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4 Effective Strategies 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:

Footnotes Link

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7
  8. 8
  9. 9
  10. 10

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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

    Stephen Ball

    June 11, 2009 3:46 am


    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

    Tom Bradshaw

    June 11, 2009 4:20 am

    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

    Justin Floyd

    June 11, 2009 4:32 am

    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

    Marcus Neto

    June 11, 2009 5:31 am

    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


    June 11, 2009 5:34 am

    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

    Eric Miller

    June 11, 2009 6:09 am

    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

    Dina Garfinkel

    June 11, 2009 6:22 am

    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

    Meagan Burns

    June 11, 2009 6:45 am

    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!

  31. 32

    I suck at project estimating, I consistently underestimate so that I don’t scare my clients away. I am kind of sick of dealing with dead beat clients who think that 1500 is too much for a website, its rather annoying. I suppose its really up to my selling ability because when I explain to them what they are getting for that price usually I can win them over.

    I think i need to start doing ranged estimates, it will definitely cost A but it may be as high as B and then bill them for the final hours after accurantely tracking them.

    Right now i do a rough estimate, then always screw myself by going way over it. I think it sounds better to the client that it may be 500 bucks but could be 2500, gives them hope heh.

  32. 33

    very nice article…thank you so much…:)

  33. 34

    Awesome. Pure gold! Time and time again I find SmashingMag as an excellent design/development resource. Keep up the good work!

  34. 35

    Carl - Web Courses Bangkok

    June 11, 2009 8:49 am

    Fantastic article! Great advise for PMs like me as well as Freelancers!

  35. 36

    Eivind Ingebrigtsen

    June 11, 2009 8:52 am

    I always found the project triangle a good way to explain to clients about how a project end up.

    “Design something quickly and to a high standard, but then it will not be cheap.
    Design something quickly and cheaply, but it will not be of high quality.
    Design something with high quality and cheaply, but it will take a long time.”

  36. 37

    Actually a pretty nice article, I just met with a potential client yesterday. Cool :)

  37. 38

    Nice article… Does any of you know a free alternative to Tickspot time tracking?

  38. 39

    Great article.

    If you’d like a tool for managing your time and projects, you can use this application inspired by David Allen’s GTD:

    You can use it to manage and prioritize your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.
    A mobile version is available too.

  39. 40

    Crystal lee

    June 11, 2009 9:58 am

    this is awesome! this is the type of helpful article I love reading on smashingmagazine

  40. 41

    what an article, thnx!

  41. 42

    Great article, thanks. Your team continuously delivers top-notch content which I follow religiously.

    I second the wireframe suggestion from Simon Day. Nothing better than something to point at and get a signoff.

    Even before the estimate phase, it is vitally important to assess the fit between your agency (or you as independent) and the client. A business relationship is a human interaction. There must be chemistry and understanding for there to be success. It is complicated by money, schedules, and expectations. We have learned from experience, that if it does not feel right from the start, no amount of rationalization will change that. Trust me on this one.

    Our criteria for determining fit:

    1. Client resources. Do they have staff/mgt with time to devote to the project. At minimum you need them to show up for review and approval of your work. Even better if they can do some of the work, like planning. The less resources on the client side, the more work you will have to do managing the project, and the longer it will take to get done. Remember, you get blamed when the project is late.

    2. Client’s experience buying creative and/or programming services. If they are inexperienced, be cautious. If they are aware of their ignorance and willing to learn, maybe.

    3. Client’s expectations. Related to #2. Does the client know if what they want is feasible? Have they done projects like this before?

    4. Budget. Clients either have an idea of budget or they don’t. If they have a budget in mind, then the question is if the expectations in #3 will fit into that budget. If not, then cut scope. The cut items go into future phases that are paid separately. Do not cut price. Never, ever cut price. Once you set that precedent they will always ask for price concessions. If you don’t value your own time, why should your client.

    If they do not have an idea of budget and want their vendor to tell them the cost to do it right, follow Smashing’s advice of a spec phase. We use this tactic. It is a win-win situation, and a fair compromise. If the client declines, we over-estimate to cover ourselves. This either puts us out of the running (and if so, to the best since it is not a good fit), or we have enough cushion to cover the unknowns and ensure profit.

