How to estimate a UX project

January 29, 2013

Here’s an article I wrote for UX Mastery about estimating design projects. It originally appeared on the UX Mastery website.

One of the most difficult things to get right, even for more experienced UX designers, is correctly estimating a UX project.

Whether you’re a freelance designer who needs to give a quote to a client for a job, or an in-house designer preparing estimates for your project manager, estimating is always fraught with assumptions, what-ifs and unknowns. In this post I’ll list a few different approaches you can use to estimate your next UX project. I’ll focus on estimating client-facing work, as that’s where most of my experience lies, but many of the principles translate to internal projects as well.

Why is accurate estimating important?

Before we get into the detail of how to estimate, we should first take a moment to consider why getting it right is so important. No-one likes estimating projects—it’s difficult and not as much fun as doing the work itself. However, without an accurate estimate it’s impossible to know how much to charge your client for the work.

I’m assuming that UX design is your business, and not just a hobby, which means that generating an income from your work is an integral part of the gig. You, like many people might feel uncomfortable talking about money, but without it you can’t make a living from your work and keep the business running. It’s important you get comfortable talking about money and charging for UX work, because without this skill, you risk not staying in business (and doing what you love) for very long.

What to charge for design work

Unlike a physical product, for which the break-even value can be accurately calculated based on the sum of the parts and manufacturing costs, design work is much harder to price. You are selling yourself, your skills and experience—how do you put a price on that?

Typically, service industry work is charged in hourly blocks, with a cost per hour to perform that work based on the practitioner’s ability, skills and experience to perform that work. UX design is no different; whichever method you use to estimate and charge for the work (which we’ll get into in a minute), it will most likely be based upon an hourly rate.

Working out your hourly rate is key to the financial side of estimating, and it’s important that you charge accurately for the quality of your work. There aren’t any formally set rates documented anywhere for UX work, but you can get an idea of what your rate should be by:

talking with peers in the industry, and reviewing the results of surveys such as this one. If you’re struggling with determining your hourly rate, you may want to check out The Principles of Successful Freelancing, by Miles Burke. Miles is a very experienced web designer, and his book details a comprehensive process for determining an hourly rate based on your expenses, target annual salary, expected utilisation rate, and more.

Whatever number you settle on, be sure not to undervalue yourself! Charging too low or underestimating the amount of time to do a job can lead to resentment from both parties, and the quality of the solution you deliver may suffer.

How to charge for design work

There are typically three methods you can take when giving your client a quote for UX and design work:

  • fixed price,
  • hourly rate (often called time & materials), and
  • ballpark figure + hourly rate.

The cost for each is based on the same hourly rate, and the process of estimating is the same. There are, however, subtle differences between these methods, and each has their advantages and disadvantages.

Fixed price

Fixed price, as the name suggests, means providing the client with a flat fee for the work. This is great for the client—they understand upfront what they’ll need to pay, and there will be no surprises. However, this approach places all of the risk with you, the designer. If the project runs over time on a fixed price job, you may have to wear the extra cost (depending on your contract).

Due to the risk involved, I would recommended that you be very comfortable with the full scope of work before agreeing to a fixed price schedule. Ensure you watch for scope-creep while the project progresses, and be sure that your contract leaves no room for ambiguity.

Many design firms add a percentage of “padding” hours to fixed price estimates. This allows them to weather any unforeseen scope and reduces the risk.

Hourly rate (time and materials)

Charging an hourly rate—also known as time and materials is the fairest, most accurate method, since you simply track the time it takes to do the work and charge for that time at the end of the project (or at agreed milestones).

While this is great for the designer, the client harbours all of the risk in this situation; if the project overruns due to underestimating or changes in scope, the clock keeps running. It is typically rare for clients to agree to pay by time and materials on large projects due to the risk, but it’s quite common for much smaller gigs.

Ballpark figure + hourly rate

A ballpark figure + hourly rate is a combination of the previous two methods. In this instance, the designer provides the client with a fixed (ballpark) cost based on their estimations prior to starting the project, but with the understanding that if the project overruns they will continue to charge, tracking the additional hours.

This is a good solution for projects where the full scope isn’t known at commencement and the client doesn’t want to invest time in preparing a detailed brief.

Estimate how long it will take to complete

Now that you’ve worked out your hourly rate, you just need to calculate how many hours you think it will take to satisfactorily complete the work. Multiply that number by your hourly rate and you’ll have the estimate. Simple!

