In the last few years, the importance of having a great Minimum Viable Product (MVP) has increased drastically. No matter what your business, there are likely several other competitors in your market, and having a great MVP can be the difference between winning and losing. Today, applications and websites are developed quickly, solicit immediate customer feedback, and need to be versatile enough to make changes quickly with the demand. Many companies struggle with understanding the difference between a prototype and an MVP and why each is important at the right point in the development cycle. Prototypes and MVPs are not interchangeable; they are both necessary pieces of successful product or software development. It’s important to understand the difference between the two and how to build a great MVP so that you don’t become overwhelmed later in product development and distribution.
Which Comes First: The Prototype or the MVP?
At first glance, it’s easy to get prototypes and MVPs confused. They are similar, and one can’t really exist without the other, but they have different purposes, and that difference is the key to designing not only a good prototype, but also a good MVP.
When considering bringing a product to market, you start with a prototype and use what you learn from that prototype when you design the MVP. An MVP is a development technique meant to help create a new product with enough features to satisfy early users. Think of an MVP as a slice across, rather than a layer.
The Difference Between a Prototype and an MVP
The purpose of a prototype is to test feasibility and proof of concept and present that concept to small audiences (often stakeholders). A prototype also tests product need, whereas an MVP tests the solution. The purpose of an MVP, however, is to validate what you learned from the prototype, and with the least amount of effort, produce the first version of a functional product.
Key Factors in Building an MVP
What it takes to build a great MVP is really all in the name. Let’s start with the “M” for Minimum. You’re not going to have just one MVP, but rather different iterations of your beginning MVP. Think of building an MVP like reverse-peeling an onion or even those Russian Matryoshka dolls that fit inside one another. You’re starting with something small, and with each different iteration or version, your MVP gets a little bit bigger.
A good MVP is one that solves a single, distinct problem. Each iteration of the MVP solves the same problem in a better way than the previous MVP did. Be sure to not make drastic changes between MVPs. The idea is to improve upon the previous version by making the least number of changes.
Before you even start building the MVP, you need to understand the important building blocks and ideas of an MVP:
- Validate your MVP. You might have a great idea in mind, but if nobody wants it or thinks they need it, it won’t matter. You can validate your MVP by approaching a small set of your customers with a proposition, rather than an actual product. If you can sell them on the potential of your MVP, and they’re willing to buy into it, that helps to validate that your MVP could be viable.
- Figure out how you define the success of your MVP. This sounds simple enough, but it’s an important step. If you get to the end and ask people if they’re happy, that’s great, but it may not mean success in the more narrow definition. Because you’re solving a single problem with your MVP, it should be easy to measure. For example, let’s say that you’re creating an application that’s supposed to save 10 seconds on every process in order to save money for the customer. If you know that each second equates to a dollar amount and you know how much money your application needs to save the user, you can easily measure success by figuring out if your application delivered on its stated goal.
- Define who the end user is and what the goals are to solve their problem. The end user isn’t necessarily one group of people. You may need to solve a management goal of saving money, so you might talk to people related to that problem. But you also need to make sure that solving the money problem is done in a way that the product is usable by the person doing the work. In that case, you might also need to talk to people on a production line or customer service who are the actual physical users of your product.
- Story mapping. This is a way of collecting user feedback. You need to be able to identify what parts of your MVP are successful and those that are not. And, even if your product was successful in solving the problem, was it usable? If using your product was a painful journey for the user, that’s something that needs to be documented and addressed in future versions. “Pain points,” as they’re called can make or break an MVP. If there are two products that each solve the same problem, but one of them makes it less time consuming for the user, that’s the product that will win.
That brings us to the “V” for viable and the “P” for Product. It’s important to define who your user is and what your goal is for them before you start building your MVP. Whatever your product is, it has to work for the intended audience and their skill level.
For your product to be viable, it has to solve the problem it’s intended to solve and be usable. If your product doesn’t work or if it doesn’t fit into the market, it won’t be viable. Another important factor is the development staff or group doing the work. While most development teams have a range of experience and skill levels, all of whom are usually included in the process, the MVP is not the place for novices. The prototyping and MVP phases should be done by an experienced developer. Once the idea of the MVP is being put into production on a large scale, then you can involve less senior personnel. Part of the value of having a more experienced staff work on your MVP is reducing what’s called “feature creep.” Remember, the point of the MVP is to solve a single problem in the simplest way possible and still be usable. While you’re developing the MVP, it might be tempting to see ways that you could improve something here or there, or add a bell or whistle. That is not the goal of an MVP and that kind of thinking will sink an MVP. Experienced staff should be less vulnerable to feature creep because they know the value of a usable, viable, MVP.
Another important part of creating an MVP is doing your research before you start, and that includes market research. It’s good to understand the competition before you start. While your idea for an MVP may seem wildly unique to you, in all likelihood it isn’t and there may be several other versions of your product already on the market. Or, even if your product addresses a need that others don’t, there’s a good chance that your competitors may catch up to you by the time you release your version. You need your product to stand out; maybe it solves an issue that others don’t or it’s easier to use.
Striking a balance between “minimum” and “viable” can be difficult at times. While you want to keep abreast of market changes and your competitors, you can’t change direction every time your competitors do. So you need to keep an eye on the competition, and your finger on the pulse, but you also need to keep the goal of your own MVP in mind.
With each MVP, you need to collect user feedback so that you can test to ensure that your MVP solved the intended problem in a usable way and so the next MVP becomes a better version of the previous MVP. It doesn’t matter that an MVP is simple and not packed with features. If the MVP solves the problem it was designed to, the end users won’t mind that the design isn’t complex.
Building a great MVP is fast becoming a necessary skill in today’s market. There are usually multiple competitors in any market, and sometimes the differences between them are subtle. Those subtleties may be defined in the various MVPs and could very well be the difference between failure and success. There are several variables involved in creating a good MVP and even in creating a bad one. These variables all focus around one thing: being able to solve a single problem in an increasingly improved way. Having a good plan, good market and user research, and of course, good execution are all key to having a good MVP.
Building a great MVP takes planning and some practice to get the balance just right, with the hardest balancing act being that between “minimum” and “viable.” Getting this just right can take a few iterations, so don’t get frustrated if everything doesn’t go exactly according to plan during your first MVP. Recognize the importance of sticking to a good script, as well as being able to adapt and change course if necessary. And, of course, having good people in place to execute your vision is important as well.
Like most things in life, if you do your research, put in the work, stay focused on your goal, and keep it simple, you are well on the way to building a great MVP.