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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

The here-and-now meaning of the minimum set of features you’ve delivered lies in the “idea of your product,” the realization of which lies somewhere in the future: Earlyvangelists “will need to hear what your company plans to deliver over the next 18 to 36 months.” Meaning is stretched out over time and therefore requires adept storytelling.

Here sense-making is an artistic endeavor—telling a story of the future that gives a greater meaning to what you are doing right now. It’s more art than science because it’s more about tapping into emotions than appealing to the intellect. An earlyvangelist is emotionally connected to what you are doing. Simply presenting a list of planned features isn’t going to do it. Part of our work as entrepreneurs, designers, or product strategists is to convey that meaning – to tell that story over and over again and make it emotionally resonate. The story is as much a feature as any code that is written.

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.

Rather, you are contending with the relative certainty of competitors where vision can be a differentiator at most. But in the extreme uncertainty of a startup, you don’t even know if there is a market for what you want to do. Uncertainty is fundamental, and vision is how we make sense of it to ourselves and our early customers and prospects.

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.”

The production of signs and signals (the vehicles of meaning) are at the heart of scientific sense-making: “what signal will you get back from the market” that proves (or disproves) your hypothesis? Indeed, what sign will we receive, what meaning will be made from our MVP?

But there is more to it than just experimentation for the sake of learning. There is a sequence and a priority that needs to be respected. We are pursuing a larger vision with our tests. The artist creeps back in: our storytelling must guide our priorities and help us understand what comes first in this larger story we are telling.

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?

Knowing what you need to learn right now is fundamental to defining the MVP. Figuring this out starts with being brutally honest about what you already know. What sense have you already created about your situation?

Let’s say that you have signed up a bunch of customers for your initial release. Your analytics tell you that they are going into the system, but they’re not returning over and over again as you had once hoped, or as your financial model requires. It’s usually not a disaster. You’ve learned that people will sign up based on some portion of your vision. That’s the first step in overcoming uncertainty. The product strategist must now get out of the office, talk to customers, and make sense of the situation:

  • Exactly what part of your vision has been validated?
  • What exactly are the hurdles to engagement?
  • Have they found a competitor as a substitute?
  • Is the problem you think you’re solving not the one that customers want to solve?

This is a systematic meaning and sense making enterprise—a scientific enterprise—but guided by the vision of the artist who imagines a better and more fulfilled future.

Which brings us to meaning as method.

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.

Just as vision gives meaning to MVPs, vision gives meaning to the work of defining the longer term product strategy. The product strategist must know what needs to be learned now and what can wait for later. The product strategist always knows what he definitely knows right now and what he needs to know next. The product strategist is at home when she is sorting out the confusion that stands between the here-and-now and the future. She is unfolding a story. It has a general direction guided by vision, but it may change—a “pivot” in Lean Startup terms. The product strategist is comfortable with that.

MVPs and Interpretation

This uncertain space between the here-and-now and the realized future is where flexibility and creativity rule; but it is also a place where discipline and method must guide creativity (and vice versa). It is a place where the mind of the product strategist is constantly looking for signs and interpreting meaning. “What signal will you get back from the market?”

Interpretation is an essential skill of the product strategist, along with creativity in inventing hypotheses and experiments. There is no one way to do MVPs. This is why so many of the discussions of MVPs involve piling up examples. Many of those examples don’t even resemble products in any traditional sense of the term – as Dropbox famously proved with just a video to measure interest.

Even when shown to be a method, the method itself is very specific to a larger context. For example, Zynga’s approach to “Ghetto Testing” has a lot of great techniques. Their systematic approach is very specific to a business with an existing high volume of traffic and a need to create a large pipeline of new, viable games. A lot of uncertainty has been removed from the equation.

For early stage businesses without this kind of volume, other approaches to MVPs are more appropriate and will require adept skills at collecting and interpreting more qualitative data. For many entrepreneurs, working very closely with your earlyvangelists as a “concierge” may be a better approach. It takes creativity and imagination to understand what experiment is best.

To make sense of MVPs—to interpret what they mean for conducting product strategy—the entire context needs to be explained. This is why “The Lean Startup” devotes so much space to detailed, context-rich examples. It’s very difficult to nail it down to a reproducible method – first do this, then do that, and out comes this. We need to continue to pile up examples, not in the hope that final meaning and method emerge, but with the purpose of sparking the creativity necessary to make sense out of extreme uncertainty. Seeing how others do it helps the rest of us figure it out for ourselves.

Final Thought

MVPs are not formulaic, as Ries put it in “The Lean Startup.” “It requires judgment to figure out, for any given context, what MVP makes sense.”

There are those words again hanging out inconspicuously at the end of that sentence, easily dismissed as a standard way to bring a sentence to an end. We do it all the time. But “makes sense” is actually the heart of the matter. MVPs must make sense by creating meaning out of uncertainty and confusion.

Greg Laugero

Greg Laugero is a digital product strategist and Co-Founder of Industrial Wisdom. He helps companies turn their ideas into real products with great user experiences. You can follow him on twitter: @prodctstrategy.

4 comments on this article

  1. Donald Nordeng on

    Well said, and proven time and again. The MVP has been championed on Kickstarter, nice to see it being expanded to include the business elements, not just the story elements.

  2. Pingback: Meaning-making in minimum viable products « Interaction Culture: The Class Blog

  3. Pingback: Minimum Viable Product. What? | Snagglepop

  4. Matthew Grimes on

    Greg, as a researcher and lecturer on the topic of entrepreneurship, I’m extremely impressed with this article. This post does better than any other I’ve seen dealing with the topic of Minimum Viable Products, and I intend to ensure that students in my courses read and engage with what you’ve written here. Thanks for the practical yet sophisticated take.