If you’re interested in product development, you’ve likely heard about the concept of a Minimum Viable Product, or MVP. Launching an MVP first rather than a complex, feature-complete product is a way to quickly launch a product to users and get feedback on how to improve it. This results in less wasted time and fewer wasted resources in getting to a product your customers will love.
What is a Minimum Viable Product (MVP)?
A Minimum Viable Product is the simplest possible expression of your product that still delivers on your core user need.
In his book The Lean Startup, Eric Riess defines the Minimum Viable Product as “a version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learnings about customers with the least effort.”
What’s the alternative to an MVP?
To understand the concept of an MVP, it’s helpful to review the traditional product development process. Prior to the popularization of the MVP strategy, a product creator would come up with an idea and fully develop a product before releasing it to the market. Since there’s no feedback from actual users prior to launch, this can result in a product that flops, either because it wasn’t addressing a compelling user need or because the solution wasn’t effective or appealing to users. The company or creator might then choose to offset the lack of user interest by investing in pricey sales and marketing strategies.
The key downsides here are significant wasted time and resources, and the high likelihood of creating a product that doesn’t appeal to your customers. Even in the cases of a successful traditional product launch, spending time trying to get your product perfect before releasing it could result in losing a first-mover advantage, letting a competitor come to the market first with a solution that’s tackling the same problem.
At its core, deciding to first launch a minimum viable product is about being realistic and being humble. No matter how smart or dedicated you are, you can never be certain that your initial idea for a product will be successful. Starting with an MVP helps you validate your core idea and build it into the best product possible.
Examples of MVPS
Many prominent tech companies started as MVPs.
Take Uber. Today, Uber is quite a complex product. When calling an Uber, riders can choose a basic car, a premium car, an SUV, or even a shared ride with other passengers.
However, when Uber first started as UberCab in 2009, it had one offering: a luxury “black car” you could call via a mobile app. Focusing on one offering in one market allowed Uber to validate that theirs was a service people wanted, and they expanded from there, adding additional offerings based on customer feedback.
Similarly, Airbnb started out not with the thousands of accommodation listings around the world you’ll see on their site today, but a place where travelers could book exactly one accommodation: an air mattress on the founders’ living room floor. The early prototype helped Airbnb’s founders better understand the needs of their user, and helped it become one of the best-known and most successful travel services in the world.
Different types of MVP
All Minimum Viable Products have one thing in common: they’re faster and easier for the product developer to create and release, and they offer the most essential functionality of the end product. However, there are a few different distinct subtypes.
The most common type of MVP is a much more basic and limited version of the final product, something which is both faster for the developer to create and a worse experience for the user. An example of this type of MVP is Spotify, which started with a very small catalogue of songs to validate their idea that people would be just as happy to stream music as download it, if streaming worked well. Once they were certain of users’ interest, they invested in the partnerships and acquisitions that would allow users to stream almost any song you can imagine.
The second type of MVP is commonly called a Wizard of Oz MVP or a Concierge MVP. These approaches use non-technological ways of offering a service you ultimate hope to offer via technology. Like the Spotify example, this is much faster for the product developer to create and release, but unlike Spotify’s MVP, a Concierge or Wizard of Oz MVP might actually provide a better experience for users than the ultimate product the creator hopes to make.
One example is Rent the Runway, a popular online clothing rental company for women. At launch, founders Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss offered an in-person service where customers could come and try on the dresses before renting them. Creating this real-world dressing room experience took much less time than building an entire technical solution for reserving clothes online and shipping them back and forth to customers. So many customers ended up renting clothes via the in-person try-on method that the founders were confident that it was worth building out a scaled solution.
Minimum Viable Products vs. Proofs of Concept
Several popularly cited examples of MVPs would be more accurately described as Proofs of Concept. For instance: Dropbox is often celebrated for its method for initially validating user interest. Before launching the product, founder Drew Houston created a short video about common frustrations with syncing and sharing files, and how Dropbox solved them. He uploaded the video to the website Digg and was astounded by the response: soon 75,000 people had signed up to beta test Dropbox.
While this accomplished a major goal of an MVP by validating that users were interested in the solution to the problems of sharing and syncing large files, it’s not truly an MVP as we think about them here, as viewers of the video were not actually using the product itself. However, seeing this level of interest in Dropbox made Houston confident enough to put the engineering resources in required to make his beta product a reality.
How to create a minimum viable product
Every product starts with an idea. A good idea consists of a problem you’re trying to solve for a specific audience. Having clarity on the precise problem and the precise audience you’ll focus on is essential for deciding what is the minimum viable version of your product. Once you know what problem you want to tackle, you’re ready to use the tools of design thinking to brainstorm possible solutions. One or more of these solutions will ultimately become your product.
Getting to minimum
Once you have an idea of what problem you’re solving for which audience, you’ll come up with the idea for your solution. The final version of this product will likely have a number of features and be available on a number of platforms.
To create a minimum viable version of this product, hone in on the core essential value your product provides and create the simplest way to deliver on this value. This may mean launching on only one platform or in only one geographical region. It may also mean finding a way to deliver your essential value that takes almost no engineering resources. You could make a prototype of your app or website to share with users, or even try to find a way to deliver the essential value of your app without creating an app at all. For instance, if your ultimate product is an app that recommends restaurants based on a user’s dietary restrictions, an MVP could be a basic blog, Facebook page, or email list that would allow you to validate whether you were addressing a major need and how users liked your content.
Beta testing and getting feedback
The entire purpose of a minimum viable product is getting customer feedback. To manage this process, many companies will enter a beta testing phase to release their product to a limited number of users and collect feedback. These users are often early adopters or family and friends—people who will understand that your product isn’t quite ready for the mass market, but are interested in giving you feedback to help you get there.
Using the techniques of user research, try to understand a few key things:
Is your product solving a real problem for your users?
Is your product better, faster, or cheaper than any existing solutions?
How much do users like your product? Would they pay for it? Would they recommend it to their friends, family, or coworkers?
Note that to be polite, people may mask critical feedback or exaggerate how much they actually like your product. It’s important to emphasize that you want their honest and unvarnished feedback, as that’s what will allow you to build something truly useful for them.
Iterating based on feedback
Once you’ve gotten feedback, it’s time to act on it. At this stage, everything is on the table. You might find that you only need minor tweaks or a few added features to have a robust and useful product that users love, or you could find that you need to pivot the product significantly. Either outcome is good news. By launching an MVP first, you’ve avoided sinking too much time or resources into the project yet. You can take what you’ve learned from this round and start to build out the right product for your customers.
Moving beyond minimum
Congratulations! Building something of value in the world is no small accomplishment. While your product may have moved past the point of minimum viability, the essential steps of getting feedback from customers and iterating on your product never end. To stay ahead of your competition and keep users happy, incorporate the lessons you learned from the MVP strategy to make sure you keep building something people love.