I’ve been facing a bit of cognitive dissonance recently around the concept of an “Minimum Viable Product”. In case you’re not from startup-land, the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is the smallest, most concise version of your product you can initially release for feedback. It enables a full turn of the feedback loop with the least amount of development time and effort.
Basically it’s a product with just enough features to satisfy early customers, and to provide feedback for future product development. It was introduced in 2011 by Eric Ries in his now-famous book The Lean Startup. On the surface, it’s a perfect concept for working and improving your product fast.
I’m all for the basic concepts of MVP but here’s the problem: you understand what an MVP is because you’re a founder or part of a startup team. If your business model is B2C or you’re selling to a mass market, what do you reckon the chances are that your leads and customers know what an MVP is? To them, it’s just a half-baked solution and really bad first impression.
This problem came up recently because I come from both sides of the creative process. I’m what I would call an “agile engineer” (where I value getting shit done, getting to market, iterating in sprints, etc) but a “perfectionist designer” (wanting each release of a product to have a flawless user experience).
It might seem like knowing both design and engineering is a blessing but in reality it’s really just a series of difficult choices, most of them coming back to how to compromise in a given situation. I thought about this for a couple of weeks and posted a simple idea in my weekly newsletter that received a ton of feedback: the Minimum Beautiful Product.
I think there’s something between MVP and perfected release… the Minimum Beautiful Product perhaps. An MVP that you’ve taken an extra few hours to polish so you make a good first impression to your customers or leads.
Besides making designers feel better about the work they’re releasing, the Minimum Beautiful Product concept has a handful of benefits to quite a few different aspects of a startup, primarily engineering and growth. One of the biggest problems for startup teams is that founders or engineers are using the MVP concept as an excuse to write bad software. But it’s more than just technical debt and a bad codebase — MVPs only exist to the startup, not to the market. To your user, you’re just delivering a bad user experience.
It doesn’t matter if you plan to rebuild on React, GraphQL and Redux, you’ve still shown your customer or lead that you’re willing to ship badly designed products. At the end of the day, customers don’t give a shit what technology your platform is built on as long as it looks and feels amazing.
“The problem I see is that people take the ideas of ‘lean’ and ‘agile’ and use them as excuses to simply rush things out the door more quickly while taking on massive amounts of technical debt.”
— Ben Halpern
I think it’s important to take lean and agile development with a huge grain of salt. I’ve yet to work with a startup founder that doesn’t look up to Apple as their inspiration, hanging up cliche Startup Vitamin posters that quote “done is better than perfect” and an portrait of an inquisitive Steve Jobs looming over their dedicated co-working desk, demanding quality.
The irony is that most founders don’t realise that the concept of an MVP is the complete opposite of what made Apple a huge success. They only released finished products that delighted themselves to the extent that they were dubbed “insanely great”. Try hanging a poster up in an Apple campus office with the quote “fuck it, ship it” and see how well that goes.
“If you decide to build a feature you should live up to at least a basic standard of execution on the experience side.”
— Ryan Singer
The best companies, like Slack and Stripe, understand that product, brand and communication design are a massive point of differentiation when you’re entering a competitive market. Slack realised this when they were coming up against Hipchat and Skype in the team communication market, which in turn has spawned an industry of copycats and forced Atlassian to rebuild and redesign their defacto communication platform as Stride.
As I mentioned in my article on convincing your company to invest in design, the reason Slack is defensible is its attention to detail. While the product itself is relatively simple, the design aesthetic, brand and user experience is unparalleled. You just can’t clone that. Design doesn’t just have to be a bonus on top of your features. You can use it as a point of differentiation to help you penetrate competitive markets, regardless of the size of your competitors.
I’ve seen the concept of an MVP challenged quite a bit recently, in articles such as the Minimum Loveable Product and the Riskiest Assumption Test. I’m not saying being lean or the concept of an MVP is wrong by any means but I do believe that startup founders and teams need to think a bit more about what “minimum viable” really means for them and how it’s going to impact their customers and leads.
Maybe spending an extra day adding animation and polishing the navigation menu to improve the user experience isn’t such a bad idea after all?