Minimum Viable Experience: The Startup Secret Weapon

Nik Page
Nik Page
Nov 1, 2018 · 7 min read
Minimum Viable Experience

When I saw Henrik Kniberg’s now iconic picture describing the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) concept I had a Eureka moment. I heard that choir of angels sing “Ahhhhh….”. I felt like I was gazing upon a work of genius. You know what? I was. The image is simple but the concept is deceptively powerful and deep. And, like me at that time, there’s a good chance you misunderstand it.

Minimum Viable Product is often misunderstood as a sort of prototype

I’ve just got back from The Design Thinking Summit in Berlin (#2DT2018). There were some great speakers there and a great audience. One fellow asked a question he prefaced with the comment, “MVP is basically a high level prototype”. I literally cringed.

Why? A prototype is a model intended to test something. Most prototypes are not meant to ever be released as products, they shouldn’t even be seen as product candidates. A pilot is a prototype designed to test market reactions to something. This thought was wonderfully emphasized at the summit by Magnus Goransson, Design Director at Lego, “Pilot launches that do not become commercial hits are actually successes. We launch them to learn. They’re not intended to be commercial.” Even most pilots are not intended as product candidates.

MVP’s are something different. It’s a powerful concept but the power comes from the words. The key word here is “viable”. The Oxford Dictionary defines it like this:

  1. Capable of working successfully; feasible.

1.1 Botany (of a seed or spore) able to germinate.

1.2 Biology (of a plant, animal, or cell) capable of surviving or living successfully, especially under particular environmental conditions.

1.3 Medicine (of a fetus or unborn child) able to live after birth.

All the definitions emphasize the idea slightly differently but ultimately say the same thing. For anything to be viable it needs to be capable of surviving. A prototype, by definition, is not. This isn’t a minor semantic quibble, it’s a key concept which defines the purpose of the artifact. The MVP depicted in Kniberg’s picture is not the skateboard (which is a prototype that presumably taught the designers the target audience wants to feel safer, to have more stability and informed the design of Prototype #2, the scooter). The MVP is car #5. An MVP is a product release which is intended to become commercially successful. Sure, it may fail to get there, even products released by the big guys with tons of support fail commercially sometimes. It’s the intent that is important.

A real world example is iPhone, which contrary to popular myth did not spring, like Athena, fully formed from Steve Jobs’ head in one go. Apple tested principles on actual prototypes (many in stealth mode). They ran pilots (and sometimes launched them as MVPs that became pilots only retroactively — sometimes even the big guys fuck up). Apple’s first handheld computer was way back in 1993, the Newton. Multi-touch has a long history, the precursor to Gesture Language, going back to the 1970’s. Apple’s first public versions were seen on the MacBook touchpad. They learned how to teach people this new form of human-machine interaction. Their first attempt at phones was the ROKR E1. And so on. All these, and more, were de facto prototypes for the iPhone 1, which was the real MVP. Companies like Apple have the resources and revenue streams to mix Pilot/MVP concepts. I don’t know if it’s a great idea even for them, but they can do it. Smaller companies, especially startups general don’t have that luxury.

A prototype, even one meant to test market reaction, may be incomplete. It may not have all features, nomenclature, marketing support, even branding or UI design fully in place. In fact, it may intentionally hide some those things to either protect the brand or to better highlight the concepts being studied. All that’s fine as long as it’s capable of providing the info asked of it. To be viable, capable of life outside the lab, an MVP must have them.

Experience: Minimum and Otherwise

Company Identity, Product, and Marketing all make up the brand. Experience is how people interact with it, each other, and the external environment in relation to it.

This is where Minimum Viable Experience (MVE) enters the picture. A product is a thing or service. Very often in tech companies, where we’re most likely to meet notions of MV…x, it’s what the founder thought of first and what they feel needs to be the target of their laser-like focus. The product is the new app or the robot or cryptocurrency trading platform or bankless fintech solution or 3D printing process. In their passion to deliver, the core team works tirelessly on it, if they’re a little progressive they hire a UX Designer who creates the UI (another peeve of mine I deal with here and here). Brand position and company identity are typically given very superficial effort, if any at all. There is no designed experience.

