Illustration by Prabhat Mahapatra
Time, money, and resources can all cause constraints within the world of product development. Challenges and roadblocks along the way can lead to deadline crunches as well as budgeting changes, making a huge impact on the final product.
Fortunately, there’s a better way to go about the design process. By creating a minimum viable product (MVP) first, you can identify friction points, fix errors, and avoid unnecessary headaches as you move through the process. In this article, we’ll dive into this valuable step and why it’s important for you, your team, and the business overall.
What is an MVP?
The idea behind an MVP is simple: it’s like a modest, stripped-down version of what you envision to be your final product, with only a small set of core features. You can then use your MVP to gather new data and test assumptions before you launch your final product.
Frank Robinson, co-founder and president of SyncDev, introduced the term in 2001. But Steve Blank, a serial-entrepreneur, and Eric Ries, the pioneer of the Lean Startup movement, made it popular.
Depending on who you speak to—designer, engineer, or business stakeholder—you may hear a variety of definitions for an MVP:
- “It’s the thing that the client wants the most”
- “It’s the minimum set of features that satisfies a given problem”
- “It’s the quickest version of a product that we can design and ship”
All these definitions are correct. MVPs help internal teams understand the value a product has on a business and its customers. It also determines if it meets their goals and needs, respectively. Each of these groups may approach the development of the MVP differently.
What an MVP means for the business
For the business, the MVP is about saving money. At the end of the day, it’s in a company’s best interest to create a product people love (and use) without spending a ton of money and resources developing it. An MVP helps you get there.
Let’s say that a company with an eCommerce website wants to reduce the friction of its customers’ shopping experience. They have research data that suggests people are getting confused while on the product details page. Customers are unsure of where to click to get more information about the product or how to view more options. The goal for the business in this scenario would be determining the best solution that also limits development costs.
What an MVP means for the design team
The design team, on the other hand, has adjacent priorities when creating the MVP. Their focus is on finding the simplest solution while considering the needs of the user. Using this same scenario for the eCommerce site’s product details page, the design team would identify which features reduce the most friction. To do so effectively, they would need to take into account the core functionality of the primary task.
For other scenarios, developing an MVP is about reducing “featuritis,” which is when there are too many features within a product. This can happen naturally as the team thinks of new ideas, but the result is that users end up overwhelmed.
What an MVP means for the user
Believe it or not, most people aren’t fans of products with too many features. In fact, based on studies done by professor Sheena Iyengar, there is a limit on the number of things we can choose from before we start feeling overwhelmed. According to Iyengar, the magic number is seven.
Any more options and you might start feeling decision fatigue, a term coined by psychologist Roy F. Baumeister. So, what does this mean for your MVP?
Ideally, you want your users to operate your MVP with ease. They should be able to complete a given task without any roadblocks or friction. In the case of our product details page, we’d want to clearly guide the user where to click to get more information about the product, without overwhelming them with buttons, options, and so on.
Executing Lean UX
MVPs are a core concept of Lean UX, an approach to UX design that reduces waste and encourages agility within teams.
Unlike traditional UX, Lean UX does not emphasize the deliverables and the full set of requirements. Instead, it considers a portion of the requirements for the final feature set. It also focuses on the experience of the design process. This is why a greater level of collaboration with the entire team is important.
Usability testing is also an important part of the process, with the goal of getting feedback as early and as quickly as possible. This allows the team to make quick decisions and iterate. Creating an MVP in the Lean UX model calls for a three-step process: build, measure, and learn.
As you’re building your MVP, consider how it will integrate with other parts of the product. UX research is an integral part of understanding this.
If you’re working with an existing product, a contextual inquiry may provide significant insights. A contextual inquiry is a research methodology that merges usability testing with interviews. It places the user in the driver seat while you observe and learn more about how they engage with the product, as well as why. This form of research helps you quickly identify problems within the existing product while providing clues to what should be in your MVP.
Ultimately, clarity of the problem supports a quick product build or prototype. During this build the code is not finalized and the wireframes are rough. The team creates just enough to test with users.
Once your MVP is ready, usability testing is the next step. This will give you valuable data to measure, such as how many times an error occurred or why the user hesitated when clicking on a button. Setting benchmarks is a good way to analyze this data.
For example, let’s say people spend too much time trying to find more information about a product on a product details page. The team could set up a measurement based on the time spent on the task. They would first establish the optimal amount of time required to complete the task. Next, they would make the necessary adjustments based on the usability test. Finally, they would compare the results to the benchmark created. Not only is this key to understanding what’s happening for the user, it also informs the next steps.
Learning at every stage is one of the key attributes of Lean UX. This part of the process ends one cycle and begins the next. It suggests what features should stay and which to abandon. If the MVP is a success, you’ll have well-documented findings and valuable data to work from as you continue building out your product.
Misconceptions about MVPs
Even though the idea sounds simple, there are many misconceptions about MVPs. The first is that MVPs are easy to create, which is far from the truth. Although the final solution appears that way, the process in which to get there is not. If the team is not aligned about the direction of MVP, there will be challenges along the way. A change in available resources can also drastically affect the development of an MVP. And although there are only three steps (build, measure, and learn), this cycle may repeat many times.
Another misconception about MVPs is that it only focuses on one feature at a time. While there may be instances where one feature is a primary focus, it’s usually about a feature set, which refers to several features that all support a product’s core functionality. Creating an additional button on a website versus adjusting the zoom feature on a product, tweaking the filtering options, and adding a button is the difference between a feature and a feature set, respectively.
A third misconception is that MVPs compromise core functionalities. This isn’t the intention. In the end, the product still serves its purpose while considering the business goals. If the goal is to provide clarity to a user while navigating a page on a website, that will remain the focus. The features used to reach that goal, however, are scaled down.
Making the case for an MVP
With these misconceptions about MVPs, it can be difficult to convince senior executives or team members to embrace them. Before deciding to focus on an MVP, the team should consider several questions:
- What is occurring for the users and the business that indicates a need for an MVP?
- What are we trying to learn?
- What is the impact that we are trying to achieve with the development of the MVP?
- Why are we creating the MVP now?
- What are the constraints that will impact the development of the MVP?
- How can we use our limited resources and short timeline to successfully create a valuable MVP?
- When do we want to launch the MVP?
Having the answers to these questions, at a minimum, will provide enough reason and clarity to create an MVP. There may be more questions based on the business and the circumstances. But once you’ve validated a need, the process of creating an MVP becomes much easier.
Of course, executives may still want data that supports the decision. Check out the book “Sprint” by Jake Knapp, which outlines successful case studies and presents clear data on the high return-on-investment (ROI) of MVPs.
If you’re having trouble getting your team on board, a well-defined roadmap and clear objectives may help. Knowing the main objectives will make their lives much during the design process.
Including MVPs as part of your process ultimately helps you develop a product that is useful and valuable to your user. And isn’t that the goal? The more research, considerations, and testing you put into a product, the better your chances of achieving this.
And with so many products entering the marketplace each year, we consider it a step you can’t ignore. An MVP helps you cut through the noise and connect directly with the customers. It can be a game-changer for a company if done with clear intent and a solid understanding of what it is.