The Ultimate Guide for Building a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) [Step-by-step]

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Trevor Wencl
Software Architect

Entrepreneurs have long been familiar with the idea of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). The idea, introduced by Eric Ries in his famous book The Lean Startup, provides a scientific approach to building a working product with the most important features to launch something in a market. 

The idea is most commonly thought of in the context of an idea-stage startup, where founders can validate a product idea without investing too much time and resources into it. But MVPs can also be used for existing companies to help them launch new products, introduce new features, and enter new markets.

In this article, we’ll break down the core components of an MVP, dive into some of the history behind MVPs, and provide a framework for building one.

Table Of Contents

What is an MVP (Minimum Viable Product)?

Eric Ries defines an MVP as “the smallest version of a product you can use to start the process of learning from customers.” An MVP is a way to test a product idea in the market. At its core, an MVP is not a full product; instead, it’s a version of the product with only the core, most important elements of a product necessary to test it with users, validate market demand, and confirm whether people are willing to pay for it.

The Origin Story of the MVP

Ries wrote The Lean Startup in 2008, after the failure of his first startup, the demise of which he attributed to a poor understanding of what their target customers wanted.

The book was seminal, in that it challenged the status quo for building products. At the time, businesses would write lengthy business plans, invest significant resources upfront, and have long product development cycles. In his view, this often led to slow progress, wasteful spending, and ultimately, a higher rate of failure. 

In contrast to traditional product development, the lean method emphasized rapid experimentation, validated learning, and continuous iteration in a “build-measure-learn” cycle. The goal was to build and launch products or services more efficiently, using iterative processes informed by customer feedback and data. This enabled them to learn from results and make informed decisions about whether to pivot or persevere.

A diagram of the Lean Startup Method: Build, Measure and Learn

The Purpose of Building an MVP

While Ries’ book was intended for startups, the lean method has been adopted by companies of all sizes. That’s because a deep understanding of your target market, identifying the core features, and determining how you’ll market it can help you de-risk product development.

MVPs offer a path to quickly validate your idea. The MVP approach engages users in the product development process, helping you gather feedback early and often. This helps you iterate quickly, root out core issues, and identify the real needs and wants of your users.

Use Cases for Building an MVP

There are a number of reasons to build an MVP. The one we commonly think of is during the ideation phase of a startup, in which an MVP is the first working version of a product. At this stage, companies can verify if their product is something that users not only desire but are also willing to pay for.

By building an MVP, startup founders can quickly identify and fine-tune the key features and tools that will resonate most with their user base.

But companies past the idea stage can employ MVPs, too. Here are some additional reasons companies will use an MVP:

Build new features or products: Companies need to continually innovate in order to stay competitive. Building MVPs for new products, features, or services that you’re considering helps companies maintain a competitive edge by facilitating rapid iteration and adaptation. 

Improve upon an existing product: An MVP serves as an efficient tool to improve upon an existing product. By testing new, often hard-to-prioritize features through an MVP, companies can identify the ones that provide the best user experience and the strongest business case.

Enter new markets: If you’re exploring a new geographic region, or even a new business market, taking an MVP approach can help you do it more efficiently.

Types of MVPs: Functional vs. Non-Functional

While we mainly focus on products in this article, it’s also possible to build a product-less MVP. What you decide will primarily be driven by the nature of the product, the goals for the process, and the resources available. What differentiates the types is their level of actual functionality versus what is simulated or left to the imagination.

A table comparing functional MVP vs Non-functional MVPs

Functional MVPs

A functional MVP is a working product with a carefully selected set of features – the minimum required features to test your idea. In application development, a functional MVP can be a simplified version of a mobile or web app that users can experience directly. The goal is to observe real user interactions with your product and collect feedback to test business, marketing, and engineering assumptions.

Once you’ve validated your idea, you can use this feedback to refine initial features. Ultimately, your Minimum Viable Product will grow into a fully-fledged product that tackles customer pain points.

Non-Functional MVPs

On the flip side, a “no-product MVP” may make more sense in some scenarios. This non-functional MVP approach allows you to test and validate an idea without building any coding. There are a few ways to approach an MVP in this way. 

