In this article, Chris Bank of UXPin – The UX Design App details what a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is in basic terms and how experts think about it. Additional analysis, expert advice, and examples from over 20 companies are deconstructed in the Guide to Minimum Viable Products.
Today, lean startups and tech titans alike, are increasingly using the minimum viable product (MVP) as a starting point for building successful software products.
By focusing on an integral set of key features and core functionality for product development, firms can efficiently establish a definitive core to form the basis out of which the rest of the product can evolve. If they can’t get this right, they risk ending up with a product that SUX — an offering with a “Sh***y User Experience.”
Image credit: Lean Heroes
How the Top Product Minds in the World Think About MVPs
What Is An MVP?
Startups and tech titans alike use varying measures for defining what goes into an MVP, and many are still slightly misguided.
As discussed in our Guide to Minimum Viable Products, a common misconception is that an MVP consists of the minimum set of features deemed necessary for a working software product, with the goal of bringing it to market quickly. This misses the mark on several levels, most notably in the overemphasis on speedy delivery and time to market, as opposed to focusing on customer and market acceptance. Indeed, rapid development is of essence, but only to the extent that learning and research objectives can be obtained quickly.
As defined by Wikipedia, “The minimum viable product (MVP) is a strategy used for fast and quantitative market testing of a product or product feature. The term was coined by Frank Robinson and popularized by Eric Ries for web applications.” This definition is narrow — particularly, it’s too quantitative and product-focused — according to many experts. However, some of the noted purposes of an MVP below begin to open up a more significant discussion:
- Be able to test a product hypothesis with minimal resources
- Accelerate learning
- Reduce wasted engineering hours
- Get the product to early customers as soon as possible
Let’s look at what the experts have to have to say.
Expert Takes on MVPs
It’s important for you and your team to form your own opinion about what an MVP means to you, but hopefully the viewpoints of some notable executives below help you flesh that out.
Eric Ries, cofounder/CTO of IMVU and MVP proponent, defines an MVP as a version of a new product that allows for the most learning possible for the least amount of effort. That is to say, an MVP allows for testing actual usage scenarios with customers. To this end, expensive market research and subsequent product development is eschewed; instead, a rapidly-built product with a minimum set of features is deployed to test assumptions about customer requirements.
You’ve probably already heard this definition enough times to make you scream. So let’s round this off with other helpful perspectives.
Image credit: Build-Measure-Learn
Ash Maurya, CEO of P2P sharing site Cloudfire and author of Running Lean – Helping Entrepreneurs Succeed, recounts his experiences in building an MVP for his startup. After identifying a target group of users, he then proceeded to identify the three main issues they experienced with current solutions on the market. He was then able to build a solution to minimally address those issues, and drive early adopters to sign up via the product’s landing page. Fortunately for Maurya, the process was simplified through leveraging key functionality from a previous product. This allowed him to dramatically cut the time and effort it took him to validate his assumptions about the potential user base for his product.
Reflecting on his experience, Ash now emphasizes the importance of capturing customer value with any MVP. It’s critical to get the product right, making sure you have a problem worth solving. Using the Lean Canvas framework below, he highlights the 4 critical steps to nailing the product in your MVP:
- First make sure you have a problem worth solving.
- Then define the smallest possible solution (MVP).
- Build and validate your MVP at small scale (demonstrate UVP).
- Then verify it at large scale.
To understand market and customer risks of an MVP, see his post The 10x Product Launch.
Image credit: The 10x Product Launch
Marcin Treder, CEO and Co-Founder of UXPin, went through a very similar experience although his company’s existing product was a paper prototyping notepad while the current solution is a web-based wireframing and prototyping application. “Clearly, the paper products were cheaper to make initially,” he states, “but we honestly had no idea that our next version of the product would be technical — we were a few designers just trying to help our peers become better designers.” But he quickly realized how fragmented the existing solutions were and how much people complained about them. According to Treder, “An MVP isn’t the quickest or the most perfect product. Rather, it is a product with minimum development effort that creates maximum value.” He admits that his first product didn’t provide the maximum value given current alternatives today. But, today, UXPin is one of the leading wireframing and prototyping applications on the marketing. So he clearly made the transition.
