What does it take to design a Minimum Viable Product?

Jude Fulton
Jul 27, 2016 · 5 min read

Many of you know that before beginning startup life, I studied Architecture at the Harvard GSD. I’ve written about it before here. I would say that one of the best things about an architectural education is that you spend a lot of time thinking about how to design systems of many types and at many scales; visual, representational, mechanical, and spatial. You also build a lot of models. But it wasn’t until my studio with Mariana Ibañez that I thought a lot about prototypes. This is a gross simplification, but it should suffice for this medium post to say:

Models look like the concept, while prototypes act like the concept you are trying to convey.

For this reason, I almost called this post, “How to design a minimum viable prototype,” because I think that’s at the heart of the issue.

Here’s an example to illustrate. Below is a model of an apartment complex in Tokyo by Sou Fujimoto, one of my favorite architects.

In contrast, here is a prototype of Thomas Heatherwick’s Rolling Bridge in London. It may or may not have the exact material properties of the actual, realized bridge, but what is most important is that it acts like it. The prototype is valuable for studying how the segmented octagon might unfurl to reach the other side. When you watch Youtube videos of the bridge, you realize that the process is highly performative, a design opportunity that Heatherwick did not miss, because he built a prototype (and not a model).

Photograph of Heatherwick’s rolling bridge

Needless to say, there were a lot of moving prototypes produced in Mariana Ibañez’s studio that semester.

Fast forward a few years to startup life, and I’ve thought about this studio from time to time. For me, it was a critical mental step in making the leap from theoretical architectural projects to products used by real people

Ok, so back to the diagram at the top of my post. It’s a classic startup meme that I encounter frequently as the designer-founder of a startup. This meme basically owns the internet when you google ‘mvp’ or ‘design prototype’ so it’s tough to miss. (Btw, Spotify design team, great job! You never have to draw another diagram again, because this meme is basically your calling card.) Ok, this:

I think what it’s really illustrating is the difference between “How to build a Minimum Viable Prototype,” versus how to build a “Minimum Viable Model.”

Attention UI designers (and architects): the temptation to build a minimum viable model is far greater for you than for UX designers. I think it’s partially because flexing visual and graphic muscles (to produce a model) is one sure fire way to get distracted away from producing a prototype.

Here are some of the distinctions that I’ve noticed between designers who model and those who prototype:

Designers who model: Bring case studies and precedents to the table that are the same ‘type’ as what they are building. So if designing a car, they study Ford Mustangs (past), Priuses (present), and Teslas (future).

Designers who prototype: They cast their net wider for inspiration and start side-eyeing tricycles, wheelbarrows, roombas, roller skates, ancient grain wheels — anything that moves.

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Designers who model: Focus on making sure the prototype is black like the finished car. That it has windows. That the windows are the right size and in the right place.

Designers who prototype: Worry about the experience. What it feels like to move in a forward trajectory on wheels, sticking your head out the window in a moving car. How do you create that feeling for users, even if it’s a bumpy ride at first?

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Designers who model: At lunch they share their ‘real convictions’ about what font or color schemes to use. (Animations are another great distraction.) Consider working with these folks at the very last stage of the design process, when you are adding a final coat of gloss to the “car.”

Designers who prototype: Only have convictions about actionable insights from users or data. They love firm design principles and constraints.

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Designers who model: What’s the stopping point? A lot of us designers are sliiightly OCD, and if you are, it’s tough to know when to stop. (There’s always another pixel to push or a slightly better stock image to find!)

Designers who prototype: Only worry about how to build one stage at a time, and only build enough to complete the next user test.

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Designers who model: Think about details like the sound of the car door closing so as to convey the ‘car-ish-ness’ of the model.

Designers who prototype: Cut to the heart of the prototype. They ponder the ‘wheel-ish-ness’ of the prototype and get obsessed with thinking about what makes it spin. (How it works)

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Designers who model: Distinguish their product from competitors through branding, style guides and logos. They can’t wait to dive into the landing page.

Designers who prototype: First distinguish their product from competitors through actionable insights gained by watching humans “in the wild” using their product (or a competitors’ product.) They can’t wait to test with a human!

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Thanks for reading! If you found this post helpful or interesting, please hit the heart! It will encourage me to keep writing late at night when I’m not working on Trays.

Jude Fulton

Written by

Recovering Architect at Mosss.com. East coast gal who wandered west. I used to design buildings, now I design experiences.

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