The Pareto Principle

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What is the Pareto Principle?

The Pareto principle—or the 80/20 rule—is a concept that states roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. This proven principle is invaluable in various fields—including user experience (UX) design. When designers understand and apply the Pareto principle, they can optimize their designs, prioritize their efforts and boost the user experience overall.   

Diagram representing the Pareto Principle, showing the 80/20 rule.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Why is the Pareto Principle Important in UX Design?

The Pareto principle’s origins came from the observations of Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto in the late 19th century. Pareto had noticed that approximately 80% of the land in Italy lay in the hands of just 20% of the population. This pattern of uneven distribution later was something that became applicable to a wide range of many other scenarios—including UX design—hence the name the Pareto principle for this valuable design tool.   

In the context of UX design, the Pareto principle suggests that a small percentage of features or elements in a product or website contribute to the majority of its impact. When UX designers find and focus on these key elements, they can place their resources effectively and improve the overall user experience. 

In a fast-paced digital landscape, users enjoy an abundance of choices. So, it’s become crucial for designers to provide not just a good user experience—but an exceptional one for their users and customers. The success of any product or service firmly depends on how well designers can accommodate what users expect—and how well they can gear their design offerings around how users feel.  

The Pareto principle helps designers and design teams prioritize their efforts and resources. That way, they can deliver the most impactful user experience in the final product. These are key areas: 

  1. Efficiency: When designers see that a small number of key elements are instrumental to achieve a great portion of the desired outcomes, they can optimize their workflows and use their time and resources more efficiently.   

  1. User satisfaction: When designers focus on those essential features that give users the most value, they can create a seamless and intuitive experience—and one that meets users' needs and expectations. This targeted approach mirrors an accurate envisionment of how users engage in product experiences. So, it helps to enhance user satisfaction and raises how likely it is that a brand will retain users.   

  1. Simplicity: The Pareto principle encourages designers to streamline their designs and eliminate elements or features they don’t need. This leads to a cleaner and more focused user interface. It lightens cognitive load and makes it easier for users to navigate and interact with the product—key aspects of user-centered design.   

  1. Prioritization: The Pareto principle helps designers prioritize their design decisions based on what impact they’ll have on the user experience. As designers focus on the vital few elements, they can make sure their efforts stay in line with the most vital user needs and goals.  

  1. Usability testing: When designers engage in usability testing, they often observe that a small number of usability issues or pain points have a large impact on the overall user experience. When designers address these key issues, they can make their designs more usable and make most users feel more satisfied. 

Image showing two screens.

It’s important to isolate which 20% of functions users use 80% of the time.

© Anjana Ramesh, Fair Use

How do UX Designers use the Pareto Principle?

UX designers can leverage the Pareto principle throughout the design process on the way to creating more effective and user-centric experiences. The overall strategy is to:   

1. Identify

Designers should find the vital few features or elements that have a profound impact on the user experience. They can do this through user research or UX research, data analysis and user feedback. If designers understand the core needs and preferences of their target audience, they can work out which aspects of the product or service are most important to them.  

2. Optimize

Once a designer has identified the vital few elements, it’s time to optimize them so they can make the maximum impact. This calls for the designer to refine the design, improve usability and make the overall user experience the best it can be. If designers focus their efforts on these key areas, they’ll be better placed to deliver a far more satisfying and engaging user experience. What’s more, they can do that without getting overwhelmed by trying to improve every aspect of the product or service—such as through every single visual element.   

3. Streamline

Another way to work the Pareto Principle into UX design is to streamline and simplify the product or service. When designers take out the features they don’t need, lessen complexity and emphasize the most important functionalities, they can make a more intuitive and user-friendly experience for their users. This improves usability—plus, it lightens the cognitive load. So, it makes it easier for users to do what they want.  

Image showing an old webpage from the Laterooms site.

Hotel reservations website LateRooms took data analytics and user testing to find that 98.6% of users didn’t use the menu, with 98.9% ignoring their prominent popular destinations content.

© Keep It Usable, Fair Use

Image showing the new homepage from the Laterooms site.

