For many B2B websites and some B2C sites, showing prices is problematic because their services either entail myriad combinations and configurations or they're customized to each buyer. In such cases, you can help prospective customers by showing sample prices for a set of typical orders.
Our recent B2B usability study highlighted a different version of this problem: A website that showed overly precise — and complicated — pricing information, which was much too difficult to use.
The Complexity Problem
One of our test participants worked in a company that was looking to replace its overnight delivery vendor. While we watched, this user visited two competing shipping companies to get an initial idea of their offerings.
As always, price was one of the first things the user wanted to research. It's long been one of my top guidelines to show prices, and the lack of prices on many B2B sites was the #1 Web design mistake of 2002. Luckily, both sites in this case provided prices, but they did so in quite different ways.
One shipping company provided pricing through a shipping calculator, which required users to enter the ZIP codes for the departure and destination addresses, as well as the package's weight and full dimensions. Users also had to choose between several potentially confusing service options.
The other vendor showed a simple table with prices for the most common types of shipments.
Our test user was in an early research stage, collecting information to create a shortlist of potential providers, The user knew she'd have to eventually talk to the shortlisted companies' sales reps to negotiate further discounts from the list prices. At this point, however, she was simply looking to narrow the potential providers set to a manageable number. A B2B website's goal at this stage is simply to survive the pruning process and make it to the shortlist.
So, the user needed only a general idea of cost levels. She had no interest in retrieving individual package specs or looking up ZIP codes and postal codes for locations to which her company frequently shipped documents.
The first provider's pricing calculator was much too complex and error prone to give users a quick, general idea of a service's cost. The sample prices table was more useful for this task, giving users an idea of the prices for several types of services, including domestic and international shipments.
Simple Samples Work Best
As another example, let's say you sell flooring for hospitals. An order's actual price would obviously depend on the specific hospital and its floor plan; because many special materials are typically needed to cover a room, it's not as simple as a fixed price per square foot.
In this case, you have at least two options. You could offer a configurator that lets hospital administrators estimate the exact supplies and their prices. This option might help users who are motivated to engage deeply with the site, but it would also be fairly complicated and time-consuming to use (as we know from testing several such configurators). As a simpler first step, you could show the price for a sample hospital floor that had a certain number of operating rooms, recovery rooms, and so on.
Showing sample prices is not just for B2B websites, though they tend to need it more because of the complexity of their products and services. Using sample prices also applies to some B2C sites. Consider, for example, a gardening service. While lot size and landscaping elements differ, the website could give service prices for a few typical lots so users could get an approximate idea of what they'd pay.
Generally, if you can't show exact prices or your price list is extremely complicated, offer users some representative cases and their prices. This is particularly important if you have a long sales process and prospects are likely to want quick access to preliminary information during their initial research.