Tips and Resources for Estimating Course Development Time

It may very well be the most challenging question clients ask us: “How long will it take to create the course?”

Cue the awkward, “Let me get back to you on that.”

Most e-learning pros cringe a little at the thought of putting an estimate out there—especially at the start of a new project. That’s because estimating course development time is notoriously tricky. For one, there’s often a lot riding on the accuracy of your estimate, like new products that won’t be launched until all of the salespeople are fully trained, for instance. Making an inaccurate estimate can end up placing you in the hot seat, directly impacting the bottom line. Yikes! That’s a lot of pressure on you or your team.

Want to avoid all those eyes on you? There are some considerations you can factor into your estimates to up your level of accuracy as well as resources you can use to help you make more realistic estimates. Let’s take a closer look at a few of them.

Project Considerations

Does this sound familiar? A client comes to you asking for an estimate to create a one-hour course. You think about how long it took to you to complete another one-hour course you recently launched and provide a similar time estimate. Later, new requirements for the project emerge. Now it needs to be much more complex and interactive than the comparable course you originally referenced. And now you’re in the position of having to negotiate with a stakeholder: either we make this more linear / less complex, or you give me more time. And at the core of all those sticky negotiations is the implication that you didn’t do a very good job of estimating.

Where did things go wrong? Well, for one, you probably didn’t have enough up-front analysis to fully understand the needs of the project or your client’s expectations. To avoid this, before you provide an estimate, try asking questions like:

  • Who’s the audience and what’s the best approach for reaching them? At the core of all your design work are the needs of learners. How well do you understand what they need from training?
  • How high profile or high risk is this project? Projects with more visibility or bottom-line impact may be given a bit more resources, budget, and time.
  • How complex is the content? This may point to the type and number of complex interactions you’ll need to design, prototype, and then build. Things like gamified scenarios with loads of branching, audio, video, etc., are going to take quite a bit longer to create than other types of interactions.
  • What kind of a development process is required? Many folks feel like they have to follow a fixed process for developing every deliverable, but I’m of the belief that you just need a basic development framework with strategies you can use to meet the needs of your projects.

    For instance, if you need to create something fairly complex and interactive, you may find that the typical storyboarding and sign-off process just bogs things down and doesn’t give stakeholders an adequate view of the project. A much smarter move might be to swap out storyboarding for prototyping. This process allows you to focus on nailing down the most complex or high-risk interactions first. Getting out in front of those may give your stakeholders more transparency into your work and save you a lot of painful redesign requests further down the line.

Of course, these are just a few considerations to keep in mind; your environment may have many more factors to consider. In any case, it’s always a good idea to fully understand all of the project variables. To help you get that fuller understanding, check out this robust Needs Analysis Questions download for some more questions to ask.

Estimating Resources

One of my favorite things about the larger learning and development community is how generous everyone is. Many fellow developers have shared their research and formulas for creating more accurate estimates. Here are just a few free resources to bookmark:

  • ASTD: Time to Develop One Hour of Training by Karl Kapp and Robyn Defelice is an oldie but goodie. In this resource, the authors share results of two surveys—one from 2003 and the other from 2009. Then, they break down development time into a handy table with estimates from low to high based on the results of each year’s survey.

Along with these, there are other estimating resources out there that factor in different authoring tools, design models, etc. At the end of the day, everyone is different; these resources just provide some nice guidelines. What matters most is understanding how long it takes YOU to design courses of varying complexity. To that end, check out my list of project management and time management tools, tips, and techniques to help you get organized and build the habit of tracking your own course development time.

More Learning

A quick browse through E-Learning Heroes confirms what we suspected: this is a very popular topic! If you’d like to hear more from your peers, check out some of these rich discussion threads, chock-full of advice and links:

Have your own trick for creating more accurate estimates? Share it with us here, on E-Learning Heroes. Leave your ideas in a comment below, or kickstart a new discussion in the Building Better courses forum. And don’t forget to follow us on Twitter, where we post the latest and greatest news about everything e-learning.

Want to try something you learned here, but don’t have Articulate software? Get a free 30-day trial of Articulate 360 to check out Storyline 360, Review, Content Library, and more. Also, be sure to come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything e-learning.