The power of MVP
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Since its publication in 2011, Eric Reis’ The Lean Startup has been widely adopted by both the startup community and established businesses seeking to innovate and develop successful new products. Ries’ approach for developing, launching and continuously innovating products, is drawn from a range of established practices and methodologies, including lean manufacturing, design thinking and agile development. At its core, is the build–test–learn cycle, which gets a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) into the hands of customers quickly, seeking to learn and adapt based on the results.
Since gaining prominence through the popularity of The Lean Startup, the concept of the MVP has been variously hi-jacked, re-interpreted and applied in a range of different business situations and product types. Indeed, even within the book, which largely draws on digital products and service examples from Ries’ own background, the use of different approaches to how MVPs may be created and used is illustrated. The key thing to ensure, however, is that the terms Minimum and Viable must be equally respected. It’s “minimum” because we are expecting to use the MVP to learn from, so we want to apply the least amount of effort to get us to the point where we can learn. At the same time, we need to carefully consider viability. The MVP needs to demonstrate a product’s vision in a sufficiently compelling way to elicit customer feedback and meet their expectations.
This applies to attributes of quality and design as well as features with the caveat that certain levels of expectation are required in relation to customer and market expectations for your product type. Your MVP won’t fail because it’s missing some features, but it might fail to engage with its audience if its quality or design falls below minimum user expectations. The aspect of customer expectations includes an important element of market context. Is it a product that someone would buy?
Here we look at three ways in which MVPs maybe used…
In the context of an MVP, when is the P a “product” or a “prototype”? The answer is that an MVP should be a genuine test of the ability of the proposed new product to drive people to part company with money to buy it. That is not to say that we can’t learn a great deal from producing and testing prototypes – and these form a key part of any good Design Thinking programme or Innovation Sprint – but if we don’t test a product’s ability to sell, we risk fooling ourselves. Having said that, it’s not always necessary to produce a completely saleable product to test it as an MVP.
When Nick Swinmurn wanted to test his hypothesis that customers would be interested and willing to buy shoes online, he arranged with local shoe stores to take pictures of shoes and put them online and invite people to buy them. When they did, he went back to the store, bought them (at full price) and shipped them to the customer. This experiment provided the validation Swinmurn needed without having to set up a fully-functioning e-commerce site and fulfilment warehouse full of stock. It was a prototype, but one which provided genuine and meaningful interaction with real customers, providing valuable learnings about their interest and willingness to buy. The resulting business, Zappos, become the leading online shoe retailer with over $1Bn revenues prior to being acquired by Amazon.
Sometimes, it’s possible to create an MVP without even meaning to do so. When KD were asked to support Korean social media advertising agency Innored to work with them on a campaign for the Huggies brand, the brief was to develop a concept to embody and communicate the core Huggies proposition of a happy parent and baby journey. The selected concept was a connected pair of wearable cameras which would simultaneously capture, and play back, family moments from both perspectives. The products were rapidly developed and built as sets of working prototypes, used by a handful of families, but viewed by millions via the resulting viral video.
The objective, of enhancing the brand message with consumers was achieved, but an unexpected outcome was that 40,000 requests were received by Huggies from customers to purchase the MomentCam wearable cameras. In this case, the effort of product development was minimised by only requiring a small number of prototypes to be used for a limited time. The authenticity of the video footage captured by the trial participants was sufficient to validate and communicate the product concept to a much wider audience.
These examples demonstrate the need to be creative with the design of both the prototype and the experiment to test your hypothesis and, crucially, to validate customers willingness to buy.
When shaping up an MVP to deliver as a first version of your product to the market, two attributes are needed. The first is a discipline to only include features and attributes that embody the core proposition of the product and the second is the courage to view the MVP as a learning tool in a process that will allow you to develop future better versions of that product. If customer feedback to your MVP highlights missing features, you have a great priority list for future versions. If “missing” features aren’t highlighted, you’ve saved yourself a lot of wasted effort. The worst that can happen is that you get no feedback– meaning that people don’t care about your product.
The original iPhone can be considered an MPV. When it was launched in 2007 it had no connection to exchange email, poor 2G cellular phone performance, and was only available through a very limited number of telecom operators globally. What it did have was a technically outstanding touchscreen embodying a new way to interact with a phone, and features presented as apps (even though at the time, there were only a few, with no way of adding more). The choice of minimum features allowed users to see and, for early adopters, own a first version of Apple’s vision of a reinvented phone.
Similarly, Fitbit’s first product had only the most basic of functions – a tiny clip-on device with a minimal display and data download only when physically plugged into a dock attached to a computer, but it allowed users to experience Fitbit’s vision of what activity tracking could mean in their lives.
Bristol-based startup OurCanary recently launched their family life organiser app with the restriction that the current version only works for families with one child. Whilst this excludes over 50% of their target market, it enabled delivery of a meaningfully viable feature set, with significantly reduced effort. Feedback from the one-child family early adopters, as well as notification of interest from disappointed potential customers with two or more kids, will provide invaluable learnings to direct their product development efforts for future product releases.
Although not adhering to the MVP principles in The Lean Startup, the mindset of minimum viability is one that can be effectively applied to the requirements definition of a whole range of new products. A common characteristic of many products and product ranges is the extent to which they become unnecessarily bloated with features, a phenomena sometimes described as “elegant creep”. How many programmes on your washing machine do you actually use? How many features of Word do you know how to use, or even know exist? The discipline and courage referred to earlier to focus on the product features and attributes that capture your vision and add genuine value for your customers need to be applied to achieve best in class product experiences, not to mention reduced time and cost in development and support.
Again, Apple provides a good example of this mindset. By ruthlessly “cutting off the tail” of features on their products – think elimination of CD players on laptops, or headphone sockets on the latest iPhones Apple have risked alienating some of their customers in the interests of the pursuit of a purer future excellence.
In our early-stage work with clients, we often challenge teams to take this approach. A good example is the AccuChek Instant blood glucose testing system for Roche Diabetes Care, which started as a workshop with a range of client stakeholders and asked the question: “what is the minimum feature set we can define with the highest value to users”? The result was a product which does the most important things well; a bold, clear display with target range indication and Bluetooth connectivity to push features relating to data analysis and trends onto more relevant parts of the product ecosystem.
Some products make a virtue out of their minimalism. Raspberry Pi, the credit card sized, bare bones computer is a global phenomenon and the UK’s all-time best-selling computer with over 25 million sold since launch in 2012. The approach, which simplifies the core functionality, enabling users to add features they require to suit their educational, hobbyist, or industrial needs is a result of a disciplined minimum viability mindset. The open dialogue that Raspberry Pi enjoys with its user community also fosters a natural buildtest-learn feedback loop into their core value proposition. Even with their range there is room for a most minimal MVP, the Pi Zero, dubbed the “latte computer” because, at $5, it costs the same as one (at least in a Bay area coffee shop!)
In a world of increasing complexity, and reducing attention spans, simpler products, with clearer propositions are more likely to succeed.