June 16

Minimum Viable Product: What is an MVP & 7 Steps to Plan Yours

If you’re a Product Manager it’s likely that you have heard the term “Minimum Viable Product”. But what is an MVP, why are they useful and how should you approach creating one? We take a look at all of this and show you some great examples along the way.

WHAT IS AN MVP – MINIMUM VIABLE PRODUCT?

You might have heard the phrase “Minimum Viable Product” and wondered what is an MVP? A minimum viable product is often defined in different ways – everything from the smallest possible experiment to prove out a hypothesis all the way through to realizing an initial product release that meets your success criteria. In all cases, it is a tangible, lean version of your product that meets the outcomes you have defined. You may also hear it referred to as “product-market fit”.

MVP definition

Author of The Lean Startup, Eric Ries, popularised the term and described it as “that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort”. He also pioneered the concept of “build-measure-learn” – let’s have a look at all of this in more detail.

WHAT IS THE GOAL OF A MINIMUM VIABLE PRODUCT?

Your MVP concept might be used to achieve or prove out many different things but some of the most likely initial outcomes might be:

  1. Testing demand for your idea or product – do your potential customers choose to use or buy your product? It’s important to validate this with a lightweight experiment or version of your product before committing to a fuller build otherwise you run the risk of wasting time and money on a product that no one finds valuable or useful!
  2. Learning about your customers – an MVP is a useful way of gathering initial customer feedback about your idea or product to see if it resonates with your target market or audience and to then cycle through iterations or pivot based on what you learn
  3. Proving (or disproving!) hypotheses or assumptions – any good minimum viable product will be testing at least one hypothesis or assumption (ideally your “make or break” assumption that needs to be proven true to make it worthwhile continuing with developing your idea or product). These could really vary from customers wanting to perform a certain action or buy a certain thing.
    4 characteristics of a minimum viable product

Product guru Marty Cagan often talks about “the four big risks” (value, usability, feasibility, and business viability) when developing new products, and I would argue that while all of these are important, 2 are of particular importance when considering your minimum viable product. Value and business viability can be tackled first while usability and feasibility can come a little later.

Customers find it valuable

The first and most important thing to work out when working on an MVP is customer value. In order to warrant further development work on your product or idea, you want to be sure that there is a market need and that your potential audience finds it valuable enough that they would choose to use it and/or pay for it. There are many different ways you can test for this (examples to follow further down) but ideally, you will have built enough confidence to move forward with your idea from these tests (or learned enough to retire it to the ideas graveyard!)

Your business finds it viable

Every business has constraints – from legal concerns to costs and more. If you have discovered a brilliant idea for a product that customers love but it doesn’t comply with the rules and regulations of your company, then it is going to be a real challenge to further develop and take to market at scale. Be sure to collaborate with the relevant parts of your business when developing new ideas, especially if you think there might be business viability pitfalls ahead.

It has future potential

You might have hit upon a great idea that your initial customers love, but you want to be sure that those early adopters are going to stick around and that you can continue to grow and retain your user base. It can be tricky to identify this in the early stages of product development but you can continue to build your confidence in this through continual discovery and testing.

You can continue to learn from it

The key to further developing your idea or product is the ability to continuously learn from your customers who are using it. Opening up user feedback loops using surveys, forms, and customer interviews means that you can continue to iterate and build on your learnings.

8 TYPES OF MINIMALLY VIABLE PRODUCT

LOW FIDELITY MVPs

404 test

This kind of low fidelity MVP is really great for testing customer demand for your product idea or value proposition without having to invest in building the full functionality or product design – and works particularly well if you have an existing audience on the web or in a mobile app. The basic premise is to set up a test that advertises your idea or product (e.g. a new email newsletter, type of app notification, etc) and allows your potential customers to sign up to something by (could be an email sign up box / opt-in to app notifications, etc), which is tracked for learning purposes. This can be followed by a message saying thank you for your interest but we are still developing this idea (and if you’re savvy, to ask people if they want to take part in user research!).

Ad campaigns

Another great test for demand validation at scale for an idea or product is to use ad campaigns. There may be a small cost attached but you can use something like Google or Facebook ads to reach your target audience with your message. You can also run split tests on these platforms to see what resonates most with your potential customers.

Landing page

This type of MVP can be used in conjunction with either a 404 test or as a place to send people once they click on an ad campaign you have set up. It’s essentially a lightweight web or mobile page mock-up where you can showcase your idea or product and guide people to provide feedback or take another action to help you learn about what they find valuable.

Paper prototypes

If you want to go really low fidelity and cost-effective then paper prototypes that bring your idea or concept to life can be really useful for just gauging customer reactions. These can consist of hand-drawn on paper or even shapes / similar cut out to illustrate your idea during customer interviews.

HIGH FIDELITY MVPs

Clickable prototype

Still very lightweight despite being higher fidelity, clickable prototypes are essentially made up of basic screens or pages that help you to test your hypothesis or assumptions. They might show a user flow or screens where you want potential customers to take certain actions. Clickable prototypes are a great aid during customer interviews to help you learn about what works (and what doesn’t!) when it comes to value. Tools like InVision, Figma, or Marvel App can be used to create these quickly and cost-effectively.

“Wizard of Oz” MVP

More complex than clickable prototypes are “Wizard of Oz” MVPs – they test the experience of a more complex system or concept without the need for software development. A person ‘behind the curtain’ controls outputs of a prototype to simulate the user experience for the purpose of user testing.

“Concierge” MVP

Similar to the “Wizard of Oz” MVP, the idea or concept is automated during user interviews with potential customers but there is no pretense of this and the users are aware that simulation is happening. This type of test is also used to validate core assumptions and to refine the proposition.

