The Art Of Estimating UX Projects

The Art Of Estimating UX Projects

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One of my UX coaching clients recently asked me how to create estimates for UX projects. In this post I’ll share what’s worked best for me over the years.

Consulting work is usually billed on a time and materials basis. You come up with an hourly rate and estimate how many hours you think it will take to complete a project. The resulting estimate is called a “fixed bid”. Clients like this because there is a cap on total hours so they know what to expect.

There’s also the “Value Based Fee” approach, where you charge a percentage of what you think the project is worth to your client’s business. For example, if you can demonstrate that your project will provide an ROI of $100,000 to your client’s bottom line, they shouldn’t have a problem with a $10,000 consulting fee.

Know The Scope

While there are many ways to skin a UX cat, I prefer to estimate projects based on a time and materials bottom-up approach. This means first getting a clear understanding of a project’s scope before quoting any fees.

But how do you do that when you don’t even know what the project is yet? Ideally you will have taken your client through some form of discovery process before you do any estimating.

You’ll do a far better job for your client and your business if you steer clear of “ballpark” estimates and instead focus on how you can add value by identifying and solving your client’s true business needs.

Getting good at estimating UX projects takes experience and lots of practice, but there’s still no guarantee you’ll get it 100% right. But the more granular your estimate, the more likely it is to be accurate.

Identify The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS)

What the heck is a WBS? It’s a wonky project management term. It’s simply a collection of all the little bits of work that make up a project in no particular order.

When brainstorming a WBS I like to use sticky notes. That way I can move things around when I’m ready to prioritize them. I also like to attach rough hours to each unit of work.

If you are estimating on behalf of a team, besides identifying each specific task, also note who is doing it and how long they think it will take. Be sure to ask the people actually doing the work. Don’t assume anything.

Also remember that some people are better at estimating their time better than others. I once worked with a developer who always took twice as long as he thought, so I learned to double his estimates.

There’s so many other little nuances to account for, which is why creating accurate estimates for big projects takes a while. For example, something that requires a junior UX designer a full day to complete may only take a UX lead a few hours.

Follow A Process

Depending on your process, here are some selected items that might be included in a UX project WBS for a large website redesign:

  • Project brief – 2 hours
  • Kickoff meeting – 2 hours (includes round-trip travel to client site)
  • Stakeholder Interview – 2 hours (one hour for the interview, one hour for analysis and follow up; add a separate sticky note for each stakeholder interview
  • Google analytics – 2 hours (depends on size of site)
  • Heuristic review – 2 hours (depends on size of site)
  • Competitive analysis – 2 hours per site (separate sticky note for each site)
  • Content audit – 8 hours (depends on size of site)
  • Personas – 2 hours per (based on research)

Account for Everything You Know About

Notice there’s a separate entry for everything. For example, don’t group all the stakeholder interviews together as one line item. Each additional interview takes more time for both the interview process and analysis.

You’d be surprised at how quickly individual tasks add up, and therefore how much more time you may need for more complex activities.

Prioritize and Add Up

Once you’ve identified and prioritized your WBS, it’s time to plug everything into a spreadsheet. I use an estimator template that adds everything up automatically.

I just enter everything in priority order and then my spreadsheet gives me a total. But there’s still a few more things to do.

Add Time For Project Management and Contingencies

Phone calls take time. So do emails and status reports. Anything you do to manage your project takes additional time and needs to be accounted for. Even if you are working with a project manager, a good rule of thumb is to add 15-20% for your own management time.

I also add a 20% contingency across the entire project. Things often change once you are off and running, so it’s good to have a little bit of breathing room. If you don’t use the contingency, don’t invoice for it. But you’ll be glad it’s there when you need it.

Over To You

How do you estimate projects? Do you do something similar or different? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. As always, thanks for reading!

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P.S. – Next week I’ll be in Portland, OR speaking at a UX meetup about getting buy-in from stakeholders. The meeting will be held downtown at New Relic headquarters. Please stop by if you’re in the area.

I’ll be speaking at more events later this year, so feel free to reach out if you’d like me to speak at yours.

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