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?




  1. Nick,

    What a wonderful post – a post that asks the question so many of us have been asking for years.

    In a way, this challenge is not the fault of publishers per se – textbooks, by their very nature are imagineered for very broad audiences. Perhaps, the bigger problem is when we (teachers) believe every page, every activity, every gap-fill exercise has to be “covered” (and that is the key word here)!

    Teaching and the books used to do that teaching – has to be driven by the learning needs of the learners (“needs” is the key word this time). The percentage – be it Pareto’s 20% or our own 40% – will vary. The “principle” of needs assessment (and of teaching-for-learning) does not 😉

    Thx for the post 😉


    • Nick Robinson

      Thanks for the kind words, Tony.

      You write: “Perhaps, the bigger problem is when we (teachers) believe every page, every activity, every gap-fill exercise has to be “covered” (and that is the key word here)!”

      I can’t tell you how many classes I’ve observed over the years where I’ve seen just that — a very strict adherence to what’s on the page. I suppose on the one hand, it’s a sign of a well put together coursebook. On the other, it’s a shame if teachers feel obliged to teach everything on the page.

  2. An engaging text with a reward for reading that is built into the content rather than the grammar. Magazines and literature have been managing to engage readers for as long as print has existed. The RBK with activities NOT worksheets and if I never had anything else to teach with I’d do just fine.

    The only way the digitally delivered book needs to add anything is for the listenings and videos to be clickable and not need the extra CD/DVD/downloadable audio hassle. My heart sinks when the book I used to use replaces other editions with MY ONLINE XX study pal etc. Logins and fruitless hassle and I’ve always given up on even the bravest-right-today-I-AM-going-to-crack this day.

    • Nick Robinson

      Cheers for the comment, Nicola.

      It’s interesting that you’ve not had a good experience with online peripheral components. It goes to show that you can have the most amazing product, but if the access for users isn’t smooth and intuitive, people will just give up. I don’t think you’re alone in that at all.

  3. Personally, I think the key to good writing is that pretty much everything on the page should have a damn good reason for being there. Every activity should have a purpose (or more than one purpose) that feeds into the whole. Everything, including the warmer, should pay its way and add some value.
    Sure, you could just put some example sentences up on the board, do a completely decontextualised grammar practice exercise from elsewhere, and then set up a speaking activity about something else altogether, but I don’t think the students would feel very engaged or motivated. The whole point of a (good) coursebook is that it provides a set of well thought out lesson plans, where each activity leads on seamlessly to the next, going from (hopefully) engaging input, through a focus on language in an appropriate context, to a task or set of tasks where students are able to use the language in a realistic and personalised way. This is the issue I have with the notion of granularised content- a patchwork of bits from here and there doesn’t easily make a coherent and enjoyable lesson.
    This doesn’t mean you have to use a coursebook, a good teacher will be able to create their own lesson with flow and coherence, but many teachers don’t have the experience or the time to do so, and appreciate a recipe book to follow (albeit not slavishly).
    Where I do think ELT materials often over-produce is probably in all the add-ons, which seem to proliferate year on year. Some of these could certainly be granularised, providing content available to be used by teachers following more than one course, rather than reinventing the wheel again and again. And I totally agree that it would be useful to find out exactly what teachers do with all this stuff (if anything).
    But, for me, the essential stuff that you asked about is those carefully crafted lessons that you can pick up and use off the peg, or alter in any way you see fit, and they definitely aren’t replaceable by a set of texts and audio recordings and unconnected reusable grammar and vocab practice activities. To continue the metaphor, it’s like saying that because ready-made clothes don’t fit or suit everyone perfectly, we should start selling lengths of cloth and needles and thread instead. That might be fine for some people, but the majority would probably still prefer to be able to buy ready-made clothes.

    • Nick Robinson

      Excellent, insightful response, Rachael! Thanks for posting it. And I love your closing metaphor.

      To add one of my own, I was reading an old cookbook this morning, published in the late 1950s. It’s a paperback, black and white, with no artwork. Each recipe is short, sometimes only two or three lines long, but all seem eminently usable, more so, even, than longer, more elaborate and decorative recipes in more recent books. I’d love — if I had the time! — to do a similar comparison with coursebooks of past eras. Looking back to when those essential elements you’ve outlined above — and which seem spot-on to me — managed to come through without as many of the frills (and, I guess, costs).

  4. The print coursebook is a conservative medium due to its general nature. It is a tool used by many different people with very different needs. What is seen as the essential 20% for one user may be completely different from the essential 20% of another. Which means, by necessity, the book has to contain a great chunk of material that is not relevant for a given user.

    It’s something that makes crafting a coursebook (or, cringe, teacher’s book) such a challenge; envisioning the most common use cases, accounting for them in the materials, and then laying it all out reasonably so that it’s easily navigated by all types of users.

    With digital, there’s a similar challenge. However, if the design of the platform is responsive enough, we have a better chance of providing only that essential 20% to each user. Perhaps the most revolutionary thing that digital technology brings to language education is better discoverability of materials.

    • Nick Robinson

      Great comment, Brian.

      This is a real bind, isn’t it: “What is seen as the essential 20% for one user may be completely different from the essential 20% of another.” As you point out, though, digital content does potentially open up more opportunities to handle that issue.

      There are always going to be compromises, I guess, but it feels like we’re moving in the right direction on the whole — towards more learner-centered, relevant material.

  5. This is kind of where we began in 2001. The desire for every learner in every class to achieve a tangible (and real) speaking objective. Having focused practical content allows you to suggest it be used with other content and social tools that complement/personalise it further…i.e. curation.