LateRooms redesigned the home page to concentrate on the function users performed most when coming to the website: to search. They accentuated the search feature and removed distractions to produce a clean look that proved popular with users, and that embodies the Pareto principle.

© Keep It Usable, Fair Use

Tips and Best Practices to Use the Pareto Principle

To make the most of the Pareto principle in UX design, designers should consider some points:  

1. Conduct Solid User Research and Analysis

It’s vital to understand the key aspects that influence the user experience; that’s why designers should conduct thorough research and analysis. Designers need to look at user behavior, feedback and data. From there, they can find that vital handful of elements that have the greatest impact on user satisfaction and engagement.   

There are techniques such as user interviews, surveys and usability testing. Through these, designers can gain valuable insights into user preferences, pain points and behaviors. This information helps them prioritize those design elements that will have the deepest impact on the majority of users.   

2. Prioritize Information Architecture and Content Strategy

The Pareto principle works as a guide for designers to organize and structure information effectively. Designers work to find those key bits of content and features that users rely on the most. Then, they can make sure that these elements are easily accessible and show up prominently for users.   

Designers can use techniques such as card sorting and tree testing to work out which information architecture works best. With this approach, it means that users can quickly find the information they need. So, it lowers their frustration levels—while boosting their overall user experience.   

UX Strategist and Consultant, William Hudson explains tree testing in this video:  

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3. Optimize Visual Hierarchy and Interface Design

In visual design, the Pareto principle is something that can help designers prioritize how they put—and emphasize—key elements on the interface. When designers give a sense of prominence to those vital few elements, they can guide users' attention—and make sure that they focus on the information or actions that are the most critical ones.   

Designers can use techniques like color contrast and attention to color schemes, size variation and visual cues to highlight which elements are important—and create a clear visual hierarchy. This approach will make users more able to scan and navigate their interface efficiently.  

4. Embrace Iterative Design and Continuous Improvement

The Pareto principle isn’t a one-time application—it’s an ongoing process of refinement and optimization instead. Designers should continuously check on the user experience and iterate on the design from the user feedback and data analysis they gain and do.   

As designers make a priority of the most impactful changes or improvements, they can make sure that their efforts have the maximum effect on the user experience. It’s an iterative approach that permits continuous improvement. It also acts as a kind of insurance that the design remains aligned with user needs and expectations.  

5. Take a User-Centric Approach

Designers should prioritize their target users’ needs and goals—every time. It’s vital to spot the key elements that are in line with what the users expect and optimize those elements—a key to delivering a truly seamless and satisfying user experience.   

6. Use Data-Driven Decision-Making

Designers should base their design decisions on rock-solid user research, data analysis and feedback. It’s vital to leverage quantitative and qualitative data to spot the vital few elements. These are the elements that have the largest impact on user satisfaction and engagement.  

7. Collaborate and Communicate Well

It’s crucial to nurture a productive collaboration between UX designers, stakeholders and development teams. That’s how to make a shared understanding of the vital few elements and their importance a reality. Effective communication and collaboration—especially between how design and development team members gel together—are a large part of how to align efforts and make for a cohesive user experience overall.    

8. Make the Most Used Features Most Accessible

Users should be able to find and use the most used features in a digital product—and easily so. For example, in a mobile app, designers can cluster or group the most commonly used features at the bottom navigation tab.  

Illustration showing two mobile screens.

The three features that users use the most for this Mobile Operator app appear at the bottom navigation, for ultra-easy access.

© Shirish Shikhrakar, Fair Use

Risks and Considerations about the Pareto Principle in UX Design

The Pareto principle indeed has a great deal to offer as a tool in UX design—still, it’s essential to think about some potential risks and limitations that may come with it:   

  1. Contextual variations: The distribution of the vital few elements may vary; it depends on the specific context, target audience and industry. So, it’s vital that designers become—and stay—mindful of these variations and tweak how they apply the Pareto principle accordingly. 

  1. User diversity: If designers design for the majority of users, they may end up neglecting the needs and preferences of minority user groups—by accident. That’s why it’s important to strive for inclusivity and consider different user segments. This is one way to make sure a comprehensive and equitable user experience happens. 

