We Don’t Know what We Don’t Know

The Idea - Original Oil Painting
The Idea - Original Oil Painting from Black Sketchbook

We don’t know what we don’t know.

This was a constant phrase used during estimation and planning when I was in corporate life. We would regularly be forced to come up with project plans and pricing based on estimates for work that we just didn’t have enough information about. We used a combination of experience, existing metrics for similar work (if we had them) and built in buffer for uncertainty.

It’s not much different with my indie business. Here is a portion of some of my estimates for launching the European/International e.m.papers eCommerce site:

Scope & Estimation:
Translate all site text into German (outsourced): 2 weeks
Convert all (12) wedding invite templates into A4/ISO sizes: 12 Days

Here’s what actually happened

Translation: It wasn’t until after the English text was translated into German that I realized my initial decision to use the formal form of ‘You’ in German (‘Sie’) was wrong. The familiar form ‘Du’ was maybe too intimate, but German friends later suggested a handy work-around by using ‘Ihr’ which basically translates to ‘You guys’.

This is a tricky issue, that even native speakers can struggle with. What it meant practically, was that we had to spend another week after our freelancer was finished, going through the text and changing every instance of ‘Sie’ to ‘Ihr’ making sure all the related verb conjugations were also changed.

I hate proofreading. I hate grammar, and if there is anything worse it’s doing these two things in German.

Original estimate: 2 weeks
Actual time (often called ‘Actuals’): 3 weeks

Template Conversion:
I had done a couple of these and documented the time it took, otherwise known as developing a ‘metric.’ With proofing and quality checks it took about a day. So, naturally for 12 templates, I estimated 12 days.


In the middle of doing my second template, I realized that the font I used for the design did not extend into a full European character set . There were no ‘ö’, ‘ß’ or ‘ñ’ characters typically found in non-English languages. Much to my horror I discovered this was true in about 60% of my other designs. This meant I had to go find copyright free fonts that were similar to the ones used in the original designs and re-tweak the layouts so they worked with the new fonts. That cost about a week.

Original estimate: 12 days
Actuals: 3.5 weeks

Doing anything you’ve never done before is fraught with unknown pitfalls and delays. Even doing things you have done before may not go as you planned.

The main point in all this is just a reminder that estimates are exactly that: estimates.

It’s helpful to remain calm and try not to get frustrated when things take longer than we anticipated, maybe one day I’ll even be able to do so myself; there was many a surly day in our household during this project!

2 thoughts on “We Don’t Know what We Don’t Know

  1. I just had this conversation with a friend, talking about my current big project compared to projects done in the past. Drawing 4 pages a week, start to finish, on 2 different projects does NOT mean that I’ll be able to do the same on the long-form project–I’m lucky to pencil 4 pages in a weekend and inking the 90ish pages hasn’t even begun.

    Metrics can only get you so far. There came a point when I had to abandon all thought of deadlines until I had enough done that I could see the finish line more clearly. I’m still not quite there but it’s closer!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *