What Is A Minimum Viable Product (MVP)?

You’re at a meetup talking tech with the startup folks and the term “MVP” keeps getting batted around. You know MVP stands for minimum viable product, but what does that really mean?

Product or Process?

For starters, it’s worth noting what the “M,” “V,” and “P” actually stand for—that is, “Minimum Viable Product,” the version of a product that consists of only the features needed to deliver value for those early adopters. Remember, the idea here is to get these folks to want to spend money on your product. Once they do, your product development will start learning from the market in the form of user feedback. It’s important to get this feedback loop going so that your product development decisions are based on customer feedback—not intuition.

Prototype and MVPThe idea behind an MVP originates in “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries, so let’s start with this concept of an MVP first:

An MVP is the version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.Eric Ries

Validated learning. Least effort. Doesn’t sound very sexy. Let’s jump over to Techopedia and hear what they have to say:

An MVP is the most pared down version of a product that can still be released. An MVP has three key characteristics:

  1. Has enough value that people are willing to use it or buy it initially
  2. Demonstrates enough future benefit to retain early adopters
  3. Provides a feedback loop to guide future development


Ok, some marketing considerations. And it sounds like the emphasis is on testing rather than building. Let’s review:

  1. You want people to pay for it.
  2. You want it to impress the folks who line up to get the latest in tech.
  3. And you want to provide your customers with a way to give you feedback to improve it moving forward.

The Concept of Iteration

Eric Ries calls it the “build, measure, learn, loop”. Basically you have to test something to get it right.

The core idea behind an MVP is validated learning. As an entrepreneur you want to be constantly checking your assumptions and making adjustments wherever needed. Think of the MVP as an exercise in temporarily shaking off that obstinate entrepreneurial vision of yours.

Remember that markets don’t care about entrepreneurs. They listen to customers.

Make sure your vision corresponds with reality, aka ‘what customers want.’ This is the part where you fall out of love with your idea and submit to a less warm and fuzzy objective reality.

Hint: Numbers are as objective as it gets. You should be tracking metrics, and metrics galore—site metrics, user metrics, social metrics, sales metrics, cost metrics, etc. If it can be assigned a number you should be paying attention to how that number is changing.

Developing Products Or Customers?

In the app space you want your product in the hands of those early adopters who already get what you’re trying to do as soon as possible. This group is going to understand your product out of the gate and be able to explain it to the folks who won’t. They already want you’re selling. And not only do these people give the best feedback, they also do free word-of-mouth marketing!

Features Versus Benefits

It’s becoming clear why you want to keep things as simple as possible at the beginning, no? As an entrepreneur you already have way too many assumptions to make about what is or isn’t an opportunity. Once you start building a product you’re going to have to make a bunch of additional assumptions about which features to include or leave out. You have no idea whether or not these decisions will ultimately yield the benefits that your customers actually want, but you have to start somewhere. Wouldn’t it bуe nice if you could check these assumptions throughout the process of building your product?

The MVP enables you to do just that. Think of it as the ace up the entrepreneur’s sleeve. With an MVP you can simultaneously build a product, test the market, and flex your assumptions about the features that customers value.

And as you know, more value for the customer means more value for the entrepreneur.

From Testing Features To Designing Experiences

Since the time when the concept of an MVP first appeared, the market for software products has changed. Customers don’t want to buy poorly designed products and expect better functionality from newborn applications.

Businesses get only one chance to make a first impression.

This is where UX comes in.

With everyone throwing around this UX term nowadays it would seem that the tech space has developed a more sophisticated concept of value. As apps have become increasingly nuanced—both in terms of user interface (UI) and UX—now even early adopters need that ‘wow factor’ in the preliminary versions of digital products. Alas, if only there were some middle ground between iteration and design.

Not to worry, Jeff Gothelf—thought leader in the burgeoning Lean UX movement and author of Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience—has found it. He believes that incorporating UX into agile product development starts with understanding why designers aren’t so keen on MVPs in the first place, pointing to three main reasons:

  1. MVPs don’t allow for that unrestricted ideation phase during which designers can apply blue-sky thinking to business problems. Jeff refers to this as BDUF (Big Design Up Front)—a term from software development’s ‘waterfall’ school of thought. In waterfall, planning is emphasized over iterating (the opposite of how the opposing ‘agile’ camp sees it).
  2. MVPs force designers to work with non-designers and refocus the design process through the lens of engineering concepts, which runs counter to designers’ natural approach.
  3. The notion of ‘good enough to deploy’ is antithetical to the philosophy of design, which is based on realizing robust and complete experiences.

Remember, there’s a fundamental difference between how designers and engineers create value—the latter iterate, while the former ideate. Let’s delve a little deeper into what drives each of these camps.

So it’s not hard to see why an MVP—by definition lacking this UX element—would find it hard to drive value in markets driven by such (think digital products). In a post for UXBooth Jerry Cao of UXPin offers some insight into how entrepreneurs could miss the point and fail to properly manage an MVP strategy:

Perhaps the best way to think about the MVP is Brandon Schauer’s cupcake theory, which emphasizes a complete experience each step of the way. Just like a cupcake is a better (and more desirable) MVP for cake than a bowl of flour, make sure the MVP always communicates the value of the product. –Jerry Cao

Or in other words: You don’t delight customers with product development; you delight them with products. And instead of MVP try to think about MDP (Minimum Delightful Product).

Viability Or Delight?

In his blog Startup Blender, serial entrepreneur Adam Berrey proposes an interesting solution to the problem at hand. Enter the ‘Minimum Delightful Product’ (MDP).

MVP and MDPAn MDP is just as ‘minimum product’ as an MVP only with the MDP the goal is to optimize for UX (delight) rather than time to market. It keeps the MVP’s ‘build only what you need’ spirit while slightly redefining ‘need.’ With the MDP the goal is to do more than start testing features out of the gate—it’s a means of engaging customers.

So then what’s the formula for delight? Based on his experience, Adam breaks it down into three core elements:

  1. Product Gestalt: ‘Gestalt’ is just a fancy word for how people understand things as complete/irreducible concepts. It’s an idea from psychology that has applications across various disciplines. Adam sees the right combination of UX and functionality as the source of a fundamentally wonderful and—over time—relatively constant experience.
  2. Design: Beyond the engineering context, it’s useful to think of design as the means by which people relate to each other’s aesthetic sensibilities. Adam further adds that with regard to products this element should somehow capture a sense of beauty.
  3. Quality: Here’s where we have to take a long hard look at MVPs and question just how much delight they actually inspire among early adopters. The MDP on the other hand iterates according to a higher standard of craftsmanship—that is, your customers don’t just get your value proposition, they feel it at every stage.

Delightful products users fall in love with. They immediately become part of a user’s life or work. When a product is delightful it just makes sense. It works the way you’d expect and the experience is highly satisfying. Delightful products are adopted faster, get better word of mouth, and create higher satisfaction.  –Adam Berrey

So Are MVPs Obsolete Now?

MVP methodology is that as you’re engineering your product development you’re simultaneously developing your customer, as well as iteratively validating your market. It’s not about the what, it’s about the how.

MVP is more than just a product. As Jerry Cao of UXPin puts it:

The MVP is the smallest experiment that either proves or disproves [your] assumptions about a business idea.  –Jerry Cao

So, It doesn’t matter what you choose MVP or MDP development to test the business idea and validate your market, just remember, don’t think prototype, think process. 


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