A client recently asked me about the metrics we use for estimating custom development of eLearning courses. She wanted to explain to her colleagues the reasons why one course takes weeks to create and another takes months.
Being glad to share a peek behind the scenes at Fredrickson, I checked with Robin Lucas about our most recent estimating spreadsheet. I say “most recent” because we have been continuously refining our estimating methods based on the reality of how projects turn out. In fact, we’ve been at this for almost 30 years. See Stop Guesstimating, Start Estimating for a trip back to the 90s.

Robin directed me to Tony Tao (a Project Manager / Senior Developer here at Fredrickson), who had in fact just finished a significant upgrade to our estimating spreadsheet. The basic metrics like hours per page and minutes per image of spreadsheets past were still there. But Tony had turned a fairly one-dimensional spreadsheet into a multidimensional tool for project planning.

I wanted to learn about the thinking behind the new estimating tool, so I sat down with Tony to find out.

JOYCE: Tony, this upgraded spreadsheet is really cool! What’s behind the changes?

TONY: One big factor that drives the change is that our clients ask for pricing options, rather than a single price, during the proposal process. So, we need a way to quickly estimate different solutions to a learning need. We also have many different types of projects — there are more variables now that “rapid” eLearning tools have become more sophisticated. We needed our spreadsheet to be much more flexible.

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JOYCE: What are some of the improvements?

TONY: We now have a better way to account for complexity in the development process. For example, we separated graphic development into simple images and advanced visual treatments so that we can assign different metrics to each — rather than estimating an average metric for all graphics development. If the client wants no advanced treatments, the estimate will more accurately reflect the development effort for the simple graphics.

JOYCE: What’s the most difficult part of a project for us to estimate?
TONY: The most challenging part is the stakeholder review cycle. There are so many variables involved: the number of reviewers, the stability of content, and the duration of the review process. For example, you may spend less time with an existing client in the review cycle, because they are familiar with your development process. Also, some extent of mutual trust has already been established in the previous projects. It might be a very different story with new clients. We needed an uncertainty factor that was measurable when estimating a new project.

JOYCE: How does the new tool help us to better estimate the work effort during the review cycle?

TONY: First, the new tool itemizes the rounds of reviews, allowing us to adjust the review process to meet the client’s budget. We also defined the scale of content changes in each review — because there are often more content changes in the first review than the second review — so that our project price reflects the likely amount of revision from each review. Also, we introduced a factor for potential re-work, depending on the stability of the content.

JOYCE: What do you want to try to solve next?

TONY: We did a lot of work with government agencies last year, and accessibility is a major compliance factor when we develop eLearning modules for them. We have optimized our development process for accessibility through these projects, and I would like to add these components to the spreadsheet. Translation is another huge topic. We have successfully completed several multi-language projects with both rapid and advanced authoring tools. I am going to add the translation items to the spreadsheets as well.

JOYCE: I’m looking forward to your blog post once you figure that out! Thanks, Tony!
Estimating carefully matters. But that’s just the beginning. Managing project risks so that your actual work effort comes in within your estimate is where the real skill happens. Very few risks compare to the challenge of managing review processes with stakeholders over whom you have no control. For our thoughts on that subject, see Surefire Ways to Manage Reviews of Online Content.

And if you’re looking for outside help to get your learning projects done, get in touch! We’d be happy to apply our estimating skills to providing you with a quote!

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