Five Considerations When Designing an MVP for Your Startup
Startup founders and aspiring entrepreneurs tend to be born risk-takers who are willing to take bets on big ideas. But even the most ambitious idea requires a cautious approach, and smart founders know how to test and iterate fast on their ideas rather than attempting to build a fully fleshed-out product with no guaranteed customers. Yes, even the most killer app that’s totally going to be bigger than Facebook (or should we say Meta…) needs to start with a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
The startups that make it in the long run are those that have embraced a product development loop of “Build, Measure, Learn” from day one. However, in the course of the design process, it’s hard not to push the boundaries of what should be included in an MVP. Founders and product owners have to make tough decisions as they weigh what’s absolutely necessary for seeing and measuring results at launch.
In this article, we’ll walk you through several essential considerations for designing your MVP so that it remains tightly focused on its single most important goal: helping you learn what you need to build a sustainable business.
What is an MVP?
Eric Ries, who helped develop the Lean Startup methodology, defines the Minimum Viable Product as a “version of a new product, which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.”
There are a few things to unpack in this straightforward-seeming sentence. First, when we’re talking about a “version of a new product,” we acknowledge that an MVP is really a prototype at heart. It’s an iteration of your holistic vision built for testing and learning. That’s why we’re not expected to invest a ton of time and effort into developing it. In fact, as we’ll discuss a bit later, it’s worth exploring how we might even launch an effective MVP without the need for any engineering resources at all!
But while speed and agility are integral to Ries’ idea, by far the most important part of his definition is about collecting the “maximum amount of validated learning.” He explains what he means by this in more detail:
In other words, the minimum viable product is a test of a specific set of hypotheses, with a goal of proving or disproving them as quickly as possible. One of the most important of these hypotheses is always: what will the customer care about? How will they define quality?
Why founders embraced MVPs
The enthusiastic adoption of the principles of the Lean Startup movement in parallel to Design Thinking is a direct response to the failings of the traditional product development process. Founders would spend months, or even years, developing the most perfectly formed version of their big, brilliant idea and then finally launch it into the market — most likely with massively expensive marketing fanfare — and wait for the crowds. Did this work? Sure, sometimes. But more often than not, after the fanfare died down, the crowds moved on to the next party.
What these companies failed to address wasn’t just “Can we build this?” but “Should we, and if we do, will it be successful?” Launching an MVP is a way of engaging with a critical feedback loop — Build, Measure, Learn — that not only minimizes risk, but also has the potential to spare you the costly resources of fully developing an untested concept.
The fundamental goal of designing and launching an MVP is to find product-market fit, which is to say, that magical sweet spot where your value proposition uniquely addresses strong market demand and resolves unmet user needs, and your user experience delivers on both successfully.
Or, to put it more simply: to find product-market fit is to find people that are happy to pay for what you’re offering.
How to choose the best type of MVP
There’s no one-size-fits-all way of designing an MVP. Different types of MVPs serve different business goals, depending on your hypotheses about the need your product meets or the problem it purports to solve. As with any prototype, there are high-, medium-, and low-fidelity approaches you could explore based on your goals and your budget. Here are a few options to get you thinking about what might work for you:
1. The “Lite Product” MVP
The Lite Product MVP presents a fully formed UX but with limited functionality. A variation on the idea is the beta release, where your MVP is only available to a small (and enthusiastic) user group, whose members have agreed to provide feedback in exchange for early access to your product. Users are able to get a sense of your brand and product’s scope, but have access only to a constrained set of features. This can be effective if — and only if — the features you’ve included are the ones that give users a taste of what sets it apart from the status quo.
This can be tricky because logic would govern that as a baseline. You’d want to include all of the features a user would expect — the features that they’d be used to when using a similar product. Unfortunately, human psychology is sneakier than that, because giving people what they expect has a way of making your product less memorable and less desirable to users.
It’s always useful to invoke the spirit of Steve Jobs in these situations (WWSJD?). Jobs intentionally left out some basic features in the first-generation iPhone (e.g., a more powerful battery, faster network connectivity) in favor of focusing on its paradigm-shifting interface design. And our relationship to finding the nearest electrical outlet has never been the same since. The takeaway here? Think different.
2. The “Wizard of Oz” MVP
Also known as the Concierge MVP, this version is basically a way of faking it 'til you make it. In principle, it’s a great test of learning whether something will scale by creating a version of it that very obviously doesn’t. In this type of MVP, you create a kind of “front” for your product or service, shopping for shoes, for example. Users have the impression that they’re interacting with a fully operational website or app; they can move through each step of the process, from browsing, through buying. What they don’t know is that underneath the wizardry, there's a ‘man behind the curtain’ (i.e., you and your team, running around to deliver the experience instead of an automated backend).
There are lots of fun ways to execute a Concierge-style MVP that don’t require much more development than creating a simple (but highly polished) prototype or setting up a basic website using a template from one of the many no-code site builders available. The caveat is that while you might be saving on development effort, the hands-on amount of time and effort will be much higher. But the upside is that through more direct interactions with both your users and your flow of operations, you’ll glean high-quality insights that will materially improve your experience and service design.
3. The “Fake Door” MVP
If you’re starting to think that MVPs are just elaborate schemes for tricking unsuspecting users, well, you’re not totally wrong. Smoke and mirrors are a significant part of the founder’s design toolkit. A “Fake Door” can be as simple as a call-to-action button for a product, service, or even a feature that doesn’t yet exist.
