Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services, Inc.

You’ve determined the number of hours each discipline needs to complete a project using some combination of industry standards, historical data, careful analysis, wild guessing, and gut checks. How do you now distribute those hours across your development phases?

What to Include

Obviously, the hours you allocate to each phase in your project depend on the activities you associate with each phase and the importance you place on those activities. Although some activities clearly belong in a specific phase (for example, pagination checks and proofreading in the final production phase), others might be placed in different phases depending on your workflow. For example, do you create graphics during first draft writing or wait until second draft when the graphic needs are better articulated?

This article suggests one possible division of tasks among phases. But you must closely examine your workflow and project parameters to determine where best to place each task. Previous Metrics Mania articles have suggested the activities that each discipline needs to complete within a project. When allocating hours to development phases, make sure each of these activities is accounted for within the phases.


Far too frequently, the Design phase is overlooked or underestimated when hours are allocated from the project budget. The activities and content created during this phase don’t directly generate pages in the final deliverable, and there is pressure to do the “real work.” However, clear and well-thought out design documents, supported by careful research and front end analysis, have a direct impact on the pace and success of the rest of the project. Don’t be afraid to dedicate 25-30% of your entire project budget to these activities, especially for brand new endeavors where your team might be unfamiliar with the audience or subject matter or when you are trying a new approach or creating a new type of deliverable.

  • Creating a project management plan. The project management plan summarizes project scope, defines the project workflow, and sets a preliminary schedule. It clarifies roles, responsibilities, and assignments for each team member and explains how information will be communicated among the team.
  • Conducting front-end analyses. During front-end analysis, your team learns about the users of your documentation or training and what those users expect and need to get from it. Through direct observation, interviews, and even second-hand information from others, your team builds user profiles that describe the characteristics of typical users. As the team learns about the content they will write, they identify the tasks and concepts that need to be conveyed to the user, building task lists or behavioral objectives that will guide the flow and detail of the content.
  • Writing design documents. Called by many names—information plans, content plans, training plans, description documents, annotated topic lists, and so on—design documents describe your final deliverable, summarizing the decisions made, the information you intend to produce, and the strategies you will use to create that information. If you have a reuse strategy in place, these documents indicate what information already exists, where it is located, and how it will be used.
  • Designing stylesheets and templates. If you do not have stylesheets and templates in place, schedule their development during the design phase so they are ready when your team begins writing. Even with well-established designs, you might want to allocate some time to review the stylesheets and templates to ensure all the project needs are met and to determine if any updates are required based on current industry best practices.
  • Writing a usability test plan. If you will be conducting usability tests during the project, a usability test plan identifies the goals of the test, the methods you will use, and the people you will involve. Creating the plan during the design phase allows adequate time to recruit participants before the test will actually be held.

Note that some of these activities, particularly front-end analysis and project management plans, are frequently planned as a separate analysis or assessment phase, especially in training projects that follow the ADDIE model. In such cases, you can expect the analysis phase to be one-third to one-half the hours you would allocate to a combined design phase.

First Draft

During the first-draft phase, you are typically preparing content for an initial review by people outside your writing group–SMEs, client, end users, or others. A common mistake is to believe that you must have all content before the first draft can be delivered. As a result, the majority of the hours are allocated to this draft, leaving very little to respond to comments and finish production. It’s better to plan for the inevitability that the first draft may be missing some information–content about a function still in development, study questions that you don’t want to write until you are sure the content is correct, or introductory information that will be easier to write once all the other information is complete.

When allocating hours to the first-draft phase, set a goal for completeness and plan your schedule accordingly. For example, plan that the first draft will be done when 80% of the information is complete, and then leave enough time in the second draft to complete that additional information. When you adopt this strategy and adequately take into account the production-phase needs, you’ll find that only 30-40% of the project should be spent creating the first draft. When looked at together, all work through first draft should not exceed 65% of the project budget in most cases.