    5. Do not accept work that is not portfolio-worthy. This is an ironclad rule – do not break it. While it is tempting to take work for the paycheck, don’t. Your portfolio is an investment. You will not get better clients if you can’t show past work. Our business improved once we had the courage to say no. Honestly and professionally, of course. Ways to say no include, “This is not a good fit for our firm,” “Your needs would be better served by another firm,” or simply “We respectfully decline.” You will be surprised how much respect this buys your business. It means you have standards.

    Regarding the situation where the estimate is needed tomorrow. In this case we will do an executive overview: a one page summary with a ballpark estimate. We stipulate that this number is preliminary, but a good faith estimate based on limited information, and subject to refinement as the project is developed. If the number is in an acceptable range (get client signature on that), we will proceed with a detailed estimate and statement of work. If not, then you answered the budget question early, and you can move on to other jobs.

    Gaird, Interactive Director.

  42. 43

    Corporate Dave

    June 11, 2009 11:24 am

    Force is strong with this one ;) Great post Sam, as always. Loving the advice here, and in your blog too. We want more!! :)

  43. 44

    Debbie Campbell

    June 11, 2009 11:29 am

    This is a great article and it helped me to further refine my own spreadsheet-based estimator I built a few years ago. But here’s a question – do you actually *show* all of this to the client, down to the task level, so that they can see how thorough you are, or do you only show them a summary of it so as not to overwhelm them? Does it depend on the size of the client?

  44. 45

    Bennie Mosher

    June 11, 2009 11:49 am

    One thing that I try to do is use a program like “Things” or “The Hit List” to track how long different steps take me, and than I can determine from there how long another project like that will take. That’s my opinion. Awesome write up though, very interesting.

  45. 46

    very helpful stuff here, thanks!

  46. 47

    Brett Bergeron

    June 11, 2009 12:49 pm

    The word “agile” hasn’t even been mentioned.

  47. 48

    John Faulds

    June 11, 2009 1:03 pm

    Also, how do you take into account the number of revisions the client will ask for?

    You state quite clearly in your proposal/contract how many revisions will be allowed for each phase. Anything over that incurs additional charges.

    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 Freshbooks and it does.

  48. 49

    Great post–the only thing I have found hard in negotiating with a client is an up front specification. They do not see the paper work as beneficial too them, no matter how many times (especially on an ill defined project) that it gives them a clear road map of what the project will encompass and will reveal or eliminate technical (feasibility) issues.

  49. 50

    What you’re describing is a classic ‘waterfall’ approach and it is doomed to overruns and failure.
    In the real world this approach is cruising for failure if there is any significant complexity in the project. (e.g. not a generic corp brochure w/ CMS)

    This will entail the usual outcomes:
    – high bid to attempt to deal with creep
    – contractor whining about creep
    – argue with the client about scope
    – leave the client unhappy or be unhappy

    There are better ways, the general idea is to define a set of rigid ‘tests’ up front (not necessarily technical) that will define doneness. This will help define what is in and outside the problem domain, note this is a step farther than defining static scope/requirements. Tests include use cases, technical benchmarks, code benchmarks and usability benchmarks.

  50. 51

    Design work is full of uncertainty so the the single best thing you can do to improve your estimation is to embrace it and estimate in ranges (best case – worst case).

    If you get that, then LiquidPlanner is the tool for you, it’s built from the ground up on this idea. Here’s a post to support the point: estimating in ranges

    See LP in action: training video gallery

    Charles, CEO, LiquidPlanner.

  51. 52

    Joshua Sortino

    June 11, 2009 9:33 pm

    VERY insightful article. I have been in web design and development for over 10 years and yet this article has still given me new ideas. If only Smashing Magazine existed when I first began my web career …

  52. 53

    I ll forward this to Pre-sales guys :)

    who quote less time span to clients n

    in future they can plan better after reading this article…

  53. 54

    Smitha patwardhan

    June 11, 2009 9:41 pm

    Thanks a lot SM for this article.Sets some good points to follow as I just planed to start freelancing.

