Making sense of Minimum Viable Products

Minimum viable products are all the rage. The idea is to test the waters and make some sense out of the market before heavily investing in product development. That’s definitely oversimplified, but what I’m going to explore in this post is the “sense making” aspect of MVPs.


Minimum Viable Products–what does this mean?

If you read any article or listen to any talk about minimum viable products, you will notice that the word “confusion” shows up early and often:

Steve Blank: “This minimum feature set (sometimes called the “minimum viable product”) causes lots of confusion. Founders act like the ’minimum’ part is the goal. Or worse, that every potential customer should want it.” (Perfection by Subtraction – The Minimum Feature Set)

Eric Ries: “One of the most important lean startup techniques is called the minimum viable product. Its power is matched only by the amount of confusion that it causes, because it’s actually quite hard to do. It certainly took me many years to make sense of it.” (Minimum Viable Product: a guide)

Marty Cagan: “One of the most important concepts in all of software is the notion of minimum viable product (often referred to as “MVP”.) But if you’ve been around software products for a while, you know that term is used in many different ways, and while the term intuitively resonates with people, there’s often a lot of confusion about what this really means in practice.” (Minimum Viable Product)

It’s not just that the concept is confusing. It is. And it’s not just that introducing articles with the promise of clearing up confusion is a common trope. It’s an effective one, and these articles cited above are great pieces that do clear up a lot of confusion. The relationship between confusion and MVPs runs deeper than all that.

MVPs are born from confusion: the “extreme uncertainty” that Ries defines as a fundamental condition of a startup. Hypothesis by hypothesis, MVPs allow you to run head first into the uncertainty and chip away at the confusion. The creativity necessary to invent effective MVPs makes it hard to specify a formula or procedure for MVPs in general. This makes MVPs confusing, compelling, and energizing all at once.

Making Sense of MVPs

Rather than trying to definitively make sense out of MVPs, I stress that “making sense” is what MVPs are about:

MVPs are mechanisms to create meaning where little or none currently exists.

It doesn’t matter if it’s actually a product in the traditional sense. It doesn’t matter what the words “minimum viable product” really mean. It matters that the work you do makes meaning:

. What is a meaningful set of features for customers?
. How do we produce meaningful lessons learned from what we put in front of customers?
. What does this concept mean for how we go about defining a product strategy?

Each one of these questions has an impact on how we go about our work as product strategists and designers. That meaning-making breaks down into three areas:

. Meaning as vision
. Meaning as learning
. Meaning as method


Meaning as Vision

An MVP is a down payment on a larger vision. This larger vision gives meaning to what your customers are buying now. Here’s Blank on the importance of vision:

“You’re selling the vision and delivering the minimum feature set to visionaries [“Earlyvangelists”] not everyone….These Earlyvangelists are first buying the vision and then the product. They need to fall in love with the idea of your product. It’s the vision that will keep them committed the many times you screw up.” – Perfection by Subtraction – The Minimum Feature Set.

To be sure, selling vision has always been a part of the relationship between software vendors and customers. MVPs just push vision to center stage in the relationship because uncertainty is at the heart of the matter. For established markets, there is little uncertainty to contend with.


Meaning as Learning

The fundamental skill required for defining effective MVPs is the ability to isolate exactly what you need to learn and line up a prioritized set of hypotheses: what sense do you need to make of the situation you face; what confusion do you need to overcome right now?

In discussing Lean UX (with its strong ties to Lean Startup and minimum viable products), Leisa Reichelt makes this point beautifully in comments she made on a recent blog post:

“This is the thing, for me, that makes Lean different to Agile or Guerilla or all the other ways that we’ve packaged up sets of UX/Design techniques over the years. Not the MVP, not the guerrilla testing, but making LEARNING the measurable unit rather than the stuff we make.”

A disciplined approach to sense making; a technique for learning: these are the fundamental qualities of MVPs. Product strategy conducted in the realm of science – hypotheses, experiments, definitive answers. This is clearly articulated by Josh Seiden on the Luxr blog:

. “First, you declare your assumptions, and express them as a testable hypothesis.
. Then, you write your test–what signal will you get back from the market that will let you know if your hypothesis is true?
. Finally, you ask the question, “what’s the smallest thing I can do or make to test this hypothesis? The answer to this question is your minimum viable product, or MVP.”

To be a little more concrete: the first thing the product strategist must figure out is what should be learned immediately. Sometimes easier said than done. There are several ways to break down uncertainty and confusion when creating a product strategy using MVPs:

. Value: Will people find value in the product vision enough to express genuine interest in using initial releases?
. Hurdles: Are people willing to get over the fundamental hurdle your product vision puts up?
. Sustainable Differentiation: Can you hold off competitors long enough to establish differentiation that is not easily copied?
. Love: What will make customers love your product, use it over and over again, and encourage others to use it?
. Scalability: Are there enough people out there that will find value in what you are doing?
. Money: Can you turn that value and scalability into a sustainable revenue stream?


Meaning as Method

The idea of the MVP has given product strategists another concept that helps us make sense of our work in new ways. It’s not that we haven’t gone about systematic learning before. We have lots of techniques for this – ethnographic research, analytics, focus groups, surveys, A/B split testing, the list goes on.

It’s about a disciplined ability to know what we need to know right now and devise ways to end the confusion and uncertainty about a particular issue – “LEARNING as the measurable unit”. It’s also about the ability to keep that artistic vision of a better future visible to ourselves and our early customers as we create our experiments. MVPs change the way we make sense of product strategy by forcing sense making as the heart of method.

Here is where meaning-as-vision and meaning-as-learning ground the discussion of method. Without vision, MVPs make no sense. Without a mindset obsessed with validating (or overturning) that vision step by step, MVPs make no sense.


Source: | Greg Laugero 2012