Improving Your Process: Effectively Estimating Projects

Posted: April 12, 2010 Comments(12)

Estimates are the life blood of our industry. If anyone out there is getting jobs consistently without having to go through an estimation process, you’ve got some dark magic going on that I’d love to know more about. Estimates are a double-edged sword though; we need them to get jobs, but the work is non-billable. That said, if you’re somehow convincing potential clients that paying for estimates is something commonly found in our industry (or any industry for that matter) I’d love to find out just how you get that done.

Free estimates are commonly found in nearly every industry we come across. If you’re looking to remodel your basement, you touch base with a number of companies to begin the process. You get the free quote and you listen to each to find out why they’re better than the next. The same goes if you’re putting in a fence, a pool, or doing any other sort of home improvement or repair. Once the numbers look good, you’ll move into subsequent phases of the project with a chosen provider. It’s the same story for us; when our clients request an estimate, they’re asking everyone else they can too.

Efficiently estimating projects is a big deal, but perhaps more importantly is their accuracy. Coming up with an accurate, rock stolid estimate is a skill to be developed over time and refined with experience.

My estimation process

I’ve been working on my personal estimation process since I first came into professional Web development. It took me only a few days to realize that nearly everything on a day-to-day level is based on estimations, including the stress. I was instantly frustrated by the Catch-22 that is estimating and knew that it was something that I needed to focus on straight away.

I began analyzing the estimation process by observation, something really prevalent in my self teaching. I’d watch to see how other people did it and try to fish for some answers to help me understand the best way to approach things. Here’s what it’s evolved to at a high level.

Getting the proper details

This is the hardest part. It’s rare that clients truly understand what they’re looking for let alone what they’ve already got. Without sufficient detail, an estimate won’t even be in the same ballpark as the project.

Obtaining the proper amount of detail roots itself in asking the right questions. Here’s where you need to focus on stepping away from your inner geekdom and changing your pace and vocabulary to accommodate your audience. Instead of talking about pages, widgets, titles, content management systems, SEO, and Ajax — talk about what the site should do. With that you’ll be able to decipher what’s going on under the hood, something your client simply doesn’t need to worry about.

Unless you’re working on really gigantic projects with seemingly endless pages, a quick discussion in under an hour or so should really shed enough light on a project to give you a ball to run with.

Knowing when to speculate

Through that conversation, it’s going to come up that the client hasn’t really finalized all the details surrounding their project. They know they want something, but they may not know why or whether it makes sense. This is where your professional experience comes in, again, talk about it. Have a quick conversation surrounding the approach they’d like to take to the project and offer your professional advice. Chances are it would take just a few minutes of conversation with a paper company to have them realize they don’t really need that social network.

On the other side of the coin your initial conversation may lead to a wild idea on your part, something the client hasn’t thought of before. Hold off, wait until you see the big picture before tossing a job you don’t even have yet on a wild tangent asking for scope creep. It will be up to your discretion as to when it makes sense to put the idea on the table.

Being explicit yet easy to understand

The physical document representing the estimate is a keystone piece to any project. It’s your last chance to put everything on the table for your sake as well as the client. It will be passed around to all the decision makers and compared side by side to everyone else they’ve asked for a quote. Your smiling face won’t be represented and more than likely not completely conveyed to the rest of the group deciding on a provider.

Your estimate needs to precisely cover the details discussed and finalized with your preliminary correspondence and nothing more. With that, you need to remain explicit with the details surrounding the project, but also stray from any jargon that may have come up previously. A set of new people will be seeing this documentation for the first time and if it needs to be explained each time, you’ve already fallen behind.

Using applicable language is very important, as well as specifically outlining a pricing structure as well as your approach, what the deliverables will be. When it comes to project details, assumption is the number one killer. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s to be redundantly detailed. Assumption comes from both you and your client, and the real trouble resides in the fact that you’re both assuming the same thing, but your assumptions are polar opposites. Your client will assume it’s included — why wouldn’t it be? — and you assume it’s not — why the heck would it be? — trouble.

Long story short: make sure you’re including details surrounding what’s included and what’s not.

Handling follow-up questions

Things get lost in translation, it’s a matter of fact. Although your estimate could be PDF’d perfection, chances are there will be further dialog before a contract is written up. Those last few details that come up that your client now understands to ask about instead of assuming it’s part of a magical package deal. Be ready for this.

Use this time to cater the questions to the best of your ability; it’s probably the last part of your ‘interview’ for the job. Make sure you’re timely with the answers and more importantly straight to the point. Your customer service is put to the test at this stage, and there’s a spotlight on you.

Do your best to keep this round to a minimum, if you’ve done your job so far, follow-up questions should be quick and easy to answer and finalize, letting you get back to work.