  1. Oversimplification: If designers focus just on the vital few elements, it may work against the overall user experience—and make it too simple. Designers should be cautious about this; they shouldn’t sacrifice important secondary elements that contribute to the overall richness and depth of the user experience. 

  1. Evolution of user needs: User needs and expectations do evolve over time. So, it’s critical to regularly reassess the vital few elements so designers can be sure that these remain in line with changing user behaviors and preferences.   

Illustration of a Pareto Chart or graph.

In quantitative research, for example, the Pareto principle is useful, as it charts the metric by category (the page views per page). A line plot graphs the cumulative percentage of the metric by category (the percentage of the page views due to the current page and to all the pages with larger page-view counts).

© Evan Sunwall, Fair Use

Overall, the Pareto principle is a valuable concept—and tool—and one that can greatly benefit designers as they seek to optimize the user experience. Even so, it’s crucial to consider the contextual variations, user diversity and the evolving nature of user needs. That’s a key part of how designers make sure of a comprehensive and inclusive user experience. When designers leverage the Pareto principle and apply it thoughtfully, they can create exceptional experiences—experiences that drive true user satisfaction and business success.   

Learn More about The Pareto Principle 

Take our course User Experience: The Beginner’s Guide.    

Read our insightful piece The Pareto Principle and Your User Experience Work.   

Find further fascinating information in Using Pareto 80/20 Rule in UX Design by Shirish Shikhrakar.  

Find additional valuable points in 80/20 Rule and Interaction Design by Anjana Ramesh.  

See more in-depth insights and examples in Using Pareto Principle Psychology to Improve Your User Experience by Keep It Usable.  

Consult Prioritize Quantitative Data with The Pareto Principle by Evan Sunwall for important information on how to leverage the principle.  

Questions related to Pareto Principle

Can I apply the Pareto principle in everyday life? How?

Yes, you can apply the Pareto principle in everyday life to improve efficiency and focus on what truly matters. In everyday life, this principle can help you find the most important tasks that will yield the most significant results—a great way to prioritize your time and resources effectively. 

For instance, in personal finance, 20% of your financial habits could be contributing to 80% of your savings. If you focus on these, you can significantly increase your savings without drastically changing your lifestyle. In a similar way, in time management, if you find the 20% of tasks that contribute to 80% of your productivity, you can help you prioritize these tasks and become more efficient. 

Here are some actionable insights: 

  • Analyze your activities: Identify which tasks or activities yield the most significant results or satisfaction. 

  • Prioritize: Focus your efforts on these key activities so you maximize output or happiness. 

  • Eliminate or delegate: Lessen the time you spend on less productive tasks where possible. 

So, it’s important to do the necessary research. In a design context, Author and Consultant Editor, William Hudson explains what goes into user research:  

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How can the Pareto principle help to manage design project workflows?

The Pareto principle can greatly simplify managing design project workflows—since it lets you focus on the most impactful tasks. This rule suggests that 80% of your project's success comes from 20% of your efforts. Here's how to use it: 

  • Identify key tasks: Look for the 20% of tasks that will have the biggest impact on your project. These could be crucial design elements or stages that define the project's success. 

  • Prioritize: Once you've found these tasks, put them at the top of your to-do list. If you can make sure that these critical components are perfect, it can lead to 80% of your project's success. 

  • Allocate resources wisely: Focus your time, energy and budget on these high-impact tasks. This doesn't mean you ignore the rest—but it does mean you give these areas the attention they deserve. 

  • Evaluate and adjust: Keep an eye on how your project's going. If something isn't working, reassess and realign your focus towards tasks that will offer the greatest benefit. 

When you apply the Pareto principle, you streamline your design process and make it more efficient and focused. With that, you can invest your resources where they'll make the most difference—which can result in better outcomes with less wasted effort. 

Watch as AI Product Designer, Ioana Teleanu explains how to supercharge a design workflow with AI: 

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How can startups leverage the Pareto principle for product development?

Startups can use the Pareto principle—AKA the 80/20 rule—in product development to focus their efforts and resources on what really matters. Here's how: 

  • Find the crucial features: Figure out which 20% of the features will meet 80% of your users' needs. Focus on developing these key features first. 

