The Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule as its also known, is a productivity hack of sorts. The idea behind it is: 80% of the effects of any given process come from 20% of the effort put into it.
To illustrate this in a UX context, it’s like saying:
- 80% of your users use 20% of your features
- 20% of the code causes 80% of the errors
Now, this rule is not set in stone. Far from it. Like other guiding principles, such as Hick’s Law, the Pareto Principle should be treated as a rule of thumb. There will be instances where 70% of the outcome comes from 30% of the effort put in and so on.
It is simpler to think of this rule as: a relatively small number of things have a relatively significant impact.
However, why should UX designers care? Well, this rule can be used in different areas within user experience design to enhance workflow and processes.
The Pareto Principle can help when it comes to:
- Feature prioritisation
- User research
- Knowing where to put your focus
Let us look into these more deeply.
The Pareto Principle Is The Antidote To Perfectionism
There is a well-known maxim that goes “done is better than perfect”. The Pareto Principle reaches the same conclusion.
Imagine a floor for a moment. 80% of the traffic uses 20% of this floor. It makes sense to focus your cleaning efforts on that 20% since the most people use it. You will not have a 100% perfectly clean floor, but you will get 80% of the way there in 20% of the time.
The floor is not entirely clean, but where it needs to be clean, it is. UX designers can use this maxim when crafting user experiences. An experience does not have to be perfect. However, you should focus your efforts on the 20% of where it is imperfect. At least then you will be rewarding your users with an enjoyable, pleasant or appropriate experience.
Perfectionism Favours The designer, Not The User
User experience designers can waste precious time fixating over minutiae that can have little to no impact or a negative one. How many times have you watched a company release feature upon feature that does not get used? Jared Spool calls it experience rot. Jared writes,
Experience rot not only makes design and development difficult, it puts the entire organisation at risk – Jared Spool
Adding features invariably adds complexity, and this complexity does not lend itself to a high-quality user experience. When designers add features without thought, they are inadvertently shooting themselves in the foot. Take Microsoft Office. Remember the inexplicably large toolbar? The busy user interface? The feature bloat?
Joe Warnimont writes that he made the switch from Office to Google Docs. He goes on to say, “the tools I use now are less bloated than software like Word and Outlook, allowing me to focus on creativity and doing work as opposed to formatting.”
Google Docs allowed Joe to focus on his creativity and doing work as opposed to formatting. He was unable to do work in Office because of prioritising the wrong thing and a departure from focus. That is on Microsoft. If they knew what their users were doing and what they wanted, they might have been able to keep Joe as a customer.
By swaying from focus, the word processor landscape became fertile ground for a newcomer to come in. Google Docs is so good even UX designers have found creative uses for it.
Do Designers Have A Bad Rep?
UX Lead Pedro Canhenha acknowledges that designers are seen as perfectionists and are even asked if they are in interviews. He writes in UX Planet:
Designers still carry with them the onus of always being seen as perfectionists, but with a negative connotation […] When going through interview processes, it’s quite common for a question to pop up that typically leans in the direction of?—?”Would you consider yourself a perfectionist? – Pedro Canhenha
Self-confessed perfectionist Emma Oivio is an interaction designer. She makes an astute distinction between perfectionism and uncontrolled perfectionism on Quora. UX designers have to strive for perfection to reach that “sweet spot of releasing something that is good enough, soon enough.”
Designers who strive for perfectionism can harm their team and the practice at large if it is unchecked. Moreover, is it possible to strive for perfection to release something that is good enough? This can have a potentially adverse effect on the user. A user is not looking for perfection as much as something functional that helps them achieve their intended goals.
When UX designers are blind by perfection, there is no room to look at the critical 20% that has the more significant impact. This problem is compounded in large companies and global audiences, where risk aversion is more common.
If product launches are delayed, as UX designers seek out perfectionism, your users will be the ones affected. Delays can lead to a higher churn rate and potentially leave a stain on your company’s brand. Plus, you might be focusing on all the wrong areas. So, what can we do?
Less Can Be More In UX Design
Atlassian recently updated their app Confluence Cloud. The release notes started with “we removed a few features this release, and we wanted to tell you why.”
With access to user data, it is easy to identify what your users rely on and what is important to them. Clearly, Atlassian identified features their users did not use or get any benefit from. The solution was not to cram more features in but remove them. It goes to show that less, really is more.
Kill Your Darlings
The Pareto Principle prevents UX designers from getting too attached to what they have made. Design blindness can result in a loss of objectivity which can damage the user experience. It also sours collaboration, which is essential in UX design.
If UX designers can learn to kill their darlings, by breaking emotional ties with the work they produce, the user will benefit, and Atlassian is a perfect example of how to get started.
Subtractive UI Is A Thing?
IBM designer Johannes Höhmann on Twitter uses the term subtractive UI. Slack, the communication tool, recognises power users.
As users become more proficient at using Slack, a tooltip appears. The tooltip offers users to customise the UI by removing components they do not rely on for a cleaner, less cluttered user interface. Slack empowers users to apply the 80/20 rules themselves. There is user value in that.
An MVP Is The Pareto Principle In Action
MVPs (minimum viable products) are the Pareto Principle in action. An MVP is an approach to software and product development.
The approach can be summarised as: build the thing you want to build with the least amount of features to engage early adopters. Once you have got those early adopters, you can start to learn from them and use this research to develop your product iteratively and incrementally.
When building an MVP, you need to gather research on your target users, their needs and goals. This research will give you the knowledge to work out the 20% of the critical and necessary features of your product to get 80% of the user satisfaction.
Oliver Loit writes on Medium about this combination of MVP and Pareto Principle,
There’s no point in going all in before you have some tangible data and proof to justify your idea. That would be like marrying your beloved right after meeting them. It’s probably smarter to date, start living together and then see how good’s the fit – Oliver Loit
An MVP is another antidote to the scourge of perfectionism. It is a useful tool to understand where you put your focus on the most significant impact.
Focused Research And Testing
The Pareto Principle means you can identify the top usability issues that your users are experiencing. Knowing the problem your users are experiencing gives you the constraints to work within to design a solution.
Jeff Sauro found that he could use the principle to improve his product. He writes,
The principle was startlingly accurate. Our research showed that 18% of our core product areas were causing 83% of our clients’ frustrations – Jeff Sauro
Not Exactly 80/20, But Pretty Close
The Pareto Principle can help you prioritise what problems to solve. The principle will highlight the most pressing usability issues that are affecting the most significant number of people.
You can then research further into those usability issues. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, let us say 20% of the code causes 80% of errors.
When you uncover the problems, you can go about fixing them with a different mindset. You know to maintain your effort on this problem area.
This approach will save time, money and energy.
The Pareto Principle will not solve every problem you encounter. It will not help your app rise to the top of the charts or make your website the most visited in the world.
What it will do, however, is offer a way to focus your energy and efforts when creating user experiences. It will help you gain clarity on what is relevant to your users and the business so you can set about prioritising and solving the right design problems.
(Lead image: Depositphotos)