Agile · Features · MVP · Problems · Product management

Why MVPs matter

Maybe it’s because we are about to get at least a little bit of a baseball season, but I’ve been thinking a lot about MVPs lately.

In the context of Agile product development, an MVP is a minimum viable product, or a basic solution that addresses a customer’s core need without trying to solve every aspect of a problem. An MVP is designed to be something of a test, allowing the product team to hone in on the most valuable way to help clients address a key pain point or achieve a pressing aspiration. The goal of an MVP is to find the simplest, fastest, least expensive way to bring real value to your users, and it assumes both that you never develop solutions based on perfect information and that you will continue iterating on solutions until you have found the optimal solution for your target market.

A quick note on the word "optimal": Finding the right solution involves balancing the time it takes to develop, the revenue you can gain from both current and new clients through adding this functionality, the opportunity cost of working on this feature compared with the other enhancements you might make, and the real value your customers gain from this addition. Finding that balance requires sensitive iteration and good feedback from users who will 'signal' when they are thrilled with what your solution brings them and when they are still looking for more.

With over 15 years of software development experience I’ve come to appreciate four key things about focusing on discovering, developing, and deploying a basic initial solution to a problem rather than launching a product that does ‘everything’ that a user wants.

  1. It forces you to deeply understand the problem your users want to solve or the job they want to get done instead of being distracted by all of the other elements of their day. To determine how much you need to build for the solution to be “viable” and how little you can build to keep this to a “minimum”, you really need to know your users. What are their most pressing jobs to be done or their deepest aspirations and how are they struggling to satisfy those currently? Will they be thrilled with something that makes a pressing task 80% easier, or are there so many nuances that they need a 95% solution to consider changing how they solve a problem? What (if anything) are your competitors doing to address this need and what will make even your MVP a more compelling solution? Discovering and developing a good MVP takes more upfront learning than simply building a solution that does everything imaginable so you need deep understanding of your target market to come up with a solid simple solution.
  2. It dramatically shortens the time between coming up with a solution and getting live feedback on how good your idea really is. The truth is we can always learn more about our users and their needs, and so the faster we get something into their hands the sooner we can discover how well we solved their pressing problems. If it takes six months to develop a solution then you can only learn things from these iterations twice a year, whereas if you can develop smaller scale solutions in two months than you have three times as many learning opportunities. The sooner you can get people actually using what you’ve built the sooner you can figure out what flaws your solution has and what extra value elements the next version should include.
  3. It allows you to uncover what your users truly value and focus on building that rather than adding features they claim to want but won’t really use or value. Users often have a long list of ‘nice to have’ features for a potential solution, and trying to develop a product that contains all of those pieces of functionality takes a lot longer than starting with a solution to the biggest problem or focusing on the need least met by existing alternatives. Users might think they want eight features to make a solution great, but if three of those solve 90% of the needs for 80% of the market then it makes sense to start there and begin gaining revenue and traction in the market. Building and deploying more focused solutions helps clarify what your target market truly values and allows you to concentrate your efforts where they will bear the most fruit.
  4. It allows you to iterate with both depth and breadth, providing MVP solutions to multiple problems or client segments (breadth) and adding just what is needed for the next level of user satisfaction on problems you already help solve (depth). One of my favorite companies in the product space (Intercom) places a high value on the idea that they ship to learn; that is, they develop and deploy solutions as often as they can so that they can keep learning what more their current clients want and what new market segments they can begin penetrating. Focusing on an MVP allows you to innovate frequently knowing that even your ‘failures’ took less effort to learn from than a massive product build would have entailed.

Looking for an MVP requires product teams to gain deep understanding of their target market and to keep laser focused on the next value-adding step in serving that market. Designing and developing solutions in this way promotes rapid learning and uncovers what customers truly value so that you can focus your always limited resources on building what people most want. Creating that MVP allows you to innovate more rapidly as you gain increased knowledge about your current and potential clients. Seeking solutions in this way isn’t easy of course because in truth it’s not that simple.

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