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’s ASTD 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

Learning the Language: Why IDs Don’t Need To Be SMEs

My daughter was born last May. “E” was in a hurry to meet us and arrived two months early. When my water broke, we rushed to Duke University Hospital. I quickly received a dose of betamethazone and a bolus of magnesium. E spent over a month in the NICU. My conversations were suddenly filled a whole new language: brady, desat, gavage, TPN, bili lights, central line, kangaroo care.

E at 5 days old

E at 5 days old. She was breathing on her own, without oxygen support, but still connected to a lot of wires and sensors. She was so small that even the preemie diapers were a little big.

My husband and I continued working while she was in the NICU. I had to finish up a few projects before my maternity leave could really start. I pumped every three hours, so I never got more than two hours of sleep at a stretch that whole month. We drove 40 minutes to Duke every afternoon to visit her in the hospital, while juggling work and getting the house ready for her to come home. The staff at Duke were wonderful and helpful, but I was completely exhausted.

As fatigued and stressed as I was, I quickly learned the language of the NICU. In the first week, five separate nurses or doctors at Duke asked me if I had a medical background. I seemed so familiar with the terminology that they assumed I had formal training. I always chuckled and explained that I have no medical background, but learning the language of different fields is part of what I do for a living. As an instructional designer, it’s my job to be able to work with experts in lots of different subjects. The fact that multiple healthcare practitioners were fooled into thinking I’m one of them is just a sign that I’m a competent ID.

A few years ago, I wrote a course on bulldozer safety. I’ve never even ridden on a track dozer, but working on that course expanded my vocabulary: tramming, trunnion, berm, FOPS, frog, grouser, windrow, ROPS. Every organization also has its own lingo. At Cisco, I’d ask people to “pass me the ball” during meetings so we could finish before our “hard stop” and discuss what’s changed in CSAP since the program was “put on pause.” Like any big organization, Cisco uses hundreds of acronyms, and the same acronym in one group can have a different meaning in another team.

Learning those acronyms and becoming familiar with the vocabulary of your organization and field is part of the job of an instructional designer. It’s actually one of my favorite aspects of being an ID; one of the reasons I enjoy freelance work is that I’m constantly learning new things from a variety of sources. Lifelong learning is a major perk of this career.

I’ve seen people argue that IDs should have content expertise in the fields where they develop courses. Usually it’s in job listings where a company requests something like “5-10 years experience in healthcare or pharmaceuticals.” I’ve even seen someone in the learning field argue that content expertise is an “essential” qualification for doing this job. Personally, I think that’s completely wrong. It’s not essential; it’s not always even beneficial.

I agree with Connie Malamed: Instructional designers are content neutral. Connie explains some strategies for gaining knowledge when you’re not a mini-SME: preexisting content, instructional analysis, task analysis, research, and interviews. Even without the motivation of being responsible for the well-being of a teeny tiny human being, you can do the research and learn enough about a field to ask SMEs intelligent questions. That’s often the real key: do you have the right language to ask the right questions? We don’t need to be SMEs; that’s why we have a SME on our team. Our role is to be experts in learning, not on the content. We do have to learn about the field so we can collaborate with SMEs and develop content, but we don’t need the true depth of expertise of a SME. As long as we can learn the language, we can ask the right questions and explain our ideas in a way that others can understand them. We don’t need to be SMEs; we need to know how to talk to SMEs.

E is now 10 months old and doing great. Her language skills right now are focused mostly on blowing raspberries and saying ba-ba-ba-ba, but that’s a fun language for us to play with together.

E at 9 months

E at 9 months. She’s getting so big! You can’t quite read it, but her top says, “This is my little black dress.”

Tips for Storytelling in Learning

These are my live blogged notes from the InSync Training Byte session “Once Upon a Time, Storytelling WAS Learning” by Tom Campbell and Karin Rex. My side comments and thoughts in italics. Any errors, typos, or awkward phrasing are mine, not Tom and Karin’s. You can watch the recording here.

Tom started with a story about how he visualized his presentation. What tool did he use for the animated drawing of figures and captions? Bought on Shutterstock? Self deprecating humor, good specifics to help us visualize the setting with him.

Why don’t we just give learners a book and command them to read and learn? We need to make the material come alive by adding context through teachable stories.

Why are we more engaged when we hear a narrative? Brains switch off when we see a slide full of bullet points. Our brains are active for language processing but nothing else. When we hear stories, our brains light up all over–we experience a story as if we were part of it. Our brains are wired to learn from stories.

Why do stories work? It’s a narrative about cause and effect. We’re constantly making up little stories about our lives and how things happen.

How do we come up with stories to make content come alive?

