The Pareto Principle: what we could, and should, leave out of ELT products

Image by Flickr user tominvest. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Image by Flickr user tominvest. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0).

This post first appeared on 27th August 2013.

The acronym MVP, or Minimum Viable Product, seems to be popping up in conversations with ELT publishers all over the place right now; and that’s odd, because up until about a year ago, I’d never heard a publisher mention it. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an MVP is a tactic used in product development to gauge customer interest in a new product or product feature. The idea is that you don’t build the whole thing; you just build enough to see whether people might be interested in what you’re proposing.

The MVP approach is used extensively by software start-ups, which makes a lot of sense: if you’re bootstrapping your brilliant idea, then you don’t want to spend any more money than you need to. An MVP in theory allows you to spend the bare minimum, get some customer feedback, then decide on how to iterate your product to fit customer needs and grow sales.

However, as Laurie pointed out in his recent post on Lean ELT Publishing, the term is often misused. He writes:

There’s definitely a tendency for MVP to be used to refer to something way too polished and expensively developed to be worthy of the name. If it’s taken a significant amount of resource to develop, it’s not an MVP. Even more importantly, if the reputation of anyone within the business could be negatively affected by its failure, it’s not an MVP. An MVP is almost supposed to fail – otherwise, what can you learn from it?

What many people seem to actually be doing with their MVP is applying the Pareto Principle. Otherwise known as the 80–20 rule, the Pareto Principle states that “for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes”. This magic formula has been interpreted by businesses in hundreds of different ways, some of the most common being:

  • 80% of your sales come from 20% of your customers.
  • 80% of your complaints come from 20% of your customers.
  • 80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your sales force.
  • 80% of your revenue comes from 20% of your product line.
  • Etc., etc., etc.

In theory, if you identify some areas where the Pareto Principle is actually playing out, you can make some smart business decisions around it (like, for example, firing the unproductive 80% of your sales force).

So, how does this tie in with the concept of MVP?

Many MVPs are actually examples of companies trying to work out whether they can get a viable product from a vastly reduced features set. It’s classic Pareto Principle thinking: Can I get 80% of the sales I would get anyway, whilst only deploying 20% of the features that I would normally deploy? And, in theory, it makes sense, because Pareto would state that 80% of your users are only going to use 20% of your product features anyway.

It gets confusing fast, doesn’t it? So let’s consider a concrete example.

Grab the nearest ELT coursebook. Open up a lesson and look at the lesson objectives. Bearing those lesson objectives in mind, read through the lesson and start crossing out (in pencil, of course!) anything that you don’t consider 100% essential to helping the student achieve that objective. Nice warmer activity? Sure, but we could probably skip it if need be. Hm, interesting text used as vehicle for the grammar point? What if we just showed a few examples in individual sentences instead? Ah, sweet, some video input! Shiny. Actually, though, it’s not really adding anything that I couldn’t supply with some good old-fashioned acting at the front of the class. Keep going and see if you can get rid of 80% of the content. If you think you could get the learner 80% towards the lesson objective, using only 20% of the content, then that’s a win for Pareto!

I’m exaggerating, of course, but there’s an important point to be made here. As publishers, we’ve been over-speccing our products for years. It started in print, obviously, with the endless grammar references, the irregular verb tables, the wordlists. So much information, all of it available from other sources, often from the same publisher, but commissioned and paid for nonetheless. Then came the CD-ROMs: expensive, often very well thought out and specced products, given away for free with no real sense of how or if they were being used. If you ask someone if they want a free CD-ROM, what are they going to say? Ask them if they’ll pay for it, and you’ll get a sense of whether it’s a true product requirement or not.

And in the era of LMSs, of massive online and blended courses, there’s no end in sight to the arms race of features. Built-in translation tools, offline access, voice recognition, iOS apps, automatic remediation, podcasts, games, live online classes, the list just goes on and on. And many of these features are essential to a successful product. But the real question is: Are we actively seeking out which? And, if so, how is that information feeding into our future product development?

I’d like to see a little more minimalism at play in ELT products, both print and digital. A little more thought into what’s really essential. And a little more time spent ensuring that those essential elements are really something special.

And what about you? What do you think we could happily lose from the ELT products we buy and use as teachers? And what’s the essential 20% that we can’t live without?

 

 

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