Crowdfunding

Another great way to test demand for your product idea or business model at scale is through crowdfunding (think: Kickstarter etc). You can create a landing page for your product (and invest a bit more effort to create a video showcase of it) to see if your idea resonates with people. Crowdfunding is a good way to test if people are willing to part with their money for your product – a surefire way to validate customer value.

7 STEPS TO BUILD AN MVP BUSINESS

There are a number of essential things to do when considering building a business MVP – here are the key steps to follow:

1. Define your outcomes

As always in product, it’s important to start with defining success. What does good look like for your MVP? Is it that X number of people have signed up to your product to prove out demand or that you have hit a certain target for investment via crowdfunding? Be sure to define your outcomes and success metrics upfront so that you can be confident to move forward with the next stages of product development when you hit them.

2. Pinpoint your problem to solve

Another question to ask yourself during the process of identifying your MVP is: are we going after a problem worth solving? Using customer research and data to identify pain points or gaps in the market is the best way to figure out if it’s worth pursuing.

3. Identify your opportunity

Step 3 on your path to identifying an MVP is to ask yourself more questions! How big is the opportunity? How else is this problem being solved today? What is our differentiator? Why are we best placed to solve this? Is this a problem worth solving now?

4. Brainstorm ideas to solve your problem

Once you have pinpointed your customer problem worth solving and considered the product opportunity you can spend some time working collaboratively with your cross-functional team and key stakeholders to brainstorm ideas for potential solutions to that problem.

5. Identify key assumptions or hypotheses

Every idea has assumptions baked into it – unknown elements that we don’t know to be true or false – that good Product Managers and their teams need to identify and later test. Spotting your “make or break” assumption at this stage is important – it might be that your customers will take a certain action or choose to pay for your product, for example.

6. Design experiments and tests

The goal of an MVP is to learn through experimentation, so once you have identified the key make or break assumption and/or hypothesis you will need to design tests that will help you learn about these (see examples in previous section). The aim here is to prove or disprove your assumption or hypothesis and to either move forward if you’re successful, iterate if more work is needed and test again and let go of your idea if it doesn’t work out (also a success as you won’t spend any more time or money pursuing something that isn’t valuable!).

7. Measure and learn

Step 7 is really key to understanding whether you have identified your MVP or not. Have you achieved your desired outcome(s) or success metrics or is more work needed to iterate or pivot your idea or concept? Continuous learning can help you to achieve MVP status more quickly so be sure that you can track what your potential customers are doing and capture their feedback.

4 MINIMUM VIABLE PRODUCT EXAMPLES

There are some really great examples of minimum viable products out there, let’s take a look at a few of them here:

Zappos

If there was ever a pure definition of “fake it before you make it”, the shoe retailer Zappos would take first place! Founder Nick Swinmurn used the “Wizard of Oz” method to cheaply and quickly test his hypothesis that people would want to buy shoes online (it was 1999). He launched a basic website where he would post photos of shoes from his local mall and waited to see if anyone would order them. If they did, he would head out and buy them and send them to his customers. It turns out people really did want to buy shoes online and he sold the company to Amazon in 2009 for $1.2bn.

Dropbox

Demonstrating the power of video, Dropbox created a demo of their product and posted it on YouTube in the late 2000s. It explained the benefits of storing data all in one place and helped the founders to learn through feedback and eventually secure the funding needed to fully develop their proposition and feature set.

Buffer

Landing pages can be a powerful tool when it comes to MVPs, as Buffer, the app for scheduling social media posts, showed with their initial set-up. They created two landing pages – the first asked people to submit their email if they were interested in plans and pricing and the second asked users if they were interested in the free version or one of two paid-for options. The majority of users chose one of the paid plans and so they were able to prove out its potential as a product.

Groupon

Founder Andrew Mason came up with the idea for a collective buying product when he was trying to cancel his mobile phone contract and got hit with a $200 cancellation fee. His goal was to build a platform for digital activism that would fight unfair situations, such as his. Rather than building an entire content management system from scratch, Mason harnessed the power of WordPress and set up a blog selling T-shirts. Customers needed to provide their email address and the coupons were generated using the MacOS Desktop app FileMaker. This MVP is a great example of using existing technology to simulate your proposition before fully developing it.

KEY TAKEAWAYS ABOUT MVP PRODUCT

In summary, an MVP is a great way to prove out key hypotheses and assumptions that you might have about a new idea or concept and to see if you can meet your desired outcomes without the need for the cost and effort required to build a more final product. If in doubt, fake it before you make it!

FAQs

What is the difference between prototype and MVP?

In short, a prototype is a tool for helping you to discover your MVP. A minimum viable product can only truly be defined once you have a product that meets your success criteria or outcomes.

What is MVP in software?

In software an MVP is a digital product or service of some description – it could be a new website, app or feature of either. It could also be a digital service provided by your business.

What is MVP in SaaS?

In SaaS, an MVP is still a lean version of your product that meets your success criteria but the nature of that product might be different as you are providing software as a service. Examples include Dropbox, Slack, ZenDesk, etc.

How much should an MVP cost?

Ideally as little as possible! An MVP could cost as little as buying some Sharpies and paper plus the remuneration for willing users to be interviewed or as much as creating demo videos, hosting landing pages or paying for targeted advertising.

Monica Viggars

About the author

Monica Viggars is a Product Coach with over 15 years of experience working in product and tech. A Product Manager in a past life, Monica now enjoys helping product teams to improve their ways of working and best practices as well as supporting companies on their journey to becoming more product-led. When not writing or product coaching, Monica enjoys travelling (when there's not a pandemic happening!), arts and crafts and baking cakes.


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