Applying the Pareto Principle to ELT Publishing

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 2013, 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 a 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?

This post first appeared on 27th August 2013.


8 thoughts on “Applying the Pareto Principle to ELT Publishing”

  1. “I’d like to see a little more minimalism at play in ELT products, both print and digital.” Mm, this has an oddly familiar ring. I can’t quite put my finger on it… 😉

    But I wonder if there is another effect that counteracts the Pareto Principle, (and the one you allude to in your reference to the ‘arms race’), i.e. what might perhaps be called the Poker Principle, which goes: ‘Whatever your competitor has got, see them and raise them one’. So, if your competitor’s coursebook has got a photocopiable resource pack, you’d better have one too, and throw in a photocopiable test pack as well. And so on.

    I’m sure publishers would dearly love to go minimalist, but until their competitors do, it’s unlikely to happen. (Or until the day when a small private language school in Oxford or Bournemouth collapses, with great loss of life, under the weight of coursebook add-ons).

  2. Have always enjoyed playing around with the Pareto principle, but applying it to ELT CBs is a new one for me. There is clearly some logic in what you’re suggesting, but the remaining 80% (or less) is surely important context (and helps the T too), – not forgetting that most teachers will provide even more than the 100% CB given in order to tailor the materials to his/her students, or fancy, (even if some of the crucial 20% is binned en route…) . I guess it’s that 80% which needs playing with … .
    Nevertheless, good food for thought – thanks – and sth I might flag discreetly in my upcoming TB writing (!)

  3. Great tasks, interesting texts that don’t go out of date, and listening “exercises” a-plenty in a format that anyone can use on any device. Everything else is fluff and just gets in the way. That’s my core 20% anyway.

  4. If I had a penny for every time I had this conversation with an editor, a senior manager, a teacher, or with myself — and yes, that happened more often than you can imagine… 🙂

    Over the years I have learned that is better to look at this not from the angle of product differentiation; e.g. “my course NEEDS this feature no one else has. Let’s make it better, faster, stronger, shinier”, but rather from a perspective of real (not perceived) value to the end user. Value here is defined by the user, not by me and surely not by my editorial colleagues.

    MVP design helps ELT publishers approach product development in a different and smarter way, informing and shaping what the product should be, and the essential features and functionality it should offer. The main issue – and challenge for publishers is to be able to really listen to those 20% or so customers that will bring the most return to the business, take their input back to the development team, and be brave and strong enough to cut the fat out of the product features and components that matters least to them, or that will truly make a difference.

    At the end of the day, all ELT course books look the same to the end user.

  5. I think it’s great that it all exists; different resources are useful in different contexts. One man’s fluff is another man’s treasure!

    I think what is missing more, is perhaps more in-depth training, not only for the end user, but for programme directors and decision-makers, so that informed choices can be made regarding which of the range of many tools will be most useful in each context, rather than taking on everything, which tends to have the end result of stressed-out teachers and students, and, as you suggest, less overall learning taking place.

    Interesting article; thanks for the invitation to reflect!


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