The first is through the creation of low-fidelity wireframes, sketches, or mockups that demonstrate the look and feel of the would-be product. From these, entrepreneurs can create marketing campaigns to test whether their theory or product concept will gain any traction. This can involve starting a product presale before it’s actually built, like a Kickstarter campaign. If people give money for a product that’s yet to be produced, then that’s a promising sign.

Another form of non-functional Minimum Viable Product is the “product mock-up MVP”. It involves companies building a limited set of features for their future product. But instead of developing fully automated solutions, they use manual labor to replicate core functionalities and deliver a close-to-genuine user experience. This can involve a series of digital mockups that users can interact with. If user feedback looks promising, then the company moves forward with building automated functionalities.

Should you Build a Functional or Non-Functional MVP?

Functional MVPs require more investment but provide a more accurate impression of whether or not a product will be successful. They also provide a head start on the development process. Non-functional MVPs can be a lower-cost alternative to help assess market interest and jumpstart the design process.  Note, though, that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. You might start with a non-functional MVP, say a marketing campaign, to test certain features with your target market while you build the core functionality of a product. 

Below is a table summarizing when it makes sense to build a functional vs. non-functional MVP.

When to build a functional vs non-functional MVP.

How to Build an MVP: 6 Steps

Once you’ve confirmed you want to build an MVP, there are key steps involved in bringing it to life.

1. Define Your Objectives and Goals

MVPs, similar to other products, can easily expand in scope. By precisely defining your objectives and understanding the desired outcomes, you can maintain a streamlined MVP process and eliminate unnecessary elements. Below are some examples of objectives and goals you might have for your MVP.

How to define your objectives and goals with your MVP

2. Create User Personas and Journeys

​​When conceptualizing a product, you need to first ask whether it’s for your existing users or a new persona. If you’re catering to a fresh audience, make sure to define the user persona specifically for the new product. Establishing a clear persona can guide the ideation of pivotal features and elements, ensuring they align with the target audience’s preferences and needs. User personas should encapsulate various aspects, such as demographics, behaviors, values, challenges, and needs.

An example of a user persona for an MVP

To further tailor your product to your user, address key questions:

• What prompts a customer to purchase your product?

• Which unique value are you delivering to them?

• What sets you apart from competitors?

Once you’ve established your personas, map out the user journey. Start by determining the main objective of your product. Then, outline the successive actions a user would undertake to achieve that end goal. By doing so, you can sketch a user flow that effectively navigates users towards the desired outcome. This structured approach aids in anticipating users’ needs, ensuring the product experience is seamless and intuitive.

There are many ways of mapping out the customer journey. The way you map out yours will be specific to your product, customer segments, price point, and industry. Below is one such example. 

3. Determine Technical Requirements

Next, you’re ready to define your technical requirements. Start by integrating features that are pertinent to each phase of the user journey, ensuring they align with the broader vision for your product.

Once you’ve brainstormed potential features, categorize them based on their priority: ‘high’, ‘medium’, or ‘low’. This hierarchy helps you allocate resources efficiently and ensure critical components get the attention they deserve. Zero in on the bare minimum set of features pivotal for users to reach the product’s primary goal.

While it’s tempting to add all the bells and whistles, it’s best to hold off on ‘nice-to-have’ features at the MVP stage. These can be noted and set aside for potential inclusion in future iterations. By doing so, you ensure that the initial product remains focused and agile. Only after the MVP has validated the core idea should you consider reintroducing these supplementary features, ensuring they enhance rather than clutter the user experience.

4. Create an MVP Strategy

While technical requirements provide the foundation, the execution and analysis of an MVP’s performance are equally critical. Crafting a comprehensive MVP strategy ensures you’re well-prepared to navigate the launch and post-launch phases efficiently.

Beyond the technicalities, consider the broader implications of the MVP on your business. Reflect upon questions such as:

  • What are the top priority features for my startup to build first?
  • How will the introduction of this product or feature influence other sectors of my business?
  • How will it seamlessly blend with our existing products and functionalities?

An effective MVP strategy also entails meticulous planning around testing methodologies. Deciding on the metrics that will gauge your MVP’s success is paramount. Ask yourself:

  • Through which avenues will you attract users for testing?
  • What mechanisms will be in place to amass data? And more importantly, how do you plan to interpret and act upon this data?

