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Effective Strategy To Estimate Time For Your Design Projects


How many times have you been completely confused at how that ‘small’ project turned into such a big one costing double and taking three times the length you estimated? Many of you will say estimating time for web projects accurately is an oxymoron, but by applying a few effective techniques it’s possible to dramatically increase the accuracy of most web project estimates.

1. Why Underestimating Is So Common Link

There are several reasons, which are freely admitted amongst freelancers and web agencies, as to why web projects are so commonly underestimated – they include:

  • The technologies required by the project have never been used before
  • At the time of estimating, there are grey areas or complete unknowns
  • The client operates in a specialized industry and the solution needs bespoke features that are not familiar to the supplier
  • Splitting the project down into the detail would require as much as work as the requirements gathering phase that is chargeable

Screenshot of a web project tasks getting more granular

However, there are also some secret reasons why web projects are commonly underestimated:

  • The client needs an estimate for their project tomorrow or they will go elsewhere
  • Revenue needs for cash flow now trump the effects of not winning the new work now
  • No previous project ‘estimated vs. actual’ data analysis has been conducted to draw on
  • Estimating time for a project is not fun

Despite being true, rarely do we admit these reasons to others or even ourselves! The fact is, when working as a web professional, as a one man band or as part of a small busy web team, the secret reasons are an everyday reality that shouldn’t be hidden away.

By first identifying and admitting why underestimating is so common, can you then set about implementing changes to your estimating process that will reduce the barriers each reason creates and increase your accuracy.

Technologies Not Used Before Link

There are three approaches you can take when confronted with a brief that requires a technology you have minimal experience with:

  1. Negotiate a paid for functional specification phase as a first step
  2. Consider hiring an expert
  3. Research in your own time and make your best guess

Try to negotiate with the client a mini-project where you are paid to conduct a research and functional planning stage before committing to the whole project. This way you can research the unfamiliar technology and deliver a functional specification to the client.


Best case scenario
You give the client confidence, have a much clearer understanding of the work required, re-estimate and are hired for the rest of the project.

Worst case
You have completed foundation learning of a technology you previously didn’t know that you can sell to new clients, you generate revenue and the client has a comprehensive specification they can use in their tender process.

Added bonus
You, and the client, get to find out how you work together, giving both the opportunity to part company before being locked into a lengthy project.

If you’re not able to convince the client to pay for this initial functional planning stage, and can’t find a suitable expert in the technology, but want the work and have confidence in your ability and passion to learn what needs to be learnt, then the best advice is to do some initial research in your own time and just take your best guess!

Estimating Takes Too Long Link

Thorough web project estimating takes time, but it tends to inherit all the same rules that apply to coding, the more thorough you are, the more accurate you’ll be.

Is it possible you will spend time working out the features required only to learn you haven’t won the work? Will you have given the client a free and detailed breakdown of their project for free? Absolutely, but this is the just nature of sales, some you win, some you lose – don’t get disheartened, try to get feedback from the client on why you didn’t win and use the advice given to refine your next estimation.

Estimate Is Needed Tomorrow Link

If a client is demanding an estimate tomorrow after briefing you on the project today you should immediately try to assess if the project is right for you by:

  1. Determining if the response rate being demanded by the client, and any previous communication, is a sign of the type of client they will be to work with
  2. Assessing if the potential gain to your business from the project (high profile client or long-term repeat business) is worth the risk of underestimating and going over budget
  3. Trying to confirm a ball park budget range with the client so you can estimate realistically, or politely decline if far too low. The best kind of clients are experienced enough to know this is not someone looking to use up all their hard earned cash but someone looking to provide the best solution they can for the budget

If the results of these quick steps are favorable, be positive and go for it! There will be another chance to decline if you later find out the project is not right for you, and then you may utter the words “Into the garbage chute, flyboy!”


Cash Flow Dilemma Link

Cash flow is the life blood of any freelancer or small web agency, without they don’t survive.

Occasionally a situation may arise where work will be taken on with the knowledge it may not be profitable. As gut wrenching as this can be, and despite all the comments you will hear how you should never do this, the reality is the bills and wages have to be paid!

When a freelancer or business owner is presented with the choice of committing to a project for a price they know is low, but by taking on the project means they live to fight another month, or risking not taking on the work on in the hope more profitable leads appear – empathise with and respect them.

