Time Estimates for E-Learning Development

One skill I’m constantly trying to improve is estimating how long it will take to complete a project. Because I work for myself, I have to create good estimates. If I don’t, I either bid low and lose money or bid high and lose a project.

The two sources I use for benchmarks are Bryan Chapman’s research and Karl Kapp and Robyn Defelice’s ATD research. Of the two, I usually go for Chapman’s data, since it’s broken down with more detail. I find it helpful to refer clients to these sources, especially if they think training development should take barely any time.

I also track my own time for every project I create, so I can compare my actual numbers to the benchmarks. I use a time tracking template that lets me analyze my time on different tasks and projects. That’s the best situation, but I don’t have enough data for all types of projects. I also want to verify my personal numbers against the benchmarks.

For example, let’s say a client asks me to convert an existing full day training program to self-paced e-learning. This will be mostly linear with some interactivity and no branching scenarios. A “full day” or training in this case means 6 hours of actual content. The content itself is in pretty good shape; there’s slides, a participant guide, and a facilitator guide, and it’s all fairly complete. There’s no video, only limited animation (the kind I can build in Storyline or Captivate), and professional voice talent will be used.

I’m going to assume this can be compressed to about 3 hours of e-learning. That’s 50% of the original time, which is a standard estimate backed up by research. This project is on the low end of a Level 2 by Chapman’s study, so the ratio for development is 127:1 (that is, 1 hour of e-learning takes 127 hours to develop). For 3 hours, that’s 127 * 3 or 381 hours total work. That’s the work for everyone on the team, not just me.
Chapman’s study provides this breakdown of tasks and the percentage of time for each (see slide 18).

  • Front End Analysis: 9%
  • Instructional Design: 13%
  • Storyboarding: 11%
  • Graphic Production: 12%
  • Video Production: 6%
  • Audio Production: 6%
  • Authoring/Programming: 18%
  • QA Testing: 6%
  • Project Management: 6%
  • SME/Stakeholder Reviews: 6%
  • Pilot Test: 4%
  • Other: 1%

Thinking Through the Numbers

I always weigh different factors to tweak these benchmarks.

  • Front end analysis is 9% of 381 or about 34 hours. I’ll assume less than that because it’s a conversion and a lot of analysis has already been done with the face-to-face version. (Yes, I know that’s not always realistic. Just because someone already has a course doesn’t mean they actually did any needs analysis. Pretend with me that this client did, and I know the current course is meeting their needs.) I’ll call this analysis 20 hours.
  • Instructional design is 13% or about 50 hours. I’ll call this 45 hours for me, assuming the SME will need to spend some time reviewing.
  • Storyboarding is 11% or about 42 hours. I’ll estimate 40.
  • For graphics, my estimate depends on how much custom development I’m doing and how much will be provided by the client. If the client has a standard template and a large library of images for me to use, this might be 20 hours. If I’m creating a custom template and a lot of graphics, this should be 45. Let’s assume that although the content in the slides is good, the graphics are awful, and I’ll create a template myself. I’ll use 45 hours for this example.
  • Since there’s no video, I use 0 for that value. Audio will be created by someone else, so I won’t include that in my estimate either.
  • Authoring/Programming is 18% or 69 hours. That actually seems a little low for building in Captivate or Storyline, based on my experience, although I’m assuming for this example that the course relies heavily on templates. I would assume at least 75 hours, maybe more.
  • QA Testing is 6% or 23 hours.
  • Project Management is also 6% or 23 hours. Depending on the project, I do more or less project management. I’ll assume 10 hours for this example.
  • The Pilot Test is 4% or 15 hours. I assume other people will be involved in that test, so I’ll estimate 6 hours. Generally a review of a course takes me 2-3 times the length of the course.

Adding it all up, it’s 264 hours. How much padding I add to that estimate depends on a number of factors. If I’ve worked with the client before and I know they’re always responsive and very clear with feedback, I might just round up to 265. If the client seems unclear about what they want or I suspect that reviews and revisions will be complicated, I’ll add more and probably call it 275 or more.

The above breakdown also helps me determine an estimate if I’m not creating the entire course. I often work in teams with other multimedia developers, so I might only be doing the analysis, design, storyboarding, and project management. It’s easy to take those components and come up with a rough estimate for my portion of the course.


These resources may help you with your own time estimates.

Image Credit: Time by Alan Cleaver, on Flickr

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Originally published 3/18/2014

19 thoughts on “Time Estimates for E-Learning Development

  1. Christy, thanks for all the detail. When I come up for air on my own projects, I’ll have to blog on this same topic. My numbers are so different from yours. Here’s a suggested blog post for you though: I’d like to see a post from you on what you do in the front-end analysis (which you budgeted 20 hours for above). My clients tend to feel that they’ve done this analysis and I almost never get a chance to sit with learners and really dig down to needs. So it’s a three-pronged post: what do you do in your analysis and how do you organize it, what’s the deliverable (course outline?), and how do you sell the client on doing it? I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Thanks in advance. Kevin

    1. A version of this post sat in my drafts folder for about a year, so I understand not having the time to blog. I’ll look forward to seeing your numbers though. My guess is that your numbers are higher since you’re doing more graphic design and more development. Because I do more projects where I’m only doing design and writing and not development, I don’t trust my numbers for Captivate development as much as for earlier stages.
      As for selling the client on doing analysis, I don’t actually break it out for clients this way. I roll it into the design document stage. That’s both analysis and early design, and it gives clients a deliverable at the end. My design document is an overview of the course including a high level outline and plan for activities. I’ve never had a client push back on having an outline and plan at the beginning of the process.

  2. Thank you Christy, this article was very informative. And also thanks for sharing your resources, the time management tools could be particularly useful for my own work in the future.

  3. Christy, this is an invaluable posting. Most often we are asked how much time incrementally we feel it would take for development. What I specifically enjoyed reading about was your breakdown of time on task. Often I am not only asked how much time on task incrementally that I feel a resource is needed for, but also how much time from the provider that they can expect to contribute. It is all very lucrative including looking at the various levels of development, but having some static baselines are a great asset.

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