  • Prioritize tasks: Determine which tasks are most important for you to develop those crucial features. Put these tasks at the top of your to-do list. 

  • Allocate resources wisely: Spend most of your time, money and effort on those critical tasks that will have the biggest impact on your product's success. 

  • Get feedback early: Launch a basic version of your product or a prototype with just the essential features. Use customer feedback to refine—and add—more features over time. 

If startups apply the Pareto principle, they can develop products in more efficient ways. This approach helps focus on what truly adds value—and leads to a better product with less wasted effort and resources. It’s all about doing more with less and making sure every effort pushes you closer to your goal. 

UX Strategist and Consultant William Hudson introduces early-design testing, a valuable approach: 

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What are the limitations of the Pareto principle in complex design projects?

The Pareto principle—or the 80/20 rule—does have its limitations, especially when it comes to complex design projects. Here are a few key points: 

  • Oversimplification: It can simplify complexity too much. Design projects often have intricate details that don't fit neatly into the 80/20 rule. Every aspect of a design can be crucial—depending on the context. 

  • Neglects minor details: As it focuses on the 20% of tasks that supposedly bring about 80% of results, it might lead to neglecting those small but important details that boost a design’s overall quality or functionality. 

  • Difficult to identify the 20%: In complex projects, it can be a challenge to accurately spot which tasks or features really are the most critical. If a design team misjudges these, wasted effort on the wrong areas can rear its head as a risk. 

  • Changes over time: How important tasks and features are is something that can change over time—as the project evolves. What seems less important at one stage might well become critical later on. 

  • Relies on assumptions: The principle assumes a certain level of predictability and uniformity—something that doesn't always exist in creative and dynamic design processes. 

The Pareto principle can offer a helpful framework for prioritizing tasks. Nevertheless, designers who rely on it too heavily in complex design projects can oversimplify and overlook the nuanced and interconnected nature of design work. 

Take our Master Class How to Balance Simplicity and Complexity In UX with Morgane Peng, Design Director at Societe Generale.  

What are some innovative ways to apply the Pareto principle in digital product design?

In digital product design, the Pareto principle can spark innovation in some really creative ways. Here are several examples: 

  • Feature prioritization: Find the 20% of features that users engage with 80% of the time. Then focus on refining these features to boost users’ satisfaction and engagement. 

  • User feedback: Concentrate on the 20% of feedback that suggests the most vital improvements. This can guide your design choices towards what truly matters to your users. 

  • Bug fixing: Target the 20% of bugs that cause 80% of the problems. If you fix these, you can dramatically improve the user experience. 

  • Performance optimization: Optimize the 20% of your code or content that users use 80% of the time. This approach can be a great boost to the speed and responsiveness of your digital product. 

  • Marketing efforts: Focus on the 20% of marketing channels that generate 80% of your leads. If you invest more in these channels, it can raise your reach and effectiveness without driving up your budget. 

When digital product designers apply the Pareto principle in these innovative ways, they can make more informed decisions, prioritize their efforts wisely and make products that meet their users’ needs and expectations much better. 

Take our Master Class Navigating Career Changes: How to Break into UX and Product Design with Morgane Peng, Design Director at Societe Generale. 

How does the Pareto principle interact with other design methodologies like Agile?

The Pareto principle—AKA the 80/20 rule—works well with Agile, a design methodology with a particular focus on flexibility, collaboration and incremental progress. Here’s how they interact: 

  • Prioritization: The Pareto principle helps in Agile as it enables teams to isolate the 20% of work that will deliver 80% of the value. This guides the team as they prioritize tasks that have the most significant impact—and fits perfectly with Agile's emphasis on delivering value quickly. 

  • Sprints: In Agile, work splits into short cycles called sprints. The Pareto principle can sort out which features or tasks to tackle in each sprint to help the team make sure they focus on high-impact activities first. 

  • Feedback and iteration: Agile relies on regular feedback and iterations. To apply the Pareto principle means to focus on making great improvements based on the 20% of feedback that suggests the most critical changes—and so streamlines the iterative process. 

  • Resource allocation: Agile teams often work with limited resources. The Pareto principle helps in the efficient allocation of these resources to activities that bring the most important results. In this way, it enhances how flexible and responsive Agile is. 

