Is MVP on Death Row?

Note: this article was originally published on January 5th, 2016.

The true spirit of minimum viable product (MVP) has been eroded. It’s become a term dangerously banded about by those who don’t know it’s true meaning. It’s time it died.

The term MVP was popularised by Eric Ries in The Lean Startup, where he defined it 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.”

Eric Ries

The spirit of MVP is clear, to learn to most from the least effort. With such a simple ethos, how is it that it’s been so misunderstood? Arguably, the problems with MVP arise from the phraseology and the misinterpretation of the individual words. If we deconstruct the term, its weaknesses are obvious. The below definitions are lifted straight out of the Oxford Dictionary;

Minimum“The least or smallest amount or quantity possible”

Viable“Capable of working successfully”

Product“article or substance that is manufactured”

Quite simply, people associate a product as being something which is shipped to customers, ready to be used. Couple this with “minimum” and “viable”, it’s easy to see why people now misuse the phrase and understand it to mean the smallest thing that works that you can ship to customers. Key to MVP is validated learning, yet none of the terms indicate learning in any way, shape or form.

With this misunderstanding, there’s an unhealthy trend occurring that many Product Managers will attest to;

MVP

With all the derivatives the term brings, there’s a trend for an MVP to the treated as the final product. This is scary and frustrating in equal measures.

Think I’m overstating MVP’s bastardisation? A quick search on Twitter throws up these explanations of the term;

  • “the product which has just those features and no more, that allows you to ship a product…”
  • “is the most basic version of your product that still delivers your core offering”
  • “the minimum a development team can get away with shipping”

It’s clear the misuse is widespread and terminal, and it’s time for us to kill the term MVP.

What next?

Now, I am being a little facetious in saying MVP should die. I don’t necessarily think the spirit of MVP should be killed off, just the term. What next? Well, that really depends on the change you want to convey.

Minimum Viable Experiment

Had Eric Ries coined the phrase MVE, things may be very different. It’s the use of the word “Product” in MVP that leads people to think the thing is shipped, when actually it may never see the light of day. Swap “Product” for “Experiment” however, and that barrier is removed. The Oxford Dictionary defines an experiment as a;

“procedure undertaken to make a discovery, test a hypothesis”

Combine this with the definitions of minimum and viable, and you’re left with;

“The smallest thing capable of working that tests a hypothesis”

In short, MVE = the original MVP, just without the horrendous confusion. There’s a clear reference to learning, and you’re left with the sense that this isn’t a final product.

Minimum Lovable Product

You may, however, not want to talk about experiments. In your organisation, you may be under certain pressures to ship products and therefore MVP is used to convey that the product mustn’t be fully featured for launch. Say hello to MLP.

Minimum Lovable Product indicates that it’s;

  1. a product that’s
  2. not fully featured that’s
  3. something customers will love

Again, this conveys much of the MVP message, but the use of the emotive term ‘love’ indicates it’s over and above the bare minimum.

This graphic by @jopas was originally designed to highlight the difference between misunderstood-MVP and actual-MVP. I actually think it highlights the difference between misunderstood-MVP and MLP;

MVP 2

MLP recognises that launching an MVP can cause many false positives. For your MVP, it was perfectly acceptable to have sucky error messages, right? Well, say they turn your customers off and your retention tanks. All of a sudden your questioning product-market fit, when in reality it’s a small part of your product that’s causing the dissatisfaction. MLP reframes what’s acceptable within a product.

If we map time vs. quality during product development, I think most people would agree with the graph below. With MVP, you’d normally prioritise the product backlog and then draw the line at “Good Enough” with aspirations to tackle some of the “Nice to Have” tasks, although these aren’t a priority;

MVP 3

MLP changes this, and says “Good Enough” is not good enough, and “Nice to Have” is must have;

MVP 4

To build products that resonate with customers, they need to have these lovable moments built in from day 1 (and an aside, it’s really difficult to retroactively go back and make a product lovable). Otherwise, how do you know if customers will actually use your product? A product launch that is just good enough only tells you how your customers will use a product that is just good enough, not how your customers would actually use your product.

This isn’t to say the first version of a product must be perfect. Excellence shouldn’t be mistaken for perfectionism. I’m also not promoting building fully-fledged products for launch. MLP is in the same spirit as MVP… just lovable.

Notes

Love MLP? Check out Andrew Chen’s excellent blog post on Minimum Desirable Products here > http://andrewchen.co/minimum-desirable-product/

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