Leveraging the Minimum Viable Product in new product development
One of the practices used in Lean Startup is the Minimum Viable Product or MVP. The MVP is the most basic version of a product. It is aimed at extracting feedback from customers, or potential customers, based on specific product experiments. The idea is to look for evidence of demand before building a complete, functioning product.
For the entrepreneur, the MVP is a valuable tool to gain insight into a new product or a new growth market. Leveraging the Lean Startup Build-Measure-Learn cycle, a properly executed MVP drives product development and provides valuable data for pivot or persevere decisions.
The MVP should be viewed as a process, not a product. Building rapid iterations of the MVP, measuring results, and learning from those experiments requires discipline – it requires a process to be successful.
The MVP goal is to execute the fastest turn of the Build-Measure-Learn cycle as possible, with minimum effort, and minimum development. Doing this allows the entrepreneur to start learning as quickly, and as frequently, as possible.
When designing an MVP, each version should have just enough features to test out the hypothesis. Any work performed beyond that goal is a waste. MVPs are used to test product design or technical questions, test fundamental hypotheses, and extract feedback from customers. Through the MVP, the entrepreneur learns the features the customer really wants.
A frequent mistake is to overestimate the needs for the MVP. If there is any doubt, then simplify. Having too many features can make the analysis of the results difficult. How do you know which change actually drives behavior? Too many features may also create a premature maintenance overhead as you try to maintain what you have deployed. Keep the features simple and targeted. Any features beyond that is a waste of resources.
An MVP helps to clarify the conflict between what customers say versus the actions they actually take. The customers’ actions when using the MVP may contradict what the customer stated as their top priorities. Be sure to include methods to capture metrics in the MVP.
The MVP may also end up in bad news. It may prove that a basic hypothesis does not hold up. This information is critical in decisions to persevere on a product’s current path or pivot, and find a new hypothesis. It requires courage to put your assumptions to this sort of test. However, finding out early prevents wasting resources in developing the wrong product and, often more importantly, prevents the lapse of precious time.
An MVP is not always software. The new innovative item may be a service offering or retail product. Regardless, ideas need testing before building massive amounts of infrsatructure. Simple tests often suffice. Published examples include:
- Groupon – initial MVP was email, PDF files, and the bar in their building
- Food on the Table – personally delivered food and created recipes with a single customer
- Aardvark – manually answered searches
The Food on the Table MVP is an example of a “concierge MVP”. In this type of MVP the initial customers are given special treatment – sometimes unbelievable treatment! In the Food on the Table example, there was initially just one customer. The entrepreneur personally went to the customer’s house to develop recipes and deliver groceries. If you test your hypothesis using concierge treatment and the results do not look promising, then you need to re-think your strategy!
The Aardvark MVP is an example of a “Wizard of Oz MVP”. The hypothesis was tested by manually executing “behind the curtain”.
Neither the Concierge MVP nor the Wizard of Oz MVP is a viable, sustainable approach as a long-term solution. The key aspect is that the entrepreneur learns valuable lessons that would be difficult to duplicate by other means. Validate the leap-of-faith assumptions early before the significant investment of time and money.
Often considered low quality, software MVPs may challenge the developers’ traditional values around quality. These MVPs are designed to perform specific experiments, not produce a polished final product. The target customers are often early adopters who see the potential for breakthrough products. They are more forgiving of mistakes and suspicious of anything that appears as too “polished”.
The Minimum Viable Product is an entrepreneur’s tool for rapidly gathering customer feedback about a proposed product or service. The MVP is used to validate initial assumptions and to guide product development. It provides valuable information about strategies and when a pivot may be in order. When developing an MVP, be clear about what you want to learn and how you will measure it.
Robert Tyson (PSM, ITIL) is a veteran IT professional with over 35 years’ experience in both domestic and international environments. He is currently an Agile Coach and Instructor with Agile Pi.