•Updated: Mar 22, 2021
•Published: Jan 7, 2021
According to a 2018 survey by PMI, approximately 52% of projects are completed on time. When you don’t deliver on time, you lose out on any potential revenue that could be gained from a new product. If time and scope creep have a negative impact on your bottom line, why do so many projects fall behind schedule?
Because developing new products requires a lot of hard work. And every step of the process is rife with potential issues that can delay your progress.
Part of the issue is creating a realistic estimate for the time it takes to execute each task throughout product development. That’s why reducing development time is so valuable. Moving quickly is a crucial part of building a consistent product experience for customers at scale.
When you understand how to build realistic timelines and allocate resources correctly, it helps your team execute their work more efficiently. And that increased efficiency is what makes providing consistent value to customers in a timely manner possible.
Estimate Software Development Time Accurately
Being able to get the most out of your team’s time and resources are dependent on your ability to scope out projects effectively. Accurately estimating development time starts with a comprehensive understanding of the various processes, workflows, and resources that go into building your new product or feature.
When you have this clear view of the product development process, you’re able to create an internal development experience that helps your team get things done.
1. Define Project Requirements
To make an accurate development time estimate, you first need a clear understanding of the project’s requirements. These requirements take the intended goals and desired outcomes from your product development strategy and turn them into project milestones.
Part of this process is establishing which members of your team will be involved in the project. This helps you connect with internal stakeholders earlier, get buy-in from them, and gain a clear sense of available resources and bandwidth.
Documenting the different types of work that go into building your project also helps you get a clear picture of the scope of the project—and helps you create a clear definition of done. When your team understands everything that’s required to mark the project complete, it makes accounting for additional work and delays simple.
Once you’ve nailed down these requirements, you can easily create a basic roadmap, define your minimum viable product (MVP), and set a release date.
2. Review Past Project Timelines
Take your rough estimates and cross-reference them with previous project timelines that share similar characteristics with your current timeline. Evaluating those estimates and the product roadmap in this way helps you see how past estimations translated to actual real-world work.
First, look at the time it took to complete the various different tasks from your past project, then calculate the difference with your original estimates. Then, connect these tasks to your product development life cycle. If you see that documenting customer user interviews often took longer than expected, that’s helpful context for scoping out your current work.
When you do this, you create a baseline estimation framework for each stage of the product development life cycle, making subsequent decisions easier to manage. The estimations will look something like this:
Planning: 36 hrs.
- 4 hrs. for project setup in Trello
- 10 hrs. for user interviews
- 12 hrs. for independent research
- 3 hrs. for internal meetings
- 7 hrs. for documentation
Active development: 240 hrs. [two developers]
- 80 hrs. for sprint work (per employee)
- 8 hrs. for spring planning + retros
- 8 hrs. for infrastructure + DevOps
- 24 hrs. for documentation
- 40 hrs. for other meetings
These rough estimates ground your development time estimates in real-world data. With each subsequent project, you can refine the timing to be more specific to your team.
3. Break Down Your Work into Individual Tasks
One of the most important parts of how to estimate development time is breaking up your work into repeatable, trackable, and measurable units. Doing this helps you gain a clear understanding of the work each individual member of your team has to do to complete the project, which you can use to create more accurate estimations.
In our previous example, we follow the Agile methodology, using sprints to create a clear structure for the work. The various planning and retro meetings for each sprint are factored into your estimations alongside the actual sprint work related to executing various tasks.
Gantt charts are a great way to visualize how these tasks fit together for the duration of your project.
Think of it as a way to visualize development time in relation to your product development calendar as you move toward a release. Use user story pointing to establish a clear priority for each task based on the value it provides to customers upon release. You can connect these story points to your sprints to refine your estimate based on the required resources.
4. Talk to Stakeholders Throughout Your Team
The product development process spans teams throughout your organization—each with their own priorities and workload. Talking to the people actually responsible for doing the work helps you gain clarity into their availability and address bandwidth constraints proactively.