A well-rounded MVP strategy is a harmonious blend of technical proficiency, business acumen, and user-centric methodologies. By considering these aspects holistically, you can set the stage for a successful MVP launch and subsequent iterations.

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5. Develop Your MVP

For established businesses, it’s imperative to ensure that the MVP initiative remains a separate entity, preventing any disruptions to the core operations. Refrain from redirecting resources from ongoing projects or scheduled releases. Instead, allocate a modest fraction—typically between 10 to 15%—of your resources solely for the MVP’s development. This dedicated approach ensures that both regular operations and the MVP progress unhindered.

Speed is key, but not at the expense of quality. Strive to develop the MVP fast, while keeping bugs and performance issues to a minimum. The challenge lies in striking the right balance: you want to optimize cost and time, yet deliver a product refined enough to gather valuable feedback.

An overly polished MVP can inadvertently escalate both time and financial investments. On the other hand, a glitch-ridden MVP can distort the user feedback, as users might focus more on the bugs than the actual product value. The golden mean is an MVP that’s efficient enough to resonate with users, while also being economical in terms of resources.

6. Test, Measure, Learn

Once you’ve completed your MVP, it’s time to test it! Start by gathering data from your pre-defined user segment, ensuring that this data is comprehensive and relevant.

Upon collection, dive deep into data analysis. This process will address pivotal questions that determine the MVP’s trajectory:

• Did user interactions suggest that your MVP has the potential to mature into a full-fledged product? Or does it appear to be a dead-end investment?

• Which facets of the MVP resonated positively with users, and which elements evoked a lukewarm or even negative response?

• Were there any features that users deemed indispensable?

• When users evaluated your app’s value proposition, did their perceptions align with your initial assumptions and expectations?

• Is there a willingness among users to financially invest in your product?

Based on these insights, make an informed decision on the MVP’s future. If the feedback and data suggest potential, your next step is to integrate the MVP into your broader product development roadmap. On the contrary, if the MVP doesn’t seem promising, the insights gained can still be invaluable for future endeavors.

Five Mistakes to Avoid when Building an MVP

When building an MVP, there are several pitfalls to be wary of:

1. Feature creep

Stick to your objectives. Take out any non-essential features. Remember – this is just for early testing. 

2. Product isn’t viable

While it has to be simple, you also need a product that works. Your product needs to work to gain feedback. Make sure it’s simple, not buggy, and meets your user’s core features. 

3. Ignoring users’ feedback

Some entrepreneurs might get too attached to their products. This can lead them to ignore user feedback and invest in features that eventually yield no positive results. Even if you love an idea, if the market doesn’t respond, take ego out of the equation. 

4. Dedicating too many resources (or too few)

As a business, you can’t dedicate too much of your team to a product or feature that isn’t validated. This takes away from core activities, can decrease user experience, and ultimately hurts your revenue-generating business. Instead, decide on a realistic timeline and number of developer hours to realize your MVP.

5. Focusing too much on the product and not enough on the feedback

We can get a bit excited about new products and features. But don’t skip out on the user testing part! This is the most important component of an MVP.

How to Measure the Success of an MVP

Avoiding mistakes is an important task, but how do you know if your MVP is a success that deserves further investment? Determining this requires collecting feedback from various sources and looking into different metrics.

The metrics to determine if an MVP is a success

Build Your MVP Small to Grow Big

Building an MVP remains one of the most useful moves as it allows you to release the product to market quickly, test a business idea, and learn about user preferences.

Developing an MVP doesn’t have to be complicated, either. From market research and user flow to the core features and customer feedback, the list of steps to consider is limited. This enables you to focus your attention on issues that matter. Instead of investing vast sums of money into risky initiatives, an MVP development strategy minimizes this risk and educates you on how to confidently move forward.

At Scalable Path, we’ve combined our core business model of vetting and hiring premium tech talent with expert-led tech services. If you’re looking to build an MVP and need CTO-level consulting, fill out our questionnaire or read about how we helped our client, Odaptos, ship their MVP in record time.

Originally published on Feb 26, 2021Last updated on Sep 6, 2023

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