Like its close cousin, the Audience Building MVP, it’s a way of measuring interest by seeing how many users click through to “Learn More” or “Sign Up.” The key to both of these types of MVPs is to find some way of rewarding users on the other side of the door, lest they feel duped. Here’s where you need to think about what you can offer that’s low effort on your part but of high value to your customer. This can be a discount to apply when your product eventually launches; it can be an opportunity to skip the line or receive early access; it can be a free download of a tool or an ebook. Be creative!
4. The “Audience Building” MVP
The Audience Building MVP is what might more traditionally be known as a proof of concept. Because it’s lacking functionality, some might argue it’s not a true MVP, but that feels like splitting hairs. An MVP can be whatever it takes to arrive at the validated learnings that help move the product development process forward.
Landing pages, especially those with compelling videos and clear breakdowns of features and benefits, have become increasingly popular as MVPs. You can use them to capture emails for a product waitlist or even to offer pre-orders. However, it's important to be careful in this kind of platforms, as there's so much flexibility available. There's the tendency to get lost on what you should focus your attention on.
Alternatively, you might also consider the Cadillac option and design your landing page in Uizard, share it with your audience as a prototype, or get developers (either in-house or outsourced) to code it.
Like the Fake Door, the Audience Building approach is designed to garner interest in and demand for your product or service before it launches. Done well, it’s also a way to build an enthusiastic community of supporters who feel invested in your product’s success. In this respect, a crowdfunding campaign can function as a type of Audience Building MVP, and so can a dynamic Instagram profile. Storytelling and authentically engaging with your community go remarkably far in generating real excitement for your launch.
One important note: a landing page is not your website. It can certainly provide excellent directional feedback for what your site should include when you’re ready to launch, but it’s only a temporary substitute. A landing page should be just that — a single, scrolling page. Keep it simple. Meanwhile, check out our full guide to what goes into creating a website for your startup.
Five considerations for designing your MVP
Even though, as we’ve just shown, an MVP can take many different forms, designing one is still rooted in foundational UX principles and practices. That is to say that any version of your product or service you put out into the world stands to meet real human needs, solve real human problems, and speak to real human values. Being able to clearly identify and understand your core audience underpins each of the five considerations to keep in mind as you’re designing your MVP, but also the whole of your user experience:
Focus on the essential value your product offers
It’s not just about getting to market quickly; it’s about showcasing your unique and differentiated value proposition. How and why are you the only brand able to deliver this product or service in these specific and tangible ways? If you were to draw a side-by-side matrix comparing your features to your top two competitor’s features, where are you incomparable? Another way to look at this is through a popular innovation exercise: where are you the first, the best, or the only in your market space? When designing your MVP, those are the features you want in front of your users first.
Challenge your assumptions about what a user needs
Perhaps you’ve heard this one before. Henry Ford is famously quoted as saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” The point is to think beyond feature sets and focus on pains and gains.
Prototyping and iteration are critical to revealing these insights and should inform how you prioritize the highest-value features to include in your MVP. As we’ve discussed above, homing in on the concept of value is essential to designing an MVP. If you’ve done your work in gathering and applying user feedback from incremental prototypes, then your MVP will present a strong hypothesis about how the value you’re delivering aligns with a customer’s own values.
Start with the smallest thing that will show success
An MVP should be tightly focused, but that doesn’t always have to mean a constrained or compromised user experience. As illustrated by the Concierge example, an MVP can also be a test of scale. Splash out on the most comprehensive and polished experience you can afford to make an unforgettable first impression. But start with just one audience, or one offering, or one geographic market. Prove that you can deliver exceptional value, and then see if you can repeat again and again without any loss of quality.
Remove anything that doesn’t directly contribute to what you need to learn
As a founder who is eager to bring their vision, in all its glory, to the masses ASAP, we understand that it goes against every instinct to take things away from your user experience, things that you know people want and that you know you can implement. Thinking back to the iPhone example we shared earlier, you cringe just thinking about being on the receiving end of a flood of complaints about dead batteries and dropped calls.
But the thing is, what you didn’t know (you’re Steve Jobs in this example, just go with it) is whether people wanted a whole computer in their pocket. But you had a hunch. A hypothesis. So, the batteries could wait for a later release.
Gut-check every feature in your MVP by asking yourself in what way it serves to validate your key hypotheses. Remember that you will iterate your way forward; each new release should be designed to test your next hypothesis.
Find your early adopters
“If you build it, they will come” is a lovely, yet (as you should understand by now), naive belief. What you really need to do is build a community of early-adopting users. This can (and probably will) be friends, family, and coworkers who understand your product isn’t ready for prime time but will be invested and motivated in helping you get there. Many of the tactics in an Audience Building MVP can be applied in the other types, as well. Inviting users into your process by demonstrating that you value their input is like recruiting your own cheerleading squad who’ll be waving you on and celebrating with you when you reach the finish line.
A final thought here: Putting something out into the world before it’s “done” can feel scary and like even more of a gamble than we’re willing to take. Even though we know better, we’re all secretly hoping that we’re the exception that proves the rule, and that we’ll get it right on the first try. But when it comes to designing and launching an MVP, you have to reframe what it means to get it “right.” When your goal is to learn, there’s no way to get it wrong, only to get it better next time.
Uizard’s templates and tools are built with non-designers in mind. From sketch to wireframe to prototype, Uizard is ideal for founders who are iterating their way forward to an MVP. Sign up for free to give it a try!