It is a tough and gutsy decision that only they can make but rest assured they have their bills or your wages at the forefront of their mind when they make it and estimating low for a project isn’t always as naive a decision as it may appear to those not on the frontline.

Estimating Is Not Fun Link

Ok, so it’s not as sexy as adding that beautiful grunge effect to your design, and it’s not as exciting as tweaking that jQuery plugin to work just the way you want, but estimating time for a web project more accurately is almost certainly more important than both when it comes to sustaining a freelance or small web agency business.

However, while few will disagree as to its importance, many will continually find it difficult to muster up the passion and diligently estimate time for a web project, but why!? Here are more secret reasons:

  • It’s hard work and takes many outside their comfort zone
  • Estimating usually has to be completed alongside your plans for your already fully booked week
  • It forces you to try and predict the future
  • It makes you largely responsible for the business’s sales success, solution offered, project profitability and growth and survival of your business (scary stuff!)

Web agencies often have the edge here because they will have dedicated salespeople or project managers who are used to the rigors of estimating, but freelancers will generally be more inclined to find the whole process rather boring and just want to get on with the fun stuff.

While we can all no doubt empathise with this, the harsh truth is that, when running a small business or operating as a one man band, one or two badly estimated projects in quick succession can ultimately lead to the demise of both!

So what other techniques can be used to further increase the accuracy of your estimates?

2. Consistent Project Phases And Tasks Link

As previously mentioned, when being asked to provide an estimate for a project, it is invariably not something anyone has allocated time to do. As a result of this, estimates are often put together quickly and if compared to past estimates it’s not uncommon to see the same project phase or task classified in many different ways, and for similar sized projects the estimates for each to be completely different.

Screenshot of a high-level web project WBS

If you win the work you may think “so what?”, and to some extent you would be right, however, the first step in creating more accurate estimates on a long-term basis is to always break down the project phases and tasks in a consistent manner. Web projects can generally be broken down into the following phases:

  • Research and planning
  • Solution design
  • Design
  • Front-end development
  • Back-end development
  • Content entry
  • Testing
  • Go-live

By always beginning to compile estimates using a consistent high-level breakdown means you can have a re-usable template eventually and track the time spent on each.

But don’t stop there! Consistently breaking each phase down further will not only increase the accuracy of the estimate, but again, also result in valuable data over time.

3. Getting Granular Link

Screenshot of a web project tasks getting more granular

Now the project estimate is broken down into high-level phases, it’s time to get more granular and break each phase into tasks. This is where the estimate begins to become more tailored to the specific project, but also includes common tasks that you can add to your estimating template and use again and again. For example:

  • Research and planning
    • Requirements gathering
    • Project planning
  • Solution design
    • Sitemap
    • Wireframes
    • User workflows
    • Functional specification
  • Design
    • Initial homepage look and feel
    • Content page
    • Master content page template
    • News main page
    • News item
  • Front-end development
    • 5x Templates build XHTML/CSS
    • JavaScript and AJAX
    • Cross-browser fixes
  • Back-end development
    • CMS Setup and configuration
    • News feature
    • Contact us form
  • Content entry
    • Homepage copy
    • Addition of 10x News items
  • Testing
    • Internal functional testing
    • Client User Acceptance Testing (UAT)
  • Go-live
    • Live server setup
    • 301 re-directs from old site URLs to new

The page templates and features specific to the client’s project can be listed at this stage, alongside the tasks required in all web projects.

Once you get into the habit of compiling estimates in this way you will find yourself envisaging the phase and tasks lists during the pre-sales initial communication with the client and this invariably:

  1. Refines your requirements gathering skills to quickly get the information you need in order to put together a thorough estimate
  2. Forces you to think the project through in a step-by-step fashion and minimises the chances of missing a large, or several small, tasks that could end up putting you over budget because you didn’t factor them in

So, you now have a pretty solid phase and task list for the project and all that’s left is to estimate hours for each and send it off to the client right? Maybe, but wait, what exactly does the News feature consist of? Is your interpretation of a News feature the same as the client’s?

Now is the time to investigate and define it, as opposed to after the contracts have been signed.

Getting More Granular Link

While it’s tempting to estimate hours for the News feature and submit to the client, if possible, try to nail down exactly what the client wants from this feature at the estimating stage, after all, if you look around, you’ll be able to quickly find different variations of the same feature that have a huge differences in terms of size, features and complexity, and thus cost.