Image credit: Practical Product Management for New Product Managers
Of course, not all lean startups will have the luxury of having a pre-existing product to massage into MVP form. In many cases, this is barely necessary.
Nick Swinmurn, Zappos co-founder, experienced this first-hand. In an extreme case of MVP leanness and agility, the e-commerce stalwart’s humble beginnings started with Swinmurn photographing shoes at a local retailer. He then posted the photos online and, for each online order, he would return to the retailer and buy the necessary items. In this sense, the primary objective of an MVP is to eliminate business uncertainty to the greatest extent possible. He didn’t have a product and acted as his own customer in the initial stages. In our Guide to Minimum Viable Products, we discuss how this tactic is a “Wizard of Oz MVP” and how manual labor can be an effective tactic.
Image credit: The 10x Product Launch
And it’s far more common for companies to sell and market vaporware (products that don’t yet exist or barely exist) — especially in the startup world.
Cindy Alvarez, UX for Yammer and previously Product at Kissmetrics, echoes that a common mistake people make is assuming an MVP needs to be a product. According to her, the goal of an MVP is to maximize learning while minimizing risk and investment and, therefore, a product should not be the only means to that end. By thinking so narrowly about MVPs, she has seen many people start by thinking about the “final” product and trying to cut features instead of doing anything scientific. To avoid this pitfall, one of her rules of thumb is following the Cupcake Model whereby you think of one complete experience.
Image credit: 7 Ways to Test MVP
She also provides some practical advice in executing on MVPs within teams. She claims there are two important problems that must be addressed head-on internally:
- Set expectations appropriately — No one wants to build something crappy and feel that they will never get the chance to make it better. Emphasize that the purpose of MVPs is to make sure your team isn’t wasting it’s time on worthless products and features and when something the team tests is validated, then they can and should improve it.
- Set your MVP target customer appropriately — Be careful about building for a mainstream audience. If you do, they may tell you it sucks and you’ll get the wrong signals about what you’re building. Instead, find customers with an identified early pain and show them your early, sloppy MVP that is supposed to solve their problem.
Steve Blank, a serial-entrepreneur and author / lecturer on MVPs, asserts that the Customer Development and Lean Startup methodology under-emphasizes the importance of selling a vision to visionaries — not everyone — while delivering a minimum feature set. From his observations, many people easily comprehend how to build a minimal product with few features (the Minimum Feature Set), but they fail to acknowledge that most people won’t like their MVP — how many people do you know who brag about a minimal product? Instead, they should be building early adoption and evangelism while selling a vision about how the world will work, and be so much better, with the product being built a few years out, starting with a minimal product that you can play around with and internalize today.
Image credit: Silicon Africa, 5 Characteristics of Earlyvangelists
Rand Fishkin, co-founder of Moz, seems to be more of a showman than the rest. From his perspective, first impressions matter — a lot. It is for this reason that he encourages others to take their MVP one step further toward being an EVP (an Exceptional, Viable Product). He claims to have seen a lot of MVPs launch that hardly produce significant value, and strongly believes it’s highly problematic. After all, there’s only so many times you can re-launch a product. In practice, Rand suggests making your MVPs in-house and dogfooding them internally and with a few customers. Gather feedback and iterate until the first internal and external users find that “A Ha” moment, then release it to the wild as an EVP. This may take an extra 30-90+ days to reach this point but, in his opinion, it’s well worth the wait.
MVPs are just a means to an end
There are many ways to skin a cat, but even more ways to deliver an MVP. Although each expert has their own twist on what an MVP means to them and golden rules they follow to make sure they don’t get caught in the weeds, the underlying message is the same: MVPs are a means to an end product or product improvement, not the end product itself. Make sure you don’t lose sight of that.
If you’re interested in more expert advice and analysis of MVPs from 20+ successful companies, feel free to check out in the full-length Guide to Minimum Viable Products.