The contract is a different story

While estimations are a really important process aspect to focus on, your contract is another. If anything, your contract needs to be water tight, and it needs to cooperate with your estimates. If you’re billing by the hour you need to be supremely weary of scope creep and a good contract is going to be your only backup.

Revisiting and revising your contract should be a constant effort. That is unless you haven’t modified your process at all recently. If you haven’t done that, you’ve got bigger problems to worry about, stop being stagnant. Make sure your contract not only makes your life easier, but your clients as well.

It’s all about efficiency

Even as I write this, I realize it’s a lot of work. More importantly it’s a lot of non-billable work. I hate non-billable work. It’s really important that you get good at this part, no matter where you are in your career. Someone who can accurately estimate a job and follow through on the estimate is supremely valuable, even when compared to the best designer/developer on the planet. Working with someone having a lot of room to grow in that area can be a painful experience, so I’d like to recommend whole-heartedly that it’s something you focus on as you progress.

That said, although the estimation process is super important, it’s also working against you in terms of billable work. You can’t cut corners, but you can’t dilly-dally either. Finding balance is a recurring theme on the business and of Web design, and it’s something I like focusing on from time to time to help combat burnout.

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Comments

  1. This article couldn’t have come at a better time for me.

    I agree, and practice, the idea of talking about the website. I think a lot people do not understand the idea of a website fully. It is good to ask simple and realistic questions of what exactly it is that they want. It is our job to translate their idea into reality, not the other way around.

    Good write up Jon!

  2. Some nice insight as to how you approach this unattractive task, Jon.

    The idea of just ‘talking about it’ sounds like a great way to figure out exactly what is and is not needed… but how much (non-billable) time do you spend figuring this out on the phone or answering emails?

    (running into this problem myself)

  3. Great question, Ted, and it’s quite a variable answer to be honest. In a way you need to have your radar on all the time, in an effort to find out who’s really just wasting your time. We can’t expect clients to have it all figured out before they talk to you, but they can have at least a few ducks in a row. If they’re completely whimsical over the edge not knowing what they’re looking for, it’s probably in your best interest to move on to the next potential that does. Saying no to clients is probably the hardest thing we’ll ever have to do, but we need to be confident in knowing that our experience is telling use we’re in for a major headache.

  4. Just realized that I in fact neglected to give you a hard number as an answer, probably the only thing you were looking for! In all honesty I wouldn’t spend more than four hours discerning the general idea of a project. That’s your average site consisting of functionality I’m completely confident I know how to implement through the platform powering the site. If the project is really intriguing I’ll invest a bit more time to answer a few of my own questions surrounding under the hood details of the project.

  5. Hi Jon, thanks for the responses. I realize there’s probably no magical number for all projects and applaud you for suggested a hard, yet unofficial number! Thanks again for a behind-the-scenes look at your own approach.

  6. Getting away from email is the key; a 15 minute chat will clear up a lot and help the client focus on what they want their website to do, rather than what other site they want it to look like. It also establishes a level of trust, I think, and helps you gauge their budget. You can then tailor your estimate accordingly (by which I don’t mean lower your hourly rate!)

    I build smaller, simpler sites than you, but the estimation process still takes a couple of hours or so at least. However, once I reach that stage the client never (so far at least) says no.

    Getting the estimate to match the eventual amount of work done is another matter.

  7. I agree with @Leon.

    Many times Designer/Dev-types are introspective, and lean on email because it’s less confrontational. I do this all the time. In reality, I should be picking up the phone and hammering things out. Explaining things via email can take magnitudes longer, and the chances that it was explained in a manner that they understand are less then a conversation (IMHO)

  8. One thing that wasn’t mentioned here is the power of historical data. If you keep good records of what you estimate vs. how long it actually took you to deliver, you’ll be able to quantify your gut feelings when it comes to providing hours per task. The more data, the better. It’s always a pleasant surprise to show coworkers a 6 to 12 month history of their estimates vs. their actuals and discuss estimates with data to back you up.

  9. Right to the point, Jon.
    I agree, and insist, to anyone of my team who meets the client, to hold a friendly conversation with them about what they need to get done, rather than focusing on how they want it done; which we may be able to help them with.

    Also, I would like to add to the list, the point about client’s reference to the stereotypes for their product. We all agree that its hard to find a client who has a check list of all the functionality that they will need in their projects.
    So, its obvious that their references; like ‘i want it like they did it on so-and-so.com’ could be key to our estimates

    Have to agree to JeffV’s point, that the historical data that we keep for estimates gets quiet handy sometimes; myself being the one responsible on my team to do so.

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