Using the News feature as an example, talk to the client and determine what it needs to do so that you can again minimise the chances of missing something in your estimate that could, when added to the other ‘small’ missed tasks, amount to a serious budget overrun situation.

You may find out the News feature requirements are:

  • News feature
    • Add/edit/delete news item
    • Upload image
    • Attach PDF
    • Auto-archiving
    • RSS

Excellent, you have now defined the News feature and can confidentially estimate the time you think it will take to implement. But hidden in even the most basic and common of features lay more ‘small’ things that if not captured, considered and quoted on, can add to the likelihood of overrun.

For example, the client has specified they need to be able to upload images to news items, but do they need any of the following:

  • Auto-resize capability?
  • Auto-thumbnail generation?
  • Full-screen viewing?
  • Caption addition facility?

Any of the above News features could add a few hours to the overall project and thus need to be ideally catered for in your estimates – a few missed ‘couple of hours’ tasks and suddenly the project is two days over budget.

Getting granular and mentally trying to build the solution means you are able to identify and address these issues early on, making sure to cater for them in your final estimate.

“A Web Project Manager knows how to design and develop most of the project on his own, even if with poorer results compared to his team. This allows him to estimate projects with good approximation and to understand his team’s problems and difficulties”

Introduction to Web Project Management, Antonio Volpon1

Advantages Of Getting Granular, For You And The Client Link

By getting granular with project phases and tasks for estimates you are also able to tweak them very quickly if you discover the estimate you have submitted is above the client’s maximum budget.

For example, how often have you been told by a client they want to go with you but your quote is ‘just a little too high’ and ‘if you could reduce it by five hours we can business’? Usually this means you have to do one of two things; drop the hours you estimated for the News feature and hope you can explain later down the line how the budget does not allow for image uploads and thumbnail generation etc., or remove the News feature altogether.

But, if you have a granular estimate for the News feature, you can confidentially, and at this crucial expectation setting stage, simply remove a couple of sub-features of News and the News image upload functionality in order to align with the client’s budget.

When communicating this to the client they will clearly see what you are proposing to drop and why and they will still get the News feature they need, but perhaps with a few less nice to haves. Using this approach is usually well received by clients as they have full and transparency on the reasoning behind the changes to your proposal.

This kind of transparency during the sales process will invariably give the client confidence in you because it demonstrates to them you:

  1. Are an expert in your field
  2. Can envisage the project in its entirety
  3. Adopt a diligent and methodical approach and more than likely will continue to work this way on their project

Best of all, if you are successful with your estimate and you are hired you already have the foundations of:

  1. An instant statement of work
  2. A defined project scope
  3. The timings you need to put together an accurate project schedule with milestones
  4. Client expectations settings very early
  5. Demonstrated your thoroughness and understanding of their business and requirements to the client

So what now? Well, now you have won the work, it’s time to start collecting the data that will enable you to create even more accurate estimates in the future.

4. Consistent Time Tracking And Analysis Link

Before starting the work, you should first replicate all of the phases and tasks, along with their time estimates, into your time tracking tool of choice. Once this is done, you can then begin work and make sure to be disciplined and track everything you do and log it under the right category.

Screenshot of a Tickspot timer2

Of course many of you will do this by default as it allows you to:

  • Know how long you have to complete each phase
  • View how long you have for each task and sub-task
  • Reporting on how long everything actually took

But the real value of keeping a consistent set of high-level phases, from estimate through to time tracking, is that after a few projects you can begin toanalyse the data and start to identify averages and trends that you can use to refine your next web project estimate.

Analyse Estimated vs. Actual Time Link

This is where the real magic happens! By breaking down and tracking your time for multiple projects into consistent phases and tasks, you will have valid comparable data to analyse, for example, after five projects, once you average out the numbers, you may well discover the following:

  • Research and planning took around 5% of the total project time to complete
  • Solution design: 5%
  • Design: 25%
  • Front-end development: 15%
  • Back-end development: 30%
  • Content entry: 8%
  • Testing: 10%
  • Go-live: 2%

The more projects completed that use a consistent estimating and time tracking structure, the more real your averages will become.