  • Writing content. In addition to the actual act of composing sentences and paragraphs, this activity includes the detailed research required to fully learn the subject matter being written. This research might include meeting with SMEs, installing and using the product, searching the internet for information, or attending training classes.
  • Developmental or project edit. Developmental or project editing is a collaborative process with the writer. Editors examine the structural integrity of the product, looking at how well information flows throughout the content and ensuring that it is well supported. Editors pay particular attention to readability and consistency, flagging awkward and unclear writing, querying apparent breaks in logic, ensuring content is appropriate for the audience, and looking for opportunities to use figures and graphics instead of text.
  • Rework. Writers will need time in the first draft to rework any content flagged during the developmental or project editing process prior to releasing the content for a formal review.
  • Media development or specifications. Although development of media frequently occurs later in the project after content is more stable, the first-draft phase should at a minimum allow for the specification of the media, for example, descriptions of line art and photography required and screens to be captured. These descriptions help editors and reviewers better understand the text during the first draft review. In addition, if you are creating audio or video, include script development in the first-draft phase so that recording and editing can occur during the second-draft phase.

Second Draft

In the second draft, you are doing everything that remains to have a fully complete deliverable for a final review. All content should be written, all media complete, and the deliverable formatted and compiled into its intended final form. Although you may have as much as 20% of the content still to create and a fair number of first-draft review comments to address, you can still expect that the time to the second draft should be significantly less than the first draft. Plan for roughly half the time spent on the first draft, or about 20% of the project, unless you have delayed large development efforts, such as media production.

  • Complete content. To complete the content, you’ll need to ensure that any missing information from the first draft is added and all review comments addressed.
  • Media production. Allocate time to complete all graphics, photography, animation, audio, and video elements. Clearly, if media were only described during first draft, you’ll need to allocate more time to this activity in this phase than you did in the first phase.
  • Copyedit. In a copy edit, editors conduct a line-by-line check of style, grammar, language, spelling, and punctuation for correctness and conformance with any applicable style guides. It’s typically the final step before content is put into its final form, after all developmental and technical edits have been completed and addressed.
  • Testing. During second draft, your deliverable might also require functional or validation testing; for example, you may need to ensure that the steps and screen captures in the document accurately reflect the behavior of the product. For online content, functional testing takes on another meaning. This type of content frequently needs a quality assurance pass to ensure that links are correct and work, that media play, and that interactions work as intended.

Final Production

In the final-production phase, you are taking the steps to release your deliverable– getting it “camera ready” for a printer, delivering files for incorporation into the product, or putting the content live on a web site. Set aside 10-15% of the project for these final clean-up activities.

  • Rework. Obviously, this final phase needs time to address review comments from the second draft as well as make any final changes noted in quality assurance.
  • Quality assurance. Include any time you take to validate that information is styled correctly or for final proofing of print-ready copy. This activity typically includes activities such as checking page breaks and headers and footers, verifying cross-references and index entries, and ensuring proper numbering of pages, figures and tables, and ordered lists. In this activity, you are taking a final look at an information product before it’s released, looking for anything that might have slipped through earlier editing processes or been inadvertently changed during final production.
  • Hard-copy production. If you are sending information to a printer, allow time in this phase for creating pagination lists and verifying blue lines.
  • Go-live activities. If you are posting information online for electronic access, include time in this phase for loading the files in the proper location and testing that they work once they are live.
  • Project wrap-up activities. Often left out of the project budget and therefore often skipped is the time needed to clean up when a project is complete. Allow time for activities such as archiving files and creating a post-mortem report.

Dependency Factors

Just as some factors influence how many hours are required to complete the project, these same factors might influence the distribution of these hours. Even after determining which activities belong in which phase based on your standard workflow and the type of project you are creating, project-specific factors influence the division of hours among the phases:

