How to build an MVP in 5 steps
In Oscar Wilde’s famous preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, he states: “Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.” Replace “work of art” with “business idea,” and prepare for an avalanche of smash successes that were initially rejected as unrealistic — think Kodak’s dismissal of the digital camera, or Blockbuster rolling its eyes at Netflix.
But while hindsight is always 20/20, initial proof of concept is a crucial first step any way you slice it, and there’s hardly a better way to accomplish that than with an MVP.
An MVP, short for “minimal viable product,” is validation in physical form: it’s the barest possible iteration of your product needed to prove it works. The keyword here is “works” — all you need at this stage is for an early customer to grasp and obtain your product’s value proposition.
A properly executed software MVP enables you to:
- Test if your assumptions hold ground
- Gather user feedback to quickly fix issues
- Rapid-test new iterations for a faster launch
- And save time and money on non-core features
MVP development can be approached in several ways, but here are the five steps that will always hold true, no matter the project.
1 - Research, research, research
How unique is your product, and why? That’s the one question any would-be founder must answer, yet it’s impossible without understanding the market, the needs of your target audience, and your competitors.
Establishing your target audience, in particular, should itself follow MVP best practice — meaning, it should be trimmed down to its absolute essentials. What you’re trying to solve here is one problem to one group of people, at least for now. Scaling comes later.
Conduct small surveys, access public web traffic data, study feedback from your rivals’ clients 5— pinpoint exactly what you’re trying to achieve, even if it’s as simple as what a competitor already does, but better. Only by defining your stakeholders thoroughly can your assumptions be validated or discarded.
2 - Invent value
Now aware of your surroundings, you can craft a better value proposition tuned to your clients’ needs. Knowing what makes your product relevant to your target audience is how you understand its fundamentals, and accordingly, what really matters in building your software MVP.
Don’t forget, though: your product has to solve a problem in a way that both your target and your potential investors can instantly identify. For example:
- Airbnb allows hosts to generate extra income by pairing them with tourists looking for an authentic, unique experience that hotels can’t provide.
- Uber allows for rides in premium vehicles for a fraction of a taxi cost.
- Robinhood enables retail investors to access the stock market via a simple interface on their phones.
- Fishbowl provides a community space for professionals to discuss their industry anonymously.
Think a faulty model or high overhead is the reason young businesses go bust? Wrong. Customers not recognizing the value in a product is the top reason why startups fail. Therefore, the value you bring to the table has to be ironclad from the very beginning, and clear to the user conceptually as well as literally, in your interface.
Your users will experience your product over a series of steps — the user flow. If, say, your product is to allow easy sharing of pictures in a social network, this would include prompts like “upload photo,” “write caption,” and “preview post.” Your goal is to make everything in those three stages engaging, accessible, and clear, because that will make the process enjoyable.
3 - List all of your desired features. Then kill most.
Working for months — even years — on a project is a big emotional investment. Some of what we deem essential might, in the end, just be fluff. It also might be a great addition, but not yet necessary at a given stage.
To help rationalize the process of sorting what matters from what doesn’t, list out every single feature you believe should be in the app MVP, then go through them one by one.
Would it be absolutely impossible for you to prove your product’s value without this feature?
If the answer is yes, good — keep it. No? Alright then — chop-chop!
It might sound brutal, but keep in mind that all those “no”s can be added later; only at this MVP stage should features be mandatory-only, no exceptions.
4 - Build and launch an MVP
So by now, you’ve researched, deliberated, and made many a tough call. That means it’s finally time to translate theory into practice! You bring on developers to write the UX, UI, and code. Your app MVP is developed, and its first task is to be tested.
Keep in mind that an MVP exists almost entirely to prompt feedback. After your QA team greenlights a stable version, your friends and family will usually be your first “clients,” their experience offering you the first hint of insight into how the outside world will respond.
Then, it’s time to beta test, the point at which a majority of your users must belong to your intended target audience. Collect all relevant data and metrics, clicks, downloads, conversion rate — anything related to how your MVP is being used.
5 - Listen, ponder, reiterate, update, repeat.
Feedback is what will enable your barebones product to flourish into the headline-maker you know it can be. It is, and will almost always be, your most reliable source for educated insights about improvements, necessary pivots, and the general viability of your idea — or, possibly, a lack thereof.
At this juncture, MVPs shine their brightest by far. By enabling nascent startups to “fail” faster, they allow you to undergo trial-and-error product development for a fraction of the cost — and thus a fraction of the risk — compared to sinking years and untold amounts of money into a full build.
But let’s say you don’t fail; rather, your prototype sails through testing, wows investors, and is ready to grow into its potential. And this point, you’ll be ready to invest time and money with confidence, reintroduce technical complexities you might have sacrificed in step three, and see how far you can push the performance and profitability of your product.
An MVP is a starting point and nothing more. You can’t reach the top without it — no full-blown product can succeed without that initial research, strategy, feedback analysis, and iteration — but it’s simply the homework you do to prepare for the test.
Everything that is learned, confirmed, corrected, and debunked in the course of developing an app MVP carries over to its future versions and even to other endeavors. The work you do in these early stages often prompts unexpected pivots that can inform how you approach later-stage development, and so you’re in fact actively iterating as you go. Nothing goes to waste.
Just be sure to stay attuned to your customers’ needs, and trust your gut. As for the rest? We’ll be here, standing by to receive the baton whenever you’re ready to pass it.