Over the last few years I’ve heard a lot of discussions about Minimum Viable Product (or MVP). If you are involved in the conceptualisation of business ideas which are supported by technology products, or if you work in the development of those products, you are sure to have heard about MVP too.
The origins and history of the term, which is closely associated with Lean Thinking and Lean Principles are well documented. If you are interested in reading more on this, there is (naturally) an MVP Wikipedia page and if you really want to get stuck into the subject, then most will tell you that the book to read is ‘The Lean Startup’ by Eric Ries. I will acknowledge that I haven’t read this book so apologies to any advocates if I misrepresent anything (I am happy to be corrected in the comments below).
I don’t wish to position myself as an expert on Lean Thinking. I merely intend to make some observations with respect to product quality.
From what I do know about Lean Thinking, I understand that at its heart is a desire to create greater value for customers whilst using fewer resources. For anyone interested in quality, the term ‘value for customers’ is the key here and a movement which emphasises this term must surely be a movement which emphasises quality.
After so many years of witnessing technology projects in which quality was the poor relation, bullied into submission by its dominant siblings – budget, scope and schedule – it is pleasing that so many organisations are eager to put quality on an even footing and to place greater emphasis on providing their customers with something of value.
The purpose of a Minimum Viable Product is (again, as I understand it) to deliver something as rapidly as possible, in order to learn about it. Most importantly, to learn whether it is something that people want. In some of the examples I have read about, the MVP is nothing more than a landing page or an advert, used to measure interest.
Crucially, if the response reveals that the product is not likely to be of value to customers, and of value to the business, the idea can and will be dropped.
The MVP is based on a hypothesis; it is informed to some extent by the expertise and business knowledge of the person or people who came up with the idea, but it is just that – an idea.
This interview with Eric Ries from 2009 provides an excellent insight into his definition of an MVP and his view that the intention is to gain feedback on an idea, to determine whether the idea is workable and whether the product resulting from the idea is something which people want.
It makes sense for businesses to test their ideas, and from there to involve customers in refining their products. But is this how the idea of an MVP is commonly understood? Are principles being adopted in a way that improves the likelihood of delivering something of value?
One of the crucial factors in a product development approach based on feedback and iterative improvements is to rapidly respond; to improve the product and provide greater value as quickly as possible. This would also support the other key objective of a lean approach – using fewer resources.
A plan to deliver a Minimum Viable Product without the means or desire to swiftly capture and react to feedback would seem far removed from lean principles.
A plan to deliver a Minimum Viable Product as a commercial offering without the means or desire to swiftly capture and react to feedback would seem, at best, careless.
It could be argued that such a product may still provide something of value. If so, much would depend on how those working on that product interpreted the word ‘Viable’. Whilst the ‘Minimum Product’ elements of the term (delivering a basic feature set, scaffolding for a richer product in future) are simple to understand and readily consumed by organisations eager to get to market quickly and to keep costs down, Viability is not so straightforward and is subject to different interpretations.
Perhaps because of confusion around the term, in software development, the focus can sometimes be on delivering the ‘Minimum Product’ without necessarily worrying about the crucial element of Viability. The acid test is whether an organisation is prepared to back away entirely from the product, to abandon it as an idea which just doesn’t fly. If you aren’t prepared to take that decision then should you be positioning the product as a Minimum Viable Product?
If products are being shipped as a minimum feature set, without the option of withdrawing them or abandoning the idea, if customers are purchasing them, and particularly if there is no mechanism for rapid feedback and improvement of these products then this raises significant questions about quality. Depending on how successful we have been, our ‘Minimum Viable Products’ might need some different names:
- Minimum Tolerable Product
- Minimum Acceptable Product
- Minimum Capable Product
- Minimum Suitable Product
Or, perhaps if things have gone well:
- Minimum Valuable Product
Which would bring us neatly back to Lean Thinking – creating value for customers with fewer resources. Perhaps, for some it would be better to acknowledge that what they are really trying to create is a Minimum Valuable Product, that this is their true starting point. This would place the focus firmly on quality, and that might be no bad thing.
Definitions of Viability
Viability is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘Capable of working successfully, feasible’, whilst Dictionary.com includes the definition ‘practicable; workable’
In Human Centered Design, Viability is applied as a business lens, an assessment of the financial implications, potential costs and funding. Feasibility is something quite different – a technical assessment of whether something can be done.
There have been a few other posts about Minimum Valuable Product.
The earliest mention of the term which I could find was here:
Sébastien Sacard wrote about it here:
and Robert Fransgaard made the case for the term here: