The Skateboard Mindset in Product Development
By now the term MVP, or “minimum viable product,” is cliche in product circles, with most product and engineering teams buying into the notion that when building a new product or service, it is best to at first focus relentlessly and exclusively on the core idea of the product, or the smallest possible scope necessary to test that the core idea has value to others.
My perspective on MVPs has been shaped by a few key experiences as a Product Manager, and I have come to believe that what is more important than an MVP, is the mindset you cultivate on a team that leads to MVPs being a natural byproduct throughout your product development process.
My first true MVP: ToyTalk
When we were first getting started at ToyTalk (now Pullstring), a company whose mission was to deliver Pixar-quality family entertainment in the form of AI-powered conversation, we had a prototype to prove we could pull it off, but it was a far from a shippable product by any measure. The product in fact was to this day the most ambitious technology challenge undertaken by a company I have ever worked for. Our vision for the product was an iPad app that would act as a kind of magic mirror. The app would use the iPad’s camera and facial recognition to identify a toy placed in front of it, listen with the microphone to the child speaking, and then offer a relevant and entertaining response to the child via the iPad’s speakers. We hired the best technical minds in the industry to begin building that product, and some of the best artists in the world to begin creating the content to fuel the experience.
It would take a year though before these two components would come together in a meaningful way, so our first challenge was to test that kids would even be entertained by such an experience. So I concocted an iPad stand that would hold two iPads. The first would be what the child was looking at, a scaled back version of the prototype we showed our first investors. The second iPad was placed behind the first, but offset from the first so that its camera could still see the child. The second iPad was connected via Skype to a computer upstairs, where our creative and writing team interacted with the child in real time, supported by nothing more than a few pre-written queue cards.
This MVP allowed us to see how children were responding to what we were writing, and allowed us to simulate a number of different scenarios. For example, what might happen if we ignored the child? What would happen if we repeated ourselves over and over? We could really test the limits of the product experience — all before we actually had a fully functional product to put in front of a customer.
This is first hard lesson to learn about building MVPs: you don’t always need a product to validate an idea. In fact, if you become too focused on the “P” in MVP, you may end up wasting precious cycles building the wrong thing.
Skateboards, not MVPs
MVP’s are often closely associated with the launch a startup, or a new product or service. An MVP therefore is typically thought of as something you build once, and either continue to iterate upon and expand, or abandon — left to exist only in the company’s origin story as something you pivoted away from.
When done right however, an MVP is not a thing, it is a mindset. It is a product discipline in which one always asks themselves: is all this I have planned really necessary to test my idea with a customer? If done right, every feature, and every epic has an MVP; and you should endeavor to define this before you embark on building anything.
At BuildingConnected, there is a great ethos around MVPs, but you will never hear people use the term. Instead, we always spoke of our “skateboard.” This was in reference to the image below which gained popularity among people like me in search of good images to accompany articles and presentations they are making about MVPs.
A culture at BuildingConnected has been cultivated around this idea, and an environment created in which any designer, engineer or product manager can ask this fundamental question of any request being made of them: “what is the skateboard for this idea?” In so doing, it immediately reframes the discussion around finding the heart of a product request. It helps teams find the simpler version of any idea to start with, if it exists. Furthermore, it creates a culture in which the team is always in an MVP-mindset, better yet, the skateboard-mindset.
Your North Star
The skateboard-mindset however, if taken too far, runs the risk of sacrificing a larger vision in favor of always pursuing more tactical short-term decisions, or missing an opportunity to do something really innovative. Teams need to be given an opportunity for their Moon Shot — innovation that can only be achieved when someone creates a clear vision for what you are ultimately trying to accomplish, a more encompassing problem to solve.
A good product manager does not dictate solutions to their team. They define the problem sufficiently and completely enough to enable their team to design and build a solution to the problem described.
The challenge for the product manager is in learning how to express the ideas that naturally occur when analyzing a problem without prescribing to the team what to build.
For the fictional car company behind the skateboard/automobile pictured above, that would most often come in the form of a concept car — a statement about what the future holds. Of course concept cars never get put into production, but they provide the design and engineering team a north star to guide them, and something to draw inspiration from.
Every product idea is rooted in a larger vision; and a good vision, like the North Star is not a destination, it is a direction.
Over the years, I have developed an aversion to the term “MVP.” Every word in the acronym seems problematic to me, and too often prone to debate. What is truly “minimal?” How much do you really need build to test an idea? What makes something “viable?” Does it need to functionally viable, or commercially viable, or both, or neither? And what is meant by “product” exactly? Even that, as shown by the ToyTalk example, isn’t always obvious.
What is important is always knowing at any given time what is the core of your idea. If you get that wrong, everything that follows it will be wrong as well.
If you approach every problem and every product request in this way, not just your initial product, then it is a lot easier to maintain confidence that your are on the right path, delivering value to customers, and fulfilling your product’s mission.
Byrne Reese is a product manager, maker and father. If you would like to talk to him about joining your team or company, email him at email@example.com.