Screenshot of a project estimated versus actual analysis bar chart

With this valuable information you can then set about increasing the accuracy of your next estimate by being able to, assuming you can get a budget range from the client:

  • Immediately allocate the estimated hours you need for each phase
  • Determine the best solution you can offer the client for their budget

It even allows you to accommodate the client that ‘needs an estimate tomorrow’ when you don’t have time to break it down in detail.

Conclusion Link

Estimating time for a web project accurately is something many attempt everyday but few manage to succeed at. There is no one formula that will satisfy every situation and the chances of estimating what a project will cost exactly are almost zero.

But it is possible to drastically increase the accuracy of your web project estimates by:

  1. Identifying the reasons why underestimating is so common
  2. Understanding why it is so important
  3. Resisting the temptation to not get granular
  4. Creating a consistent, methodical and re-usable estimating process
  5. Analysing the estimated versus actual data from multiple projects to identify trends

The Devil is in the detail: When people say that the devil is in the detail, they mean that small things in plans and schemes that are often overlooked can cause serious problems later on.”

Further Resources Link

Here are further articles and related resources that may help you to increase the accuracy of your web project estimates:

You may be interested in the following related posts:

Footnotes Link

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Sam Barnes is a Development Team Manager at Global Personals. Although a little short for a Stormtrooper, he can be found posting articles at, a blog dedicated to the subject of Web Project Management.

  1. 1

    Thanks for posting! Quite helpful to someone wishing to become a freelancer/small-business designer/developer. :)

    I’ll need to check out how I perform with planning…

  2. 2

    Richard S Davies

    June 11, 2009 2:44 am

    Very nice article, plenty of good advice there

  3. 3

    It is a good thing I am wanting to start out designing and coding in order to sell templates. Then slowly move into freelancing. There is A LOT to consider when working as a freelance designer, but I am sure in the end it is all worth it.

  4. 4

    What’s the name of the project planner software used in this article?


  5. 5

    It’s much better to estimate time on a PC then a Mac.


  6. 6

    Working for a web company I can relate to all of these points, very helpful article to others, thank you.

  7. 7

    Great article guys. I hadn’t heard of the Tick timetracker before, looks like a great app.

  8. 8

    “The Daily Grind” is the name of a little widget for the mac dashboard for keeping track of time. Also, Freshbooks has a nice built in widget that connects right to your invoices.

  9. 9

    Great post! Just what I needed! Thanks!

  10. 10

    A spot-on article with thorough analysis.

    Anyone who has started out freelancing and has needed it as a source of income (rather than as a trendy hobby) knows the pain and stress of underestimating.

  11. 11

    Thanks for the useful info. It’s so interesting

  12. 12


    Point three: Resisting the temptation to get granular

    Surely this is an error, you spend a good deal of time in the article explaining why its important to get *more* granular.

  13. 13

    This article is way better than yesterday’s troll :-)

  14. 14

    Getting it done by yesterday is something we live by at my company… ;_;

  15. 15

    As a rule of thumb, add 25%-33% for contingency

  16. 16

    Some really good advice, thanks. I seem to overestimate a bit. I thought I site would be done tomorrow and it’s done by lunch today! Now that’s good time management!

  17. 17

    Andrew Butterworth

    June 11, 2009 4:27 am

    Very thorough article cheers. There are several elements here that are definitely worth doing and thorough planning leads to better products. I did the Prince 2Prince 2 project management course which was very in-depth and useful and a few of the principles are mentioned here.

  18. 18

    This is not as entertaining as the previous post but it is still great article. This discusses many concepts that new and young designers just don’t get. (Including myself a few years ago) Designing products whether it’s print or web is a business. What we do has value. If we as a “community” of designers and developers want to be compensated appropriately then having discussions about the best ways to estimate time and plan projects means we can make better decisions about what we should ask of our clients in return for our services.

  19. 19

    Thanks a lot for this article. I’m just starting to set up my own business, and this kind of advice is very helpful.

    One thing I’d like to add: I think it’s very important to find out as precisely as possible what the client actually wants. Many clients don’t know much about web design and marketing, which makes it difficult for them to say what exactly they need.
    When I interview a client, I always have a checklist with me to make sure I record as many details as possible. This prevents me from having to add lots of unexpected features later.

  20. 20

    There have been a lot of questions on twitter regarding this very subject lately. Very good synopsis of project management here. PM is basically the bane of any freelancer’s existence which is the #1 reason projects are underestimated. We just want to make pretty websites ;-)

  21. 21

    It’s so funny this article was posted today, because just yesterday I made a note to myself to check SM for any articles regarding project time lines/estimates. I had just finished a call with a new client who wants me to provide an estimate for re-designing one of their web applications.