Be sure to speak to anyone who has to sign off on delivery, specifically, those people who you’ve designated as responsible and accountable. Using the RACI matrix in this way ensures that you’re not creating unnecessary bottlenecks by waiting for feedback from people who don’t need to be involved in the process at this point.
Use these conversations to have your team share areas of opportunity to improve the product development process. Their feedback, at this point, not only helps you create a more accurate accounting of their work requirements, but it also helps boost their engagement with the project.
Each member of your team should be able to commit to their individual deliverables while also understanding how those fit into the overarching project timeline. That’s the best way to move forward as a team.
5. Assess for Other Delay Risks
Product development takes time. There are potential delay risks outside of each individual team member’s day-to-day responsibilities that you need to account for in your estimations. Understanding these issues helps you proactively address time and bandwidth constraints before they cause bottlenecks for your team.
Consider the following potential issues:
- Flag areas where you need internal stakeholder or customer feedback.
- Look at upcoming holidays and team member vacations.
- Identify key tasks and dependencies to make sure everything is in order.
Once you’ve added in these potential time constraints, you’ll have the clearest possible picture of how much development time it will take for your team to complete their current project.
6. Reevaluate Progress Throughout the Process
The key to keeping development times low is to reevaluate your estimations throughout the product development process. Unforeseen issues will occur at every stage of the process, so it’s important to adjust your timelines accordingly.
Being able to track how your estimations stack up to reality is also a great way to refine your timelines in the future. Just keep in mind that it takes open and honest communication with your team to accomplish this. Development time is a direct representation of your team’s bandwidth, so each person needs to understand their individual contributions.
Adjusting these estimations also helps you account for changes made throughout the development process. There will be times when new information arises mid-project, and keeping track of these changes in scope is how you keep your team on track for on-time delivery.
Identify Opportunities to Use Third-Party APIs and SDKs
Third-party application programming interfaces (APIs) and software development kits (SDKs) can help your team cut down development time by providing new functionality at scale. This not only helps your team move faster, but it also frees up their time to focus on refining the product experience for your customers.
Many third-party applications, like Stream, will includeuser interface (UI) design and front-end support as a part of their product. These features give your team the resources and guidance they need to cut down on development time and push out updates to your product faster and more efficiently.
Instead of having to build out the functionality as a team, you’ll be able to leverage these tools to customize the experience to your customers’ preferences. Integrating an easy-to-use API also helps your team build features faster by tackling underlying structural work and create a better experience for customers by helping you get to MVP faster.
Being able to move quickly through the development process meant edtech app Student+ could easily push out a new feature that helped them compete in the market while also inviting early customer feedback. Cutting the total development time in this way meant it was easier to refine their product based on real user feedback.
“It would have been disastrous to spend so long building out a complicated messaging app with our own technology to find out that we didn’t even have a market fit,” says Jack McMillan. Buying a chat function allowed Student+ to create an MVP, which permitted the company to rapidly acquire their first customer.
Third-party tools can also help showcase product value at scale. When a feature is valuable for your business but not necessarily your primary selling point, resource allocation can be difficult.
Crowdsourced fashion company Betabrand used Stream’s platform to help them add live chat functionality to their product. As a fundamentally social platform, being able to get this aspect of their product experience up and running faster was the key to a faster time to market.
“We are very, very happy with how fast it was to get a full-featured chat in place on our site through Stream. We have never seen that kind of turnaround time before. Stream saved us time and effort and helped us start making a lot of forward movement on our process.” - Jared Rapp, director of engineering at Betabrand
When so much of a brand’s competitive advantage relies on their ability to bring features to market quickly, using third-party APIs and SDKs to support the product development process is the quickest way to reduce development time at scale.
Help Your Team Move Faster with a Third-Party API
Your team often works in a complex technology ecosystem—depending on where they are in your technology stack. Understanding how to estimate development time accurately helps you get more value from the various third-party tools at your disposal. That translates to more efficient team collaboration and a faster-moving development process across the board.