On the subject of MVP

Minimum viable product. It seems like a clear enough concept, but what does it really mean? It’s time to debunk the myth of the product team’s favourite catch-all.

by Mark Wilson, Founder Partner, Wilson Fletcher

Three words — and a far more common acronym — that trip off the tongue of digital product teams the world over. The MVP is the scourge of the ambitious ‘I want it all’ product owner and the guiding light of the ‘let’s make this thing real’ product manager. The principles behind a minimum viable product are central to modern digital product development practices, and, when used correctly, force a prioritisation discipline on the entire delivery process.

However, few people ever really consider the differing commercial contexts in which an MVP might be defined, and why each context can — and should — directly influence the guiding principles behind shaping an MVP successfully.

Viable is determined by the market, not the provider, and each market is defined by the expectations and requirements of customers.

There are already endless debates about how best to define an MVP. The tricky word in the expression is ‘viable’: it’s subjective in most cases, and contentious in almost all. What defines viable exactly? Is it customer delight? Commercial potential? Technical feasibility? The answer of course is all of them, in varying percentages.

Let’s use a fairly gentle definition for now: let’s just say that ‘viable’ means a balanced set of characteristics that make something good enough to go to market and achieve (at least initial) success. Long-winded, but hopefully relatively uncontentious.

Now let’s apply that to differing types of organisation. In a startup, with no existing market presence, that can mean very little functionality, delivered in a somewhat rough- and-ready way. It can go to market early, garner customer input and iterate based on it until it’s good (or more frequently dead).

Next, let’s take an established consumer- facing organisation. It has plenty of heritage in market, a recognised brand and plenty of customers. Defining an MVP here typically requires much more care: risk borne of heritage, brand reputation and customer expectation — not to mention the need to sustain existing revenues — typically demand that a more robust and certainly a more polished product goes to market.

Now let’s assume that our established organisation is in the B2B space, providing professional tools and services to organisational end-users. It faces the same commercial risks as our consumer- facing example, but it faces the additional complexities of corporate purchasing, and, frequently, a clearly defined set of minimum requirements to stand any chance of making it past that hurdle. In this case, taking a product to market typically demands a more comprehensive functional scope. In short, viable means very different things in each context, and it should.

Viable is determined by the market, not the provider, and each market is defined by the expectations and requirements of customers. In many cases, you cannot achieve viable with anything close to a functional minimum. You need to take a balanced, contextualised view of your product and its target market and act accordingly.

At the end of the day, the term itself is neither here nor there. We can play with the words (we prefer ‘market viable’ to minimum viable, some like ‘minimum marketable’) but that’s just semantics. The real challenge is behind the term, not with the term itself.

The key is not to try to apply the same thinking to every context. Consider your customer, your user, (not necessarily the same thing) your brand, and the nature of the market you’re selling into. If it’s a radical new idea for consumers, definitely go out early, but if it’s a rethinking of an established problem in an established market, do more of your work behind-the-scenes. Don’t think this means a detachment from the customer: you can engage them just as effectively in your design process if you know how to.

It’s a rock-solid underlying principle to try to get a genuinely useful version of a product in the hands of customers as early as possible. But different markets move in different ways, and your own market context should absolutely define the approach you take to shaping the MVP for your own product. It can take a lot of courage to wait a little longer and do a little more today, but in many cases that can make the difference between viable meaning a great first step towards long-term market success, or an under-prepared leap to disaster.