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How to estimate design and development projects to avoid surprises

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When it comes to estimating a project, the details matter. While it might seem like a daunting task, estimating work ahead of time can help client and partner teams become aligned on expectations before a project begins. The art of estimating is an iterative process, and we can and should use past work to inform future estimates. Proper estimation helps to avoid common surprises and challenges in design and development projects, and every project should include an estimate. 

Here are some tips on best practices for estimating work to help avoid these pitfalls and a few tips on how to be a good project partner.

Understand the Scope of the Work

When estimating a project, we need to first understand the scope of the work. This can vary depending on the type of project and will likely come with many questions in order to understand the work to be done. For example:

  • What work has been done so far that can be shared and used by the project team?
  • Do you have access to a user base that is available for in-depth interviews (IDI’s), or will this group need to be recruited?
  • How many unique screens will need to be designed?
  • What platforms are currently being used in the technology stack?
  • Is there a design system already in place, or will the work start from scratch?

It’s important to gather all of the details to properly estimate how long a task will take to complete. The more detailed we are, the more accurate the estimate can be. High-level thoughts or assumptions that are not detailed and broken down into bite-size tasks and activities can get teams into trouble. Our assumptions of the ask and your assumption of the ask could be completely different if not defined in detail. Once the project scope is agreed upon, we can move on to the estimation phase.

Estimate Projects to Ensure a Clear Project Roadmap 

With your project scope defined, it’s time to move on to estimating the tasks and activities. Estimating a project can not only give us project costs and effort, but it can also tell us when we need to plan for team resources and provide an early timeline and project roadmap.

Here at Think Company, we’ve developed an estimating sheet that has become an incredibly useful tool when estimating new projects. Our estimating sheet includes vetted formulas based on previous project history that help guide us on various common tasks and activities. This tool helps provide transparency and demonstrates our iterative approach. 

We also use our estimating sheet to model out an early timeline, which is extremely helpful for determining when we will need specific team members to be staffed on a project. This helps us make sure we have the right people available at the right time. It also comes in handy for providing an estimated project duration and to develop a project plan. 

It’s important to ensure every project has an estimate and to get as many eyes on it as possible before it’s finalized. Those most familiar with the work to be done can offer insight into risks you may not have thought of and help to avoid surprises down the road. It’s also important not to overlook common activities in your estimates, such as kick-offs and check-in meetings. These hours can add up quickly if not accounted for and could completely derail the budget—that’s why it’s important that we fine-tune the details before presenting the estimate.

Set Detailed Project Expectations

Once we’ve finalized your estimate, we’ll share it with you for approval. We use a Statement of Work (SOW.) We strive to be as detailed as possible to help to avoid surprises later on in the project—setting clear expectations of what is included and not included in the estimated work.

We also use the SOW to define what is expected of our partners. A successful project requires active participation from all stakeholders. This could include expectations such as a project manager on your team—or a similar point of contact—who manages logistics, scheduling, and other related items. It could also include a subject matter expert (SME) who will be available to answer questions that naturally arise throughout the project. Importantly, it includes expectations around timing for feedback to help avoid significant delays that could jeopardize the project. 

We’re happy to walk through the agreement to ensure expectations are understood before you sign off on it. This sets the tone for the project, ensuring clarity and bolstering the beginning of a project relationship—to ensure all parties are set up for success.

Be a Good Project Partner

Being a good project partner can look similar for both teams. We require all project team members at Think Company to read through the SOW before kicking off a project so our team is aligned. During the project, we often refer back to the SOW to make sure we aren’t missing anything or working out of scope, to help prevent surprises.

Good partnerships are built through good communication practices. It’s important to provide as much detail while communicating or ask for clarification so that things aren’t left open to interpretation. A great phrase to use when you are trying to clarify something is: “What I think I’m hearing you say is…” You can then repeat back what you understood the conversation to be. Whether presenting work or providing feedback, it’s important to describe things in detail to help prevent confusion or rework for either team.

Review the project roadmap and make sure you are clear on the expectations of your role within the project. For example, although it sounds obvious, we expect that clients promptly provide feedback within the scheduled review period to help prevent project delays and budget overages. Additionally, as a project manager, it’s important that we plan frequent touchpoints between both teams. Communicating roadblocks early and often will help keep teams informed on project progress and could prevent surprises later down the road.

Estimate for Success

Estimating work can sometimes feel like a daunting task, but it’s integral to the success of the project. We make sure to include the right people at the right stage of the estimating process to reduce error, increase credibility of the estimate, and use past work to inform estimates for new projects. We’re as detailed as possible in our estimate to ensure that both teams fully understand the work at hand and what’s expected of them. 

The estimate is only the first step in our operational process for success. There’s more to come on sizing tasks and balancing budgets and timelines.  


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