  • Ask SMEs for real examples
  • Reimagine classic stories and retell them

Example classic story: are you laying bricks or building a cathedral? Retold for instructional designers on focusing on the big picture and business impact rather than getting lost in the details of “order taking” for developing courses.

The Story Arc, as drawn by a Learning 2.010 Workshop Participant

Story Arc

Story Arc (table adapted from “Once Upon a Keyboard” by Karen Scott)

  • Introduction
  • Conflict/problem
  • Complication, rising action
  • Climax
  • Resolution, conclusion

TED Talks Storytelling Techniques by Akash Karia: Great TED Talks include great storytelling to share a message without the audience feeling like they’re being lectured or preached to

  • Get off to a good start. Don’t start with the presenter intro. Start with a story.
  • Add a surprising element. Conflict–two strong opposing forces where the outcome isn’t certain.
  • Be detail oriented, craft mental movies. Give sensory information. Show don’t tell. Engaging the senses helps learners remember the story. Specific details add internal credibility to the story.
  • Stay positive. The hero should succeed (usually). More motivational and inspiring to action, doesn’t leave learners on an emotional low.
  • Spark the right key takeaway. What do you want to change?

Psychological Learning Process. Make things stick.

  • Support attention
  • Activate prior knowledge
  • Manage cognitive load
  • Promote rehearsal and encoding
  • Practice retrieval

Stories help us activate prior knowledge, minimize cognitive load so more brain power focused on learning transfer.

3 tips for presenters: Stand up! Speak up! Sit down while they still like you!

Questions and Answers

Q: If not using bullet points in a PPT presentation, what do you use to display stories?
A: Full bleed photos are good when you can. Visuals to match the stories

Q: If you have hours of material to cover, how many stories?
A: Think about one story for every major objective

Q: Story-based e-learning with no audio
A: Use closed captioning. Just having the picture of a character and having that thread increases retention (cited Karl Kapp citing research saying 80% increase–I need to verify this stat)


Image Credit: The Story Arc by Wes Fryer

Story-Based Coaching and Mentoring Course

One technique for creating a more story-based course is using two characters who explain the content via a conversation. I usually use one character who acts as a coach and one character who is similar to the audience–same job role, same level of experience. In this example, the audience is new managers who don’t have much experience with coaching and mentoring. I wrote this course as part of Cine Learning Productions Custom Leadership Training (CLT) program.

I set up the story with a short video at the beginning of the course. This introduces the characters and shows the challenge the protagonist, new manager Michael, faces while coaching one of his employees. I wanted a scenario that showed a clear problem that could be solved through better coaching. If I create a good story at the beginning, I know I can “hook” the learners. I want them to think, “Oh! I’ve felt this same way. I’ve got the same problem as Michael.”

Michael is having one of those days. After finishing yet another coaching session with April, she still doesn’t grasp the basics of client relations. At his wits end, he goes to his manager, Pamela, who helps him discover a better way to coach through a session of their own.

After the introduction video, the rest of the course was built in Storyline with photos and voice over by the actors in the video. Learners listen in during Michael’s coaching session with Pamela.

Pamela and Michael discussing coaching

A traditional e-learning course probably would have used a single narrator reading a bullet point list like this:

Here are the reasons coaching and mentoring are important in our organization:

  • Employees are more likely to stay if they are supported by managers.
  • Developing employee skills reduces employee turnover.
  • It helps build our talent pool.
  • Building employee skills lets us promote from within.

In this course, the same content is delivered in a conversational style, as if the two characters were having a coaching session. This does increase the overall word count, but I think it’s more engaging than reading a list. Even with a really good voice over person, it’s tiring to listen to the same voice for long stretches; this method breaks it up so you always alternate between the voices.

Pamela: Michael, as you know, our organization really values good coaching and mentoring. Why do you think we view it as so important?

Michael: Well, it probably helps keep people here in the organization. People are more likely to stay if they’re supported by their managers and developing new skills.

Pamela: You’re right. It also helps build our pool of talent. We want to promote from within, and that means we need to develop our people so they’re ready to move up.

Michael: Right. I wasn’t ready for a management position when I started here, but I’ve developed new skills since then. At least, I thought I had…

In the eLearning Guild’s research report Using Stories for Learning: Answers to Five Key Questions, Karl Kapp describes a study which found that people remembered more from a brochure when information was presented in a narrative format rather than a bullet point list. Using stories for learning helps us make sense of the content.

The activities in the course either ask learners to reflect on their personal skills or respond to scenarios. This activity provides a scenario and asks learners to follow guidelines for providing feedback.

Coaching feedback activity

In the final activity for the course, everything is tied back to the beginning. Learners create a plan for coaching April in the scenario from the introductory video; they create a solution for the problem at the beginning of the course.

