Learner Experience DesignLearning and DevelopmentHow long will it take? Instructional design primer

August 20, 2017by Reva McPollom0

When considering custom training development, “How long will it take?” is often one of the client’s first questions. This is true whether you’re a consultant or member of a learning and development team. Project sponsors and clients need to know how long development will take so they can plan budgeting, staffing, and roll outs accordingly. And of course, everybody wants training fast, good, and cheap. But as my good friend and mentor from my early consulting days, Joe, used to tell me, pick two. If it’s fast and good, it won’t be cheap. If it’s good and cheap, it won’t be fast.

As instructional designers and technologists, our focus is less on getting it done cheaply and more on the training goals. What is our client’s problem and how will we solve it? Since solving problems requires analysis and evaluation – not just design and development – estimating that total amount of time where a client will require instructional design support can be a challenge, especially if the client lacks an internal team to handle implementation and evaluation. Still, there are some standards and considerations that I will share that can help you get as accurate an estimate as possible.

Traditional standards

I hate to date myself, but back in the 90’s and early aughts, we based estimates on one hour of seat time. One hour of completed training is still a common measure to use, although defining an hour of training is more subjective than it used to be. When training was delivered in a classroom setting, most clients understood what comprised an hour of training. They understood the materials required. So if you submitted a proposal for 40 development hours per one hour of classroom training – which was fairly standard – the client knew what to expect and whether the estimate was reasonable. In modern environments, expectations can vary depending on the delivery mode (face-to-face, blended, or fully online). Estimates are often presented as ratios of development time to finished hour and can vary widely. So let’s look at some of those considerations.

Considerations in creating estimates

Factors to consider in developing an estimate include the complexity of content, the availability of existing content or other assets, the level of interactivity, and the experience of the designers (Ferriman, 2015).  Drawing on expert analysis within the industry, development times range from 48:1 to 500:1, with an average development time of 220:1 (Clark, 2015; Ferriman, 2015; Kapp & Defelice, 2009).

At Reva Digital, we start by looking at the type of project: face-to-face, self-paced elearning, instructor facilitated elearning, or a blended approach. Delivery mode becomes the basis for determining what an hour of completed training looks like. The components for one hour of face-to-face training differ significantly from one hour of self-paced elearning, for example. Then we consider the complexity of the topic: Are we providing an introductory level training on a familiar topic or are we teaching the physics of star formation and death? (Somebody has to do it!) Complex topics may require a subject matter expert (SME), driving up development time.

Furthermore, availability of content can save time on a project if the client has existing materials or research available. Otherwise, the consultant or an SME will need to factor in research time. For all modes of delivery, the desired level of interactivity is important. Highly interactive courses that include discussions, case studies, simulations, and so forth take longer to develop than medium (knowledge checks) or low (lectures or “page turners”) levels of interactivity. Add in elements like multimedia, gaming, or simulations and development time increases.

The skill level of the available development team factors in as well. Part of our process at Reva Digital is to match our instructional designers to projects based on the skills needed. While the instructional design process is standard, a designer with mostly face-to-face experience is better suited to developing classroom training while a designer with a multimedia background  will do better creating elearning. Another part of our process is blending ADDIE with Agile and giving clients the option to engage us on a subscription rather than a project basis, which allows the client greater flexibility and removes the potential for scope creep from the equation.

The experienced approach

Numerous organizations and consultants have attempted to come up with calculations for project estimates. But two studies have emerged as benchmarks in the field. One is from the Chapman Alliance in 2010, while the other, by Kapp and Felice, has been repeated in 2003 and 2009 and published by the Association for Talent Development (ATD). Both account for the considerations discussed here and other relevant factors, and both estimate time as a ratio of development to completed hour of instruction. Even a less experienced instructional designer can use these or similar studies confidently to develop a reasonable estimate of development time.

Professional firms, like Reva Digital, and consultants who work exclusively in the training and learning spaces can also rely on past experience to formulate a reasonable estimate. We’ve likely worked on similar projects and have a good feel for the required level of effort. We have a point of reference on which to base project calculations.

What does it all mean?

In a phrase, it depends. Development times can vary, sometimes wildly, for similar types of projects. But as learning experts, we have to be able to provide clients with a reasonable estimate of the expected effort. So what it really means is having reliable benchmarks for estimating development time, but also being prepared with the relevant questions for your client. This is why the analysis phase is so important. The project requirements and scope must be clear and precise, well documented, and agreed upon by all parties. Getting some clients to clearly express their training needs and desires can be daunting; however, discussing and documenting the client’s needs and expectations frankly and thoroughly will produce a much more reliable estimate.


Clark, D. (2015, September 22). Estimating costs and time in instructional design. Retrieved from http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/costs.html

Ferriman, J. (2015, June 22). Estimating elearning development time [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.learndash.com/estimating-elearning-development-time/

Kapp, K., & Defelice, R. (2009, August 31). Time to develop one hour of training [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.td.org/Publications/Newsletters/Learning-Circuits/Learning-Circuits-Archives/2009/08/Time-to-Develop-One-Hour-of-Training


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