When teams combine the Pareto principle with Agile methodologies, it lets them be more strategic in their work. They can then make sure they concentrate their efforts on areas with the highest return on investment (ROI). This synergy is something that enhances productivity, satisfaction and project outcomes. 

Take our Master Class Design For Agile: Common Mistakes And How To Avoid Them with UX Designer and Author of Build Better Products and UX for Lean Startups, Laura Klein. 

Are there any frameworks or models that combine the Pareto principle with design thinking?

Yes, there are ways to combine the Pareto principle with the design thinking process—and help problem-solving and innovation. Design thinking is a user-centered approach to solving complex problems through empathy, ideation, prototyping and testing. To work the Pareto principle into design thinking can help you and your team prioritize efforts and resources effectively. Here’s how it can work: 

  • Empathy and definition: Use the Pareto principle to find the 20% of user needs or problems that will have the biggest impact on design outcomes. This helps focus the empathy and definition phases of design thinking on the most critical areas. 

  • Ideation: During ideation, apply the Pareto principle to prioritize ideas. Focus on developing and prototyping the top 20% of ideas that are likely to solve 80% of the problem. 

  • Prototyping and testing: In prototyping and testing, concentrate resources on iterating the most promising solutions. This will help make sure that the majority of time and effort goes into refining the solutions that will make the most significant difference. 

No formal framework directly combines the Pareto principle with design thinking. Even so, to apply the 80/20 rule within the design thinking process can give a great boost to efficiency and effectiveness. This approach is a good form of insurance that design teams can strategically focus their design efforts on areas with the greatest potential impact. 

Watch our video on Design Thinking to appreciate more about ideating, prototyping, testing and more: 

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Hasso-Platner Institute Panorama

Ludwig Wilhelm Wall, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

 

How does the Pareto principle apply specifically to UX research?

The Pareto principle—or the 80/20 rule—applies to UX research as it suggests that 80% of useful insights come from 20% of the research activities. Here's how it specifically helps in UX research: 

  • Focus on key users: If you concentrate on the 20% of users who represent your primary audience, you can get the most relevant insights into user needs and behaviors. 

  • Prioritize research methods: Not all research methods are equally effective. Focus on the 20% that provide the most valuable insights—it can make your research more efficient. 

  • Identify critical issues: Often, 20% of usability issues cause 80% of the problems for users. To find and resolve these key issues is something that can greatly enhance the user experience. 

  • Efficient use of resources: If you apply the Pareto principle, you can allocate your time, budget and effort much better; plus, you can focus on what truly matters so as to improve the UX. 

In UX research, designers who apply the Pareto principle can help themselves to work smarter—not harder. It guides them to invest resources in areas that have the largest impact on the user experience, and so makes their research efforts more targeted and effective. 

CEO of Experience Dynamics, Frank Spillers explains the essential nature of UX research in this video: 

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What are some highly cited scientific articles on the subject of the Pareto principle?

Persson, J., & Nicklasson, E. (2022). Pareto principle in software: Feature usage and software development in relation to the Pareto principle. Malmö University.  

This thesis—by Persson and Nicklasson—explores the application of the Pareto Principle in software development, specifically focusing on feature usage within websites and applications. The study investigates how feature usage is distributed among different functionalities in mobile applications within the travel category. Through a combination of questionnaire surveys, website traffic analysis and user interviews, the authors examine the validity of the Pareto Principle in describing software usage patterns. The findings suggest that while there is some alignment with the Pareto Principle, further research and data collection are necessary to confirm its applicability. To understand and apply the Pareto Principle in software development can aid optimizing resource allocation and enhancing efficiency in feature development processes. 

What are some highly regarded books about the Pareto principle?

Koch, R. (1999). The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More with Less. Crown Business.  

Richard Koch's book The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More with Less has been influential for its profound insights into the Pareto Principle and its practical applications in various aspects of life. These include business, productivity and personal development. The book explores how a minority of causes or efforts often lead to a majority of results, and emphasize how important it is to focus on the vital few to maximize efficiency and outcomes. Koch's work provides readers with a strategic framework for prioritizing tasks, resources and efforts to bring about significant improvements in effectiveness and success by leveraging the power of the 80/20 rule. 