The big question of course, is exactly how to calculate the number of hours it will take to complete the work …

This is where I break it to you—there is no secret formula and even the most senior, experienced UXer hasn’t worked it out to an exact science. To a certain degree, we’re all making a best guess. There are however, a few tips and techniques you can employ to help you make it an informed guess and get as close as possible.

Have a defined process (and know it inside-out). If you already know how to undertake a UX project and are confident with the various techniques you can employ to get it done, then you’ll probably follow a similar process each time. A key factor in helping to accurately estimate a UX design project is having a clearly defined process, and knowing the usual series of tasks and techniques that you commonly follow on projects.

Once you have a good handle on your process, you’ll be much better placed to predict how long each task will take, and therefore what you should charge for each stage. Obviously each job and its specific requirements are going to be unique, and the number and complexity of techniques employed, deliverables and depth of planning may well be proportional to the project’s complexity. However, if you know your process well, it will help you plan and scale each estimate accordingly.

Break it into pieces. Just as the prospect of undertaking a large UX project can seem daunting at first, so too can the thought of accurately estimating how long it will take to complete one. Just as you would approach the project in smaller, more manageable pieces to complete, the best way to estimate how long a UX project will take to complete is to break the approach you plan to follow into small, achievable pieces, listing step-by-step the process you plan to follow for each particular job. The more granular you can get, the better.

We do this for every project estimate we put together at Thirst Studios. We usually start with a simple scribble on a piece of paper that follows a fairly standard UX design process, and then become more granular and develop the list of tasks required to achieve the specific requirements established for each unique project.

Record and review data from past projects. Nobody likes filling out their timesheet, but the only way to know if the project you estimated was accurate is to complete the project and record how long it took to finish each task. The more projects you finish, the more data you can gather to inform future estimates.

Ask ’em their budget. While it might be difficult to bring up the subject of money, you should always ask the client what their budget is. If you know what they’re expecting to spend you can easily work out the available time afforded to you and work back from there to define an approach that fits. This figure will help you determine what you’ll have time to cover, and what is out of scope.

Trust your intuition. Like anything you do, practice makes perfect—while it may not be particularly scientific in all cases, after a few projects you’ll start to get a feel for how long each type of project should take and how much it should cost. There’s a lot to be said for this intuition that experience provides, coupled with your sense for what you think the client is expecting in terms of scope.

What if I don’t have enough info to accurately quote?

There are occasions when you’ll be asked to quote for a project that you simply don’t have enough information about in order to accurately estimate: perhaps the full scope is not yet known, there’s no accurate project brief or the project relies on a third-party that haven’t delivered their work yet.

In these cases, the best approach is to charge for the work on an hourly rate basis rather than providing a fixed cost. If the client requires a fixed estimate however, I’d suggest you are very cautious about taking the job on, as providing a fixed-price quote without knowing the full scope of work poses a large amount of risk to you, the designer.

We have been known to undertake a separate, scoping project in these instances, to help the client define the project scope and develop a brief and set of requirements against which we could then accurately quote. This situation is ideal, but not always something a client is keen to invest in.

Failing that, one of the most difficult skills to acquire as a business owner is learning when to say no to a project. If you just can’t reach agreement with a client over pricing, don’t be afraid to politely decline being involved. It may be a sign that you need some more experience before you’re ready to tackle a project of that size; or it may be that the client is troublesome to deal with—and will continue to be so. Either way, you’re better off not taking the project on. The cost and effort required to save a project for a client who is unhappy with the solution you’ve delivered could be far more expensive than the potential revenue you’d be passing up by not being involved in the first place.

In conclusion

Unfortunately, there is no secret formula to estimating UX projects. It’s one of the most difficult things to get right, and even the most experienced UX designers will tell you they still haven’t got it worked out yet.

However, if you know your design process and the various UX tools and techniques at your disposal intimately, you trust in the value of your work, you employ the techniques listed here and you ensure you charge appropriately and fairly, you’re as well prepared as you can be to estimate the time and effort required to successfully complete a UX design project.

Further reading:

  • Estimation Process For UX Services: By Hours Or By Deliverables? (IxDA.org)
  • UX Design-Planning Not One-Man Show, by Holger Maassen (Boxes and Arrows)
  • The Principles of Successful Freelancing, by Miles Burke (SitePoint)
  • Design Is A Job, by Mike Monteiro (A Book Apart)

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