According to Rules of Thumb.org (a site where you can waste a dangerous amount of time) a rule of thumb is “a homemade recipe for making guess.” I tend to think of them more as little bits of random knowledge that I pull out when I don’t actually want to think about things in detail. Whatever definition you subscribe to, web workers can benefit from rules of thumb just like anyone else. Here are some of the ones that I depend on.
When estimating a task, take your first estimate, double it, and add 50%. I learned this one clear back in engineering school, and it’s proved embarrassingly accurate over time. Just about everyone is an optimist when thinking about how long it will take to do something in their area of expertise. This is a good one to remember when customers want off-the-cuff ideas about how long their next project will take. If you have problems with estimates, take a look at our Web Worker 101 article on the topic.
The 90-9-1 Rule. This one was popularized by Jakob Nielsen (though he credits prior research) as “In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.” If you work involves any sort of community-building, you need to keep this in mind; you simply never will get everyone involved. But look back at Nielsen’s article for some practical tips of changing the ratio.
The Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule). In economist Vilfredo Pareto’s original research, the observation was that 80% of the income in Italy went to 20% of the population. But similar distributions occur in many places: for example, in designing software it’s usually safe to assume that 80% of your users’ time will be spent with 20% of the features (identifying and building that 20% first is one of the guiding principles of rapid development). On the other hand, 80% of your customer support time is likely to go to 20% of your clients.
The best developers are 10 times more productive than the worst ones. This one dates back to the classic Peopleware. Though it’s been argued whether the ratio is 10 or 5 or 28 or whatever, no one challenges the notion that there are superstars out there. If you’re hiring for a small outfit, it’s worth taking the extra effort to look for a superstar. It’s also worth concentrating on your own professional development so that you, too, can be a superstar.
2 interruptions cost you 1 hour of work. This is another one that dates back to my engineering-school days, though certainly there is much research on the topic, ranging from the discussion of flow in Peopleware to Linda Stone’s work with continuous partial attention. If you’re trying to get serious work done on a tricky project, then phone calls and your email program popping up “toast” notices and incoming Twitter and instant messages are your enemies. You can alleviate some of these factors by batching your workflow.
What rules of thumb do you rely on in your own web work?