research or usability testing or any of that fun stuff we always try to stick in the proposal.

In an article I wrote for UX Magazine I argue that clients quite reasonably don’t want to pay for something they don’t understand, therefore if you want to show them the value of UX, you have to go out and do it first even if you don’t get paid for it. There are some really valid comments below the article about the pitfalls of giving away UX time as a way to build value.

But here’s the thing: We’re already giving away hours. And what’s worse, we’re giving away the ones that the client values and ought to be paying for.

If we have clients who don’t want to pay for UX, then sure, we should look for better clients, as one commenter suggests (although I continue to believe that you can make an investment in loyal, long-term clients and have them pay off in the long run.)

But in the meantime, why not use those giveaway hours to do something we care about, that increases our enjoyment of and pride in the project, and that gives us proof of the value of UX to show to the next client?