How to Define an MVP

August 6, 2019

So, you have a great idea for a website or app and it’s going to change the world. This might seem like a fateful beginning, but it is also just the start. First you need to figure out what features your app or website needs to have up front so that it will be both useful for your audience while being easily maintained by your team. Basically this means you need to start the process with a minimum viable product (MVP).

The ultimate goal of building an MVP is to ship features that are essential to your products core functionality and essential to your company’s value proposition. Due to differences in budget and complexity across the different types of products, defining your MVP is an imprecise process, but there are some general steps to take to manage your risk