  54. 55

    This is the best article I have read in a while. I do this on a fairly regular basis, and pretty much hate it. But the information you have layed out adds a level of structure to the process that will help make the process less of a ball ache!

  55. 56

    Informative. Nice article… Thanks Smash.

  56. 57

    Very nice, thank you

  57. 58

    Its been my experience to date that the “unknown” elements play a major role in underestimating project completion dates. Its a CONTEST…. Unknowns vs. Technologies, who wins who loses?

  58. 59

    Nice post, thank you. :)

  59. 60

    ignacio paz posse

    June 12, 2009 6:53 am

    Nice subject, so true that many of us drag our feet when it comes to spend time doing estimates for new projects. Here’s another article aimed to tackle the problem using the fantastic org-mode contained in emacs (a reason alone to try this superb editor)

  60. 61

    Great tips. Thanks!

    My motto is “whatever my clints are willing to pay me, I’m worth more.”

  61. 62

    Very good article. An important point of it really is that a very detailed estimate will make the client confident that you are a good pick for the job. Estimates should even raise questions and issues (about technologies for example) that the client may not have think about in his brief. It sure takes time but it is worth it 75% of the time. Of course once in a while the client run out with your 30-50 pages detailed functionnalities and estimates and go ask someone else to do it cheaper… damm ! but oh well.

  62. 63

    I love SM :))

  63. 64

    doing what you do best SM

  64. 65

    Thats a great topic SM has included. We would love to see more article of same nature.

  65. 66

    Thanks for this very detailed look at one of the most difficult parts of our job. Our agency uses Clients and Profits for managing the time and cost of jobs. It does a good job of showing actual vs. estimated costs side by side for each Task. I find it limiting in how the estimates are entered and summarized for sending to the client — it feels more appropriate for print jobs, and not nearly as specific as needed for all the granular stuff of web project specification. I start out with an excel spreadsheet with as much detail as I can visualize given the project brief, inserting each task that would be part of the project, specifying how it would be done. But when the job goes into the estimating sheet in Clients and Profits, we only see the main breakdowns, like Planning, Project Management, Design, Development, Photography, Video Editing, Copy Writing, etc., along with the section totals for each of these areas. The exact specifications are thought of as “overwhelm” when giving the client the project estimate, but in my mind, they need to know *exactly* what the estimate is built on. When we don’t get specific, it’s hard to manage project creep, as the client expects any function that comes up to be included. Often we have to “option” out various upgraded functions or recommendations we have – another thing that is not easy to handle in the Clients and Profits estimating interface. I like to show two sets of costs – kind of “base” and “upgraded” – for some sections/functions, since at estimating, we don’t know yet which way the client may wish to go. Finally, when we get down to what the desired scope of the project is, and what the realistic budget is, we often move some functions to “Phase 2”, to be added in when next year’s budget allows. This helps plan them into the overall architecture/design up front.

    For complex web projects, we attempted to make it part of our process to do the Research/Discovery & Specifications stage first, as a paid project. We could estimate time for this, as well as guarantee the outcome: a fully-specified project with accurate costs, from which to build out, no matter which agency was selected for the design/development job. We have rarely been able to actually go down this path, as ideal as it would be, as the complete project budget often needs to be known up front before the client can approve going forward at all.

  66. 67

    great article, guys. I’ve learn a lot. i’m a just born freelancer and there a lot of this kinda things that i don’t know. And I would like to know about prices. I know that i depends of a lot of things, but an article about that would be relly helpful, becouse i’m doing the design of a children magazine, really small one, like 10-12 pages. I’ve alredy work with this client, i did some credits for his cartoon and he like it a lot. He gave me a great opportunity of design the credits and now, the magazine even when i’m still learning graphic design. For the magazine, he’s paying me $45, i don’t know if that is too much or too little. If someone can help me with that i would be awesome.
    ps. sorry for the bad english

  67. 68

    Yes, this sort of lengthy project happened to me twice. First with the second big boss and second with my friend. The underlining problem is actually a matter of relationship, I didn’t want to break our relationship, so I had to accomodate their ever changing mind :) They change their ideas, keep brainstorming down the road, adding and removing elements when the project finished. What can I do?

