Are time estimates useless?

Building websites and general development activities are notoriously difficult to give time estimates for. Ask most developers and they’ll tell you that estimates are often a pain in their backsides. But, understandably, everybody always wants to know how long things are going to take. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. We all expect to have an idea of timeframes and rightly so! 

Why are time estimates tricky?

The problem with website and software development is the number of unknowns that impact your time. Building a new website is much easier to estimate than working on an existing one. A new website is built from a clean slate, with repeatable steps that a developer has performed countless times. That means when you’re given a time estimate for a new site, it’s fairly safe to assume that it’s accurate. 

However, if you have an application or site that is years old, been worked on by many developers and has no documentation, estimates are going to be much less reliable. Every situation is different and not all time estimates are created equal. Estimating the time needed to change the colour of a button, and the time needed to integrate your site or web app with a third party are two totally different kettles of fish. 

So should you ask for them?

We don’t delve into the psychology and theory behind making good or bad estimates (of which there are already countless articles on); we think it’s simpler than that. People, generally, are going to base their estimates on the information they have available at the time. Later, when more information becomes available, that estimate is likely to change entirely. These changes are to be expected and should always be communicated at the first opportunity. 

Problems occur when there is a difference in understanding of the word estimate. Estimate is defined as follows, to “roughly calculate or judge the value, number, quantity, or extent of.” The key word here is “roughly”. Estimates are not exact; they exist only to provide an idea of time, not a promise of delivery. 

When asking for an estimate, it’s always worth clarifying what you are looking for in an answer. If you want a definitive timeframe, you’re not asking for an estimate. You’re likely looking for a detailed quote, which would require investigation into the task and may be chargeable in and of itself.  

The takeaway here is that estimating is all about balance. Balancing experience, expectations, flexibility and understanding. Some people are better at estimating than others, and some people receive estimates better than others. 

Sox is fortunate that all our clients are reasonable and understanding. Not everyone is as fortunate as us! Don’t forget our advice is free to other small UK businesses – you don’t have to be a client. Drop us a line to chat!