Overwhelmed with making a big decision? Pareto it

4 minute read

I was recently on the search for my next laptop after I handed down my longstanding Lenovo ThinkPad to my nephew. Deciding on one really put my minimalism values to test. There are so many parts to understand and form an opinion on. I found that the deeper you go into the rabbit-hole of internet reviews about different laptops, the harder it gets to come out of it with a decision. I needed help. So I went to my trusted ally - Pareto.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Before that, some context about me as a customer. I am not locked into any brand ecosystem. I was open to the entire available spectrum of laptops at the beginning. Such an open-ended starting point also meant processing an overwhelming amount of information with no reliable framework to compare. Which brands should I consider? How much should my laptop weigh? What screen size and type should I opt for? How much processing capacity and memory do I need now and in the future? Do I need a graphics card? What is a reasonable price? The list goes on. It was clear I needed to make trade-offs. It was time to Pareto it and avoid the analysis paralysis now and possible buyer’s remorse later.

It was clear I needed to make trade-offs. It was time to Pareto it.

Pareto’s 80-20 rule asserts that 80% of outcomes (outputs) result from 20% of all causes (inputs). The beauty of this simple yet elegant rule is that you can extend the essence of it to a wide range of areas. In any decision-making scenario, one can tweak this to identify the 20% information that will have an 80% impact on stated objectives. Simply put, this principle drives clarity on what matters the most and enables a bias for action.

Pareto guiding my Laptop Purchase

In this example of purchasing a laptop, I first listed down my use cases and categorized the few product features I absolutely needed, wanted, and would be great to have. I researched and went through many online reviews like this one by Forbes. Then, I penned down (and quantified wherever possible) my minimum requirements on the core product features of most importance to me.

As an example, here are some notes from my scratchpad.

What am I looking for? (in simple words): smooth programming flow, data science, video calls, writing, apps, travel light, look slick

  • Portable (thin and light), powerful (processing capacity) notebook that is tried and tested (from user reviews)
  • 14-16 inch screen with at least HD display. I was clear I did NOT want a touch screen (costlier and drains battery without significant value-add for my use cases)
  • Hardware minimum specifications: 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD
  • Cost: a maximum budget of Rs Y (arrived at after some primary market research)
  • Ports: okay with using a convertor
  • Good keyboard and a comfortable track pad to write and code more
  • Durable (should serve me 4 years at the least)
  • Weigh below 1.5 kgs, not bulky looking
  • UHD+ 15 inch screen
  • Hardware specifications: 32GB RAM, 512GB+ SSD, Nvidia Graphics Card
  • Cost: 80% of my max budget Y
  • Looks: Slick and not corporate-y looking
  • Ports: USB-A and USB-C, HDMI

Great to have

  • Weigh below 1.2 kgs
  • Bezel-less experience of the screen
  • Cost: Below 80% of my max budget (or find special offers)
  • 12+ hours of battery life

This sample list is only to illustrate the clarification step. During the research I further added, removed, and updated the points.

I was also aware of my biases

  • Happy working on Ubuntu via the Windows Subsystem for Linux (WSL2) and the new Windows Terminal
  • Microsoft pivoting from their old ways and embracing Open Source by acquiring GitHub (one of my favorite products), bringing in Python creator Guido Van Rossum, releasing WSL2, and making VS Code open source played a role in avoiding a blind bias towards Apple’s legacy high-quality products and ecosystem
  • Happy with my Android-based phone
  • Exposure to Apple users who have had to shell out a lot of money on repairs and to stay within the Apple ecosystem

This process helped me become clearer about what I was not willing to compromise on and the trade-offs I had to make.

Example of a trade-off: I wanted a USB-A & HMDI port. But the laptop I arrived at that met most of my other important criteria came with only USB-C. I was okay solving this by buying a convertor.

After a few such rounds of filtering and trade-off handling, I finally picked Dell XPS 15 over MacBook 16 and Lenovo X1 and purchased it on a Black Friday sale.

Pareto Principle - a handy tool for Product Managers

I use the example of a big ticket purchase decision only as an example here. We can apply the Pareto principle in most decision-making situations where you have some time and multiple data points to interpret and analyze. I would advise against forcing the model on all decisions. Sometimes it is overkill. Sometimes it it is extremely helpful. Balance time, cost and quality/impact to know where it makes sense to invoke Pareto.

Prioritizing features and grooming the backlog is an important activity for Product Managers. The Pareto Principle comes in handy here to drive clarity on what matters the most. Focusing on a North Star metric (Every Product Needs a North Star Metric - by Amplitude) is often more valuable than optimizing local KPIs with a myopic focus.

As a PM, you do not work in isolation (like with purchasing your laptop). You need to communicate and negotiate with other stakeholders about their competing priorities. The Pareto method of decision-making allows you to strengthen your communication with focus and consistency.

So, the next time you face a situation where you have to decide or prioritize - Pareto it!

Update (15 Feb 2022): Context - Why I’m a fan of frameworks?

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