  68. 69

    Great advise for me as Freelancers, thanks for sharing!

  69. 70

    Good article on a too-infrequently discussed major issue for freelancers and agencies.

    Through several decades of writing proposals and making pitches, I found it useful to use this analogy with clients: “You can ask ‘how much will it cost’ OR ‘how long will it take,’ but not both.”

    I describe the problem of walking into a Chevrolet showroom (back when it was apple pie and Chevrolet) and asking the first sales person who comes up to you “How much will it cost to buy a car from you today?” You haven’t determined whether yet whether you want the Aveo or the Corvette ZR1. Both cars will get you from point A to point B. The sales person needs more information before they can know what the real scope of your needs are.

    I’m suspicious of a prospect who calls and asks for a proposal or price “tomorrow.” Do they already have a proposal from a competitor and someone up the management chain has said “I like that proposal; let’s go when that one, but get two more proposals before we pick them; the board will want to know we did ‘due diligence’.”

    I would ask the prospect, “Do you presently have proposals on this project?” [If yes, ask] “How long ago did you request them?” and “Have you worked with this company in the past?” and “Were you satisfied with what they did for you then?” [If yes, ask] “Why wouldn’t you choose them for this project?”

    If you’ve worked with this client (not a new prospect) in the past, you will be able to reflect on things that might affect the ‘fudge-factor’ you’ll need to build in to the proposal. Things like how much nit-picking on the design and/or copy there will be and how many levels of approval they will need to go through before the proposal and the ultimate project submissions are OK’d. And how strict deadlines really are with the client, etc. (There’s never time enough to do it now, but always time to do it over.)

    Another comeback question when they ask for your next-day price/proposal is “When do you actually need the work you are proposing?”

    This helps determine if they need your proposal for a project that they have procrastinated on for weeks or months or if they are collecting budget prices for a project next quarter or next fiscal year and the budget deadline is day after tomorrow.

    It’s tempting to low-ball prices when you have a ‘hot prospect’ that needs the work ‘tomorrow.’ But can you deliver? Can you push off current work to take on this ‘urgent’ project in hopes of winning over a new client.

    If you ARE the ‘winner’, will they expect all your work will be done this cheaply and this fast?

    Might they think you must not have much business right now since you can turn this project quickly and Is THAT the kind of person/agency with which they should be working?

    Hope I didn’t stray too far from the original content of a very good article.

    Sign me: An entrepreneur and free-lancer with 35+ years of experience.

  70. 71

    For gausarts: Estimate the real time/cost and tell them if the project expands or there are more than X changes, you’ll do the additional work at your standard hourly rate of $XX.

  71. 72

    Fantastic article, thank you! I can know!

  72. 73

    Excellent article with many useful tips. We often get asked to scope out an entire project for e-commerce sites, and we found a good solution in case the client shops it elsewhere.
    We do all of the research and deliver a detailed proposal, which usually takes us around 2 weeks (about 80 hours) and charge the time. If the client chooses to go with us, we prorate the amount towards the entire project. If not, they pay the invoiced amount.
    So far this seemed to have been working very well.

  73. 74

    really great article thanks

  74. 75

    Wilma Hartmann

    June 15, 2009 2:14 am

    Very well written and complete. Essential info for successful project estimating.

  75. 76

    What is this planning tool that is shown in the article, in points 2 and 3 ?

  76. 77

    Good question Sarah, I was just going to ask that. Anyone know?

  77. 78

    Awsome post! Thanks for the hard work that went into this research. The Web Development Project Estimator is excellent!

  78. 79

    Hanan Weiskopf

    June 16, 2009 12:54 am

    You guys rock, this help SO MUCH!

  79. 80

    Excellent. Thank you.