Company Identity and Brand Positioning

People, in general, don’t buy a product because of the product. They can’t. Imagine Product (or Service) X. PX does something very well. It’s a fantastic value at its price point. It’s a joy to use. But there are competitors. Other companies offer solutions in the same space, some in the same class with comparable price and quality. Or, maybe PX is something new, it defines a whole new solution space. In this case people need a reason to try it instead of doing what they’ve done all their lives until then — live perfectly happily without thinking about that space at all.

PX needs to give people a reason to try their offer. If not enough people try it, not enough people will discover the joy and value of PX and the company will fail. The reason for trying PX is part of the experience. Simon Sinek says, “People don’t but the ‘what’ they buy the ‘why’. He takes the point to a degree I’m not sure I agree with but it absolutely is true that finding common cause with your customer other than the business at hand is a huge step toward building a trusting relationship and making a sale. Creating that connection is what big brands like Coke spend vast sums on. It’s also the main difference between two nearly identical companies, one which has people sleeping on sidewalks to pay a large premium in order to have the latest of it’s core releases each year and the other which is also a household name, has similar quality and service, lower prices but very few people even know what it’s releasing and when; Apple and Dell respectively. The difference is how people experience the companies and themselves when doing business with them. Apple provides a strong reason, Dell doesn’t. PX with a good reason to become their customer is Apple. PX without isn’t Dell, PX without a reason is quite probably dead.

Startups and Experience

Startup people are extremely self centered. They pretty much have to be to achieve anything. They take huge risks, do massive amounts of work on crazy schedules. To get up and do that every day they need to have huge self confidence. They care very deeply about their product and when they think about their MVP, startups tend to see what it can be, what it will be “when” enough people are on board. Not what it is. If they’re lucky they have a community of early adopters with a very similar view. Most people, however, the ones the startup needs to win over quickly, don’t actually give a rat’s ass about startup life or what the product might be someday. The customers want a good experience now. If they get it they may begin looking forward to the chance to upgrade or to buy the product for someone else. But first they need to buy it and be very happy they did. “Happy”, that’s experience. Even the most faithful early adopters need that experience. That’s where Sinek’s “Why” is so useful. It helps establish the reason before the user tried the product.

Minimum Viable Experience (MVE) is like a fill stack effort. All the pieces are in place including brand position, marketing, and designed experience to give early customers a great reason to try the product and be excited by it.

Yup, the product needs to be designed and built well. That’s your MVP. But the MVP needs, for success, to be a part of a broader experience. Going from no customers to some customers, let’s say the 1st 100 who are not somehow interested personally (think your Mom, investors or even your earliest adopters), customer who choose to try & buy based on your actually on-boarding plan, may be exposed to one experience. Customers 101–500 may have another. 501–1,000+ yet another (the numbers are examples — an online product might be orders of magnitude higher, extremely specialized product might be much lower). It’s the same product. The experience changes. It evolves from MVE for the first 100 through a Growth Experience to a Sustaining & Retention Experience, let’s say. The MVE, like a viable newborn, may still need a lot of support that’s not sustainable in the long run and itself may not be profitable. That’s OK.

The key difference between product and experience is that the latter takes into account the user’s emotions before selecting your product, while using it, and after as well as looking at how those emotions will likely be different for early adopters and later followers.

This isn’t a matter just for marketing. It involves product design from the outset, it involves community building and support (incredibly important for ICOs), it involves brand position, and it involved marketing. Basically, it involves every aspect of how a person experiences the interaction with your organization. For that experience to lead to the success of your project it needs to be viable.


Originally published at

Nik Page

Written by

Nik Page

Experience Strategist & Designer, Crypto & Blockchain Guy, Futurist & Father (is that redundant?), Photographer

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