    • Nick Robinson

      Thanks for the comment, Jason. Please feel free to add a link to your product here if you like.

  6. Nick Robinson

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. Proper responses coming soon!

  7. With young learner materials we’d probably end up back with something like the old Oxford Activity Book for Children (OABC) series which I was using again recently and is still by far the best YL course available. No songs (much better available elsewhere), no stories (ditto), no colours (students add their own), etc.

  8. Hi Nick,
    Your post took me back to the 70s and 80s, before the Headway advent. The books I used as a student, way before I began teaching in 1989, bore very little resemblance to the current orthodoxy.
    The Streamline series, Kernel Lessons, Strategies – just to mention a few – in hindsight look like they were written in the 19th century. Their underlying syllabuses were nowhere near as complete as the sorts of “multi-syllabuses” that Michael Sawn began advocating in the 80s. There was very little work on lexis, pronunciation and development of the sub-skills was virtually non-existent too. Not to mention the lack of “authentic” (whatever that means) material, grammar reference pages and so on. So, yes, “modern” coursebooks ARE better, there’s no doubt about it.
    But maybe the stripped down, “unplugged” coursebooks I mentioned at the beginning of the post encouraged teachers to create, adapt and supplement more. Most of the post-Headway titles are so good, so comprehensive, so teacher-proof that they might’ve helped to create what Jim Scrivener describes as “low demand teaching” – a phenomenon whereby teachers see their job as simply arousing students’ interest, setting up pair/group work and taking students from exercise 1, then 2, then 3… He claims that we’re over relying on the coursebook to do most of our teaching. And I can see where he’s coming from, though it’s hard to generalize, of course.
    So… will there be a bare-essentials movement in coursebook writing in the foreseeable future? Hard to tell, but my guess is no. I get the sense that – classroom implications notwithstanding – teachers like to know that the material they’re using offers as much as realistically possible, even if they never actually use half of what’s available.
    You know, a “just in case” principle rather than The Pareto principle…
    I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

  9. I once wrote a book with no texts at all. No listening, no reading – just speaking tasks and some cartoons. Might inspiring tasks be the essential 20%?

    • Nick Robinson

      Brilliant, Vicki!

      What was it called? Can you post a link?

    • Oh gosh, yes sorry. It was called ‘In At The Deep End’. We got the rights back recently and I’m wondering what (if anything) to do with it.

  10. Great post and one we’re grappling with too.
    One thing I’d add is that more minimal products can produce better teaching outcomes. At least if you’re a believer in Dogme ELT.

  11. Nick Robinson

    Great comment, Alex. Thanks for posting.

    It’s fun, isn’t it, to dig out an old resource from years back and discover that it still works so well. The definition of a classic, I guess.

  12. Nick Robinson

    Thanks for the lovely, long comment, Luiz.

    It’s fascinating to make that comparison between the pre- and post-Headway worlds. And it ties in nicely to a discussion I remember from a few years back on the Dogme Yahoo! group about whether there could ever be a Dogme coursebook. Perhaps that pre-Headway era was the closest we’ll ever get.

    That said, in an era when publishers are constantly seeking to differentiate their products from other, competing ones, perhaps there’s a market for the coursebook that takes its cues from that early generation: something more stripped back and unplugged. Something ‘feature-lite’. Who knows?

  13. Nick Robinson

    Very true, Lindsay. I’ll be interested to see how you guys approach this whole thing.

    • Oh gosh, yes sorry. It was called ‘In At The Deep End’. We got the rights back recently and I’m wondering what (if anything) to do with it.

  14. I am a cynic at times. The extra 80% was there to do two things: One, make it hard to get out of the textbook and use someone else’s material (lock-in). Two, justify high prices by filling up books with lots of colorful pictures (eye-candy). I would love to see something done without pictures for a change or alternatively with only pictures. The Pareto principle doesn’t make mention of the idea that the extra features are actually just gold-plating to add to the cost of the product by making it seem more valuable.

    Simplicity might sell- but it almost always sells for less.

    This 80/20 principle thing is a rage probably because it looks like software people are taking charge of the development process and to them lean development is almost a religion. This 80/20 thing comes as we begin shifting from books to the web and from authors to web developers.

    Still, lean development is a guide and it doesn’t dictate the final iteration of the product just the first. They will still find a way to gold-plate the teaching experience to death.

    • Nick Robinson

      Many thanks for the comment, Michael. And there’s nothing wrong with being a cynic, I’d say!

  15. I’ve been working in ELT in one capacity or another for about 17 years. To cut a long story short, I recently enrolled in a Spanish class run by my town’s adult education department. I paid my fee and saw there was an assigned textbook so off I went to the local bookstore to pick up a copy.

    I was somewhat intrigued to discover how basic it was. Black and white, a bit of grammar, a few vocabulary lists and exercises, and a little bit of reading here and there. No online component, no CD-Rom, no mobile app and not much else of anything really. And the teacher just uses chalk and a blackboard.

    And of course, it’s absolutely fine. I’m really enjoying it and making some decent progress in a shorter space of time than I’d expected. Maybe… 80% more progress than I expected from about 20% of the content I expected to see in the textbook. Go figure



  1. The Pareto Principle: what we could, and should... - […] The acronym MVP, or Minimum Viable Product, seems to be popping up in conversations with ELT publishers all over …
  2. The Pareto Principle: what we could, and should... - […] The acronym MVP, or Minimum Viable Product, seems to be popping up in conversations with ELT publishers all over …

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