Your Product Doesn’t Start with an MVP

That’s right. Building a minimum viable product, or MVP, is not the first step in getting your idea off the ground. What’s that you say?! Blasphemy!

Here’s why. The entire notion of building an MVP to validate a market or customer segment is exceedingly misconstrued. As a low fidelity version of your product, building an MVP is a crucial, company-building step emphasized in the lean methodology. And as an approach to product development, lean works quite well. Particularly, because of its emphasis on hypothesis-driven experimentation and placing value on a business’ ability to adapt and respond quickly to feedback.

But here’s the thing. Before building an MVP, you need to develop a sound understanding of the problem you intend to solve and the audience affected by it. Building an MVP before thoroughly understanding the problem your audience is facing leaves you with a solution looking for a problem to solve.

Simply put; building an MVP is an important step, but is not where you should start when aiming to solve a problem.

So how does someone go about collecting all the user research necessary to inform the creation of an MVP?

What does the process look like?

Start with getting out of the building.

After you’ve identified a potential problem or pain-point, go out and talk to people! See if that problem resonates with them. Does anyone else experience this issue? If the answer is yes, you may be on to something. However, identifying a problem does not mean you’re ready to jump into building a solution. Seek first to understand. And then, later, to interpret and prescribe.

Ask questions.

But why?

Ask questions with the intention of understanding.

Why?

Because getting to the root of a problem puts you on the right track to solving it. Deeply understanding a problem from the perspective of a customer or end user not only provides you with more context on the problem at hand, but allows you to uncover systemic issues that give way to larger opportunities.

Create personas.

Personas are fictitious profiles or characters of the different people groups you intend to help. Creating profiles or ‘personas’ for the people who share a pain-point allows you to condense your research into a manageable data set. It turns dozens of conversations into a handful of characters that embody your potential customers and end-users.

To create personas, ask yourself:

What sub-groups exist within this large group of people?

Segment these sub-groups of people into personas. Limit yourself to 3–5 personas. Any more and your profile set will be too granular. Any less and you’ll be diluting your research.

Things you want in your personas (by no means is this an exhaustive list):

  • Basic demographic information.
  • Primary and secondary goals as they relate to the problem or pain-point.
  • Where they spend their time.
  • What they do for fun.
  • How they currently see, understand or realize the problem.
  • Any current solutions they employ toward the problem.
  • The importance, significance or urgency of the problem within their lives.

Ideate solutions.

Now the fun part.

Use your newly found understanding of the problem and people to ideate potential solutions.

Ask yourself:

How can value be created for these groups of people?

Even though you’ve now conducted research on potential customer groups and have created personas, you have to understand all of this information is still based on a limited understanding, supported by many assumptions.

Be mindful of your assumptions and create hypotheses to test them.

Get out of the building, again!

The more people you talk to about your conceptual solution, the better. If people are interested, dive deeper into how the solution would work. Otherwise, go back to asking questions.

If you receive positive feedback on your conceptual solution, then, and only then, should you progress with prototyping a solution (not an MVP — A minimum, minimum viable product, if you will.). Be it wireframes, a low fidelity app prototype using something like InVision, a landing page or something else entirely. Your goal is to get a point across and gather feedback quickly and cheaply.

Analyze, Assess and Take Action.

Review all of the info you’ve collected from the above steps. If you’re confident you’ve developed a solid understanding of a problem and the audience it affects, now you can progress with building out an MVP and creating customers. If not, go back to asking questions again.

On a more visual level, the process looks like this (modelled off of Steve Blank’s customer development model):

Note: I’ve only covered the first 2 components in the above diagram (i.e. Customer Discovery and Customer Validation).


If there is one thing for you to take away, it’s this;

Spend more of your time defining the problem before trying to solve the problem. Mind you, this doesn’t necessarily make the process of launching a company any easier. What it does do, is equip you with a compass to navigate that process and guide your product development decisions along the way. You’re more likely to create real, lasting value for people that way.


For a more thorough guide on company-building and process improvement check out this article I wrote on scaling processes through ‘Continuous Improvement’.

Best of luck on your next venture. And thanks for reading!



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