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Literature on the Pareto Principle

Here’s the entire UX literature on the Pareto Principle by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about the Pareto Principle

Take a deep dive into Pareto Principle with our course User Experience: The Beginner’s Guide .

If you’ve heard the term user experience design and been overwhelmed by all the jargon, then you’re not alone. In fact, most practicing UX designers struggle to explain what they do!

“[User experience] is used by people to say, ‘I’m a user experience designer, I design websites,’ or ‘I design apps.’ […] and they think the experience is that simple device, the website, or the app, or who knows what. No! It’s everything — it’s the way you experience the world, it’s the way you experience your life, it’s the way you experience the service. Or, yeah, an app or a computer system. But it’s a system that’s everything.”

— Don Norman, pioneer and inventor of the term “user experience,” in an interview with NNGroup

As indicated by Don Norman, User Experience is an umbrella term that covers several areas. When you work with user experience, it’s crucial to understand what those areas are so that you know how best to apply the tools available to you.

In this course, you will gain an introduction to the breadth of UX design and understand why it matters. You’ll also learn the roles and responsibilities of a UX designer, how to confidently talk about UX and practical methods that you can apply to your work immediately.

You will learn to identify the overlaps and differences between different fields and adapt your existing skills to UX design. Once you understand the lay of the land, you’ll be able to chart your journey into a career in UX design. You’ll hear from practicing UX designers from within the IxDF community — people who come from diverse backgrounds, have taught themselves design, learned on the job, and are enjoying successful careers.

If you are new to the Interaction Design Foundation, this course is a great place to start because it brings together materials from many of our other courses. This provides you with both an excellent introduction to user experience and a preview of the courses we have to offer to help you develop your future career. After each lesson, we will introduce you to the courses you can take if a specific topic has caught your attention. That way, you’ll find it easy to continue your learning journey.

In the first lesson, you’ll learn what user experience design is and what a UX designer does. You’ll also learn about the importance of portfolios and what hiring managers look for in them.

In the second lesson, you’ll learn how to think like a UX designer. This lesson also introduces you to the very first exercise for you to dip your toes into the cool waters of user experience. 

In the third and the fourth lessons, you’ll learn about the most common UX design tools and methods. You’ll also practice each of the methods through tailor-made exercises that walk you through the different stages of the design process.

In the final lesson, you’ll step outside the classroom and into the real world. You’ll understand the role of a UX designer within an organization and what it takes to overcome common challenges at the workplace. You’ll also learn how to leverage your existing skills to successfully transition to and thrive in a new career in UX.   

You’ll be taught by some of the world’s leading experts. The experts we’ve handpicked for you are:

  • Alan Dix, Director of the Computational Foundry at Swansea University, author of Statistics for HCI: Making Sense of Quantitative Data

  • Ann Blandford, Professor of Human-Computer Interaction at University College London

  • Frank Spillers, Service Designer, Founder and CEO of Experience Dynamics

  • Laura Klein, Product Management Expert, Principal at Users Know, Author of Build Better Products and UX for Lean Startups

  • Michal Malewicz, Designer and Creative Director / CEO of Hype4 Mobile

  • Mike Rohde, Experience and Interface Designer, Author of The Sketchnote Handbook: The Illustrated Guide to Visual Note Taking

  • Szymon Adamiak, Software Engineer and Co-founder of Hype4 Mobile

  • William Hudson, User Experience Strategist and Founder of Syntagm

Throughout the course, we’ll supply you with lots of templates and step-by-step guides so you can start applying what you learn in your everyday practice.

You’ll find a series of exercises that will help you get hands-on experience with the methods you learn. Whether you’re a newcomer to design considering a career switch, an experienced practitioner looking to brush up on the basics, or work closely with designers and are curious to know what your colleagues are up to, you will benefit from the learning materials and practical exercises in this course.

You can also learn with your fellow course-takers and use the discussion forums to get feedback and inspire other people who are learning alongside you. You and your fellow course-takers have a huge knowledge and experience base between you, so we think you should take advantage of it whenever possible.

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