    As a freelancer, estimating project time lines has always been my biggest challenge. Especially when estimating time for the graphic design phase, as I can spend days in Photoshop playing around and tweaking little things here and there. I feel like many clients don’t understand, or aren’t sympathetic to how long the design process can take. Also, how do you take into account the number of revisions the client will ask for? I’ve had some clients approve the first comp I sent them, and others who have sent it back 10 times just to change the shade of blue of a tab.

    • 22

      IT Works Websites

      July 2, 2013 6:04 pm

      Ask them about how many rounds of revisions they will need. Or include a number ( on average 2 to 3 rounds is the average for me) in your contract and a price per any extra rounds of revisions, in case the client needs more. I always do it using rounds of revisions per phase. Setting a price for extra rounds prevents the possibility of never ending revisions. Some clients just can’t make up their minds. :-)

  22. 23

    Great article, helped me understand how others in the market are doing it.

  23. 24

    great post – time tracking is absolutely essential when developing estimates. i find it gives me leverage with new clients who may not understand the work that goes into a certain feature request and when you can pull up hard data it’s hard for them to argue. there’s a lot of good time tracking apps out there but i’ve been running with Tempo ( for some time now and love it..

  24. 25

    Great post Sam!
    I worked on a project once where I was given several weeks (and many many hours of pre-approved budget) to do a formal requirements gathering phase and planning for a major upgrade to a CMS my team was maintaining. I conducted surveys with some of the CMS users, reviewed other similar products to get ideas for best feature set, and had many rounds of review with the project stakeholders. Then I spent several days reviewing the requirements with the tech lead and planning out phases for the project. It was only then that we were asked to make an estimate for the design, development, test & implementation of the project.

    This is a unique situation I’m sure (is anyone else out there drooling yet?) where it’s a preexisting client who really trusts the team and understands the importance of spending all that time in discovery and planning. I was actually getting pressure internally from the higher ups to speed up the discovery/planning so that the rest of the team could get started on new billable work. Isn’t that how it always is… (sigh). Not sure how the estimate was vs actual because I wasn’t at the company long enough to see the entire project through.

    Anyway, another situation we sometimes find ourselves in is where we’ve pitched a project and won the work on a set price before we (or the client) has really had time to figure out what the project will be. In those situation it’s critical put the same amount of effort/planning into discovery to ensure that nothing is missed, scope is clearly defined and there are no ‘surprises’ later on. If the client says they want something that will tip the budget over the edge, then it’s time to either cut back on other features or go into change control mode and revise the budget.

    As for what you mentioned about using time tracking software to review actual vs estimate, I would love that feature in the time tracker that my company uses, but we can only record actual vs estimate for the entire project and not on specific tasks. I’d be curious to hear what time tracking applications have this feature. I use LiquidPlanner for project management, and it allows the task owner to update the task with the actual time spent (LiquidPlanner also has a robust time tracking system so this can all be done automatically). So, this way you wont need to go to a separate system to run reports on actual vs estimate, it’s all in the same place.

  25. 26

    Fantastic! This is the meaty stuff we need more of on SM.

  26. 27

    Fabulous blog post! totally bookmarked and shared with my colleagues as reference!

  27. 28

    Fantastic article, thank you! I would also like to know what planning software you are using.

  28. 29

    Yan Charbonneau

    June 11, 2009 7:08 am

    WOW! Thanks very much for this article.

  29. 30

    Great article. I use QuickBooks for estimates and BaseCamp for time-tracking. Then Google Spreadsheets to compare. The only thing that makes this not as bad as it sounds is that I have been able to estimate my time pretty closely on most of my projects.

    Thanks for the post!

  30. 31

    I try hard to knuckle down exactly what the client wants but they often start trying to creep in new ideas. The point this most happens is when the client first sees the mockup. It is so important to wireframe before you start the hard coding because the client can see it as it moves towards the coding. I block wireframe then visual wireframe and then build. Because they have already agreed to the wireframes twice you are in a much stronger position to push back or renegotiate. You can also quickly spot or change anything minor. The worst thing you can do is hand code from the get-go in the hope they like it, they rarely do!


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