  80. 81

    luis angel camargo

    June 17, 2009 12:48 pm

    Nice article.
    I also recommend estimate some hours for documentation and capacitation (administration of the CMS – WordPress, Joomla, etc.). These tasks take 1 or 2 days of my time in every project.

  81. 82

    Thank you for the information and resources!

  82. 83

    Saddam Azad

    June 19, 2009 2:05 pm

    As a freelance designer and front-end developer, I put to use a similar methodology for managing projects. There is a lot I learned from this. Also, this article gives me assurance that I am going things the right way.

    A point I would add to it is:
    Get your documents ready. Every freelancer needs templates for Estimates, Project Timeline, an NDA and a Design Sign-Off Document. I have had to build those templates when I started off and they have evolved over time.

    Also, always ask the client for a sitemap. With a sitemap, you’ll know how many templates need to be designed and how long each may take. If the client is unable to provide a sitemap, arrange a meeting with the director/execs to determine what exactly they’re trying to achieve with the new site.

    Thank you for this fabulous article.

    Saddam Azad
    Web Designer and Front-end Web Developer
    London, UK

  83. 84

    Though I am not a freelance web designer, but a freelance writer, I recognise a lot of what has been stated in this excellent article. The parts that were of most relevance to me was the time to plan a project, and the tips on dealing with clients. First rate and a very interesting read.

    I do feel that freelancing tips are interchangeable regardless of the profession.

  84. 85


    June 26, 2009 8:05 pm

    Great article SM. Thank you for emphasizing the importance of granularity and time tracking. The rewards for the minimal efforts are endless on many levels.

  85. 86

    Brilliant, thank you for your valuable time..

  86. 87

    Great article! Thanks!

    Someone above asked:
    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.

    Xpert-Timer can record actual vs estimate on specific tasks (sub projects).

  87. 88

    One of the biggest things that has helped me with this type of problem is to (1) guess high and (2) market like crazy. Basically, I have learned that I need to guess a little high across the board to account for things that my confidence deceives me into thinking “I can do faster than that.” Then I market like crazy. This makes it easier to shrug it off when a client rejects my bid because I know I’ve got 10 more just like them at the door..

  88. 89

    David Holloway

    August 14, 2009 4:50 am

    This is such a useful article. Exactly what I I’ve been looking for to make sure my projects go to plan. thank you very much.

  89. 90


  90. 91

    Iris Chamberlain (Start Here Designs)

    March 20, 2011 3:25 pm

    Dear Sam, how I love thee, let me count the ways. Thanks again, this is a really helpful article! Bulleted lists FTW!

  91. 92

    Scott @sydneydesign

    August 10, 2011 8:53 pm

    Great article, i’m laughing at some of the phrases that sound all too familiar like “its not fun”. I also realised that estimating accurately means you have to quote higher sometimes which is not always desirable…

  92. 93

    Byron Headrick

    August 22, 2011 2:01 am

    I think its great information. The success of any business depends on the way it treats its customers. Whether you are in a service-oriented industry or not, your relationship with your customers will reflect on the company’s bottom line were in time can really help you to improve business. Business is in itself a power were in Time plays a great role think your readers may appreciate this related blog.

  93. 94

    Jordan @simpixelated

    November 6, 2011 6:34 am

    Awesome article! I’m working on improving the estimation process at my current job. I created a short survey that I’m trying to get other agencies and developers to fill out which will help give me an idea of the current trends in web development estimation. If anyone has the time, I’d love to get their feedback:

  94. 95

    Thanks for this excellent resource – it’s exactly what I need to go from off-the-cuff guessing (and giving away a lot of my time) to adopting a thoughtful process. Your post was easy to follow, comprehensive and full of practical tools. I give it a 9 out of 10, the only criticism being the jargon I had to look up. Again, many thanks for this great contribution!

  95. 96

    Allen Gingrich

    March 4, 2012 11:43 pm

    This is a great article! It covers some of the problems with “scope” that I’ve always ran into.

    I’ve been using the PERT formula lately to make estimations, and it’s led me to be pretty spot on. You can read about PERT

    Looking forward to more articles like this!


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