  • Division of labor. The percentage of time allocated to each phase is directly influenced by the disciplines involved in each phase. For example, if you do not produce media until the second draft, only a small amount of the graphic artist time will be allocated to design a first draft, skewing the second draft proportionally higher since the majority of that discipline’s time will be in it. In fact, it’s best to allocate hours to phase by discipline. Although the general percentages discussed in the previous section reflect a typical overall project distribution, you’ll be much more exact, have a better idea of schedule, and be better able to track the overall health of the project if you allocate by discipline. For example, project management tends to be higher at the beginning of a project due to the burden of administrative set up–building an initial schedule, getting folder structures in place, orienting the team, and creating a project management plan. You might allocate 40% of the project management budget to the design phase and 20% each to the remaining phases. On the other hand, your editors may only be briefly involved in the design phase and much more heavily involved in first draft. You might allocate 5% of editing hours to the design phase and 60% to first draft.
  • Type of project. On new projects, design plays a greater role and requires a larger proportion of time than on an update to existing material. Further, if you are documenting a new product, its volatility might require that you allocate more time to later drafts when it becomes more stable and more information is available.
  • Type of deliverable. The type of deliverable (for example, print or online) and the type of content it contains (text-based or media rich) will also influence how hours are distributed among phases. For example, if you are not producing printed materials and having to deal with blue lines and inventory acceptance then you likely don’t need to put as much time into reserve for final production.
  • Subject-matter stability. The allocations described in the previous section assume that the amount of new content and changes required during each phase will decrease with each phase. However, on highly unstable content–products under development, for example–more changes might occur late in the project, requiring you to set aside a larger percentage of the budget to the later phases.
  • Standards. Having well-defined standards in place can cut back the hours you set aside for design, allowing you to allocate a greater amount of time to the drafts. Conversely, if each project is a unique work of art requiring new formatting and stylesheets, you might need to allocate more time to design than if you are using the same corporate style for all your products.
  • Methodology. In addition to workflow affecting the phase in which a task is completed, how that task is completed also affects the allocation to each phase. For example, if you are dedicating time to observing users or conducting focus groups and interviews with your users, you’ll obviously need to allocate more time to your design phase. You accounted for the greater number of hours when you did the estimate, but you can’t use your standard percentage distribution across the phases or only the estimate that 30% of the extra time you included would be in design, where it is all needed. Be sure to allocate such special tasks fully to the right phase, rather than applying a formulaic distribution.

Interpreting Metrics by Phase

The previous seven metrics articles have discussed analyzing each discipline to understand the steps you might take if one group in particular is off track with its budget. Each of these suggestions obviously applies when looking at your overall project health if a specific discipline is falling off pace during a particular phase. Watch, however, for an overall trend across disciplines. If everyone is struggling to keep pace, you likely have an overall scope problem: some assumption you made about the project isn’t true. Most often those assumptions have to do with the size or complexity of the project, but they may also relate to information availability or stability, your team’s experience and skills, or the review process. For example, final production allocations are typically based on an assumption that no new review comments will be given during second-draft review on content that was reviewed at first draft. If content that was approved at first draft comes back from second-draft review with new comments, you won’t have enough budget to finish the project.

In such issues of scope, your basic options are to cut back or renegotiate. There is little to be gained by urging the team simply to “work faster” or simply hoping that you can make time up in a later phase. For example, if design goes over budget, you might convince yourself that by taking longer on the design, the first draft will be so much easier to write that you’ll be back on track when it ends, or, if first draft is over, believing that the extra time was spent perfecting the draft so there will be very few comments or that there’s no missing information. Sometimes, your wishful thinking might even be true. But the reality is that when a project gets off track early on, it’s unlikely you will make up time. In fact, it’s more likely that each phase will grow by the same proportion unless you take appropriate actions.

Similarly, be wary of moving hours among disciplines. For example, if your graphic designers did not use all their allocated hours in the first draft, but the writers went over theirs, don’t “give” the graphic designer hours to the writers and expect the second draft to then stay on track. It’s more likely that the hours were incorrectly allocated to the phase than incorrectly allocated to the discipline. Your graphic designers will likely need the hours they didn’t use in first draft during their second-draft activities.

Tracking Pitfalls

In today’s fast-paced development environment, with the pressure to produce faster, a complete product rarely goes through development in a linear fashion with all content moving from one phase to the next. Instead, during most of the project, you’ll likely have bits and pieces (topics, chapters, lessons) in each phase. Early content will sit waiting for final production, while some content hasn’t even been written yet.

It is difficult to measure overall project progress when pieces of varying size are in various stages of development. If you track at too high a level (for example, one line in the schedule for the entire deliverable), you’re unlikely to have any idea of the project’s health until it’s too late. Even if you track by phase, you may not know your first draft phase is 20% over budget until more than half of your deliverable is already through second draft as well, with the high risk that it also is similarly over budget. Although it takes more management effort, it’s best in these situations to track each piece individually through each phase. Doing so enables you to determine exactly how complete each phase is and compare that completion percentage with the hours spent on that phase to determine the overall project health.

Keep in mind also that not only is this situation a tracking challenge mechanically, but it also limits your options if you go off pace. For example, if some topics have made it to final production when you realize that you are behind your estimates, it is more difficult to take actions like changing your media approach because the approach is then inconsistent across the pieces of the deliverable. You need to track at a level of detail that will point out issues early enough to take action.