Scenario for the Coaching and Mentoring Plan Activity

The customer response to this course has been positive. Len Carter, V.P. of H.R. for FHN said, “Truly, these were the best online products for leadership development we’ve ever purchased. We’ll be purchasing more in 2014!”

Have you created this style of story-based course? Do you see opportunities where you could use it in the future?

Selling Storytelling in Learning

I got a call from a prospective client looking to hire an instructional designer.

“Tell me about what you’re looking for,” I said.

"Story Road"

“Well, I have a classroom training program I’d like to convert to online. It’s a course on pregnancy discrimination. Our company has added a ton of specifics about this to our employee handbook, so it’s important everyone’s aware of the new policy. We’ve already got the slides built, so it just needs to be converted to an online format. Everything’s all in the text on the slides.”

I suspect this needs a lot more than just converting existing slides, and I’m not convinced that making people aware of the policy is really going to meet his goals. “Hmm…how is that classroom training working for you so far?”

“It’s OK, I guess. We only have two trainers who can deliver it though, and they just can’t train everyone in the company. We’re spending a lot of money on travel for people to come to our main office too. If we can do it online, we can cut those travel costs, and our trainers don’t have to spend so much time on this one course.”

“That sounds like a great motivation for moving this course online. Tell me about the course itself. Is it mostly lecture, or do you have some activities or role plays or anything?”

“It’s pretty much all lecture. We always avoid doing role plays for issues of discrimination to avoid insulting someone. We don’t want people practicing bad behavior, you know? It’s too uncomfortable to pretend you’re discriminating in front of a room full of people.”

“OK, I understand where you’re coming from. How are you measuring the effectiveness of this training?”

“Just a smile sheet.”

“And how have the results been from that evaluation?”

“Fine, but not great. There’s been some grumbling that it’s kind of a boring course, but it’s compliance training–what are you going to do?”

“Actually, there’s several things we could do. Have you ever considered using a scenario-based approach to your e-learning?”

“What do you mean?”

“Instead of having just slides with bullet points and audio explaining the policy, what if we created a story about a woman who is pregnant? We can put learners in situations where they have to make decisions about how to treat her. Rather than pushing the policy information to them all at once, learners can look up the specific information they need depending on where they are in the scenario. That gives them the motivation to find the information, instead of it being forced on them.”

“That sounds interesting. How exactly would that work?”

“Let’s see…have your problems in this area been more with managers or coworkers discriminating?”

“We’ve had a couple of accusations of managers discriminating. Some of it was related to hiring, and some of it was related to making accommodations for employees who either have more physical demands in their job or work with toxic chemicals.”

“What if we had a scenario with a manager with a pregnant employee on the team? We can set it up with points in the story where learners have to help the manager decide what action to take. We’d give them a few choices based on your past incidents or common misunderstandings about the policy. Maybe there’s an issue where managers cut back on someone’s hours trying to be helpful and make it easier for a woman during her pregnancy, but the woman can actually handle the hours fine if she just has a stool to sit on instead of needing to stand all day.”

“That sounds more interesting than what we’re doing in the training now. What happens if they make the wrong choice?”

“Ideally, I prefer to show people the consequences of their actions rather than simply telling them. Which do you think is more memorable–multiple choice feedback saying, ‘Sorry, that’s incorrect. You have violated section 5.3 of the employee handbook,” or ‘Peg from HR knocks on your office door. She wants to discuss why you declined to make an accommodation for Rhonda during her pregnancy’?”

“The second one, definitely. I get that feeling of being called to the principal’s office in school just imagining it.”

“And that emotional reaction is part of what makes this approach work. It draws people into the story so they’re more engaged during the course, plus it sticks with them longer afterwards.”

“OK, I’m starting to understand.”

“Great. Let’s go back to the topic of evaluation. You mentioned earlier that you need your employees to be aware of the policy. Is that really the goal here, or do you really want to reduce the number of complaints and incidents?”

“Well, obviously we want to reduce the complaints. That’s the ultimate goal.”

“Do you have any statistics on how many complaints you’ve had in the past? It would be great to have a concrete business measurement to work towards.”

“I don’t have those numbers, but I’m sure I could get them from HR.”

“That would be terrific. If you get those numbers, we can set a goal for reducing those complaints and really show what difference this training makes.”

“OK, I can do that. What’s our next step?”

“Let’s talk about some more details…”

This is fictionalized, but it gives an idea of  how a conversation with a client could go to convince them to use storytelling in their course. Have you been successful in selling storytelling or scenario-based learning? How have you made this an appealing approach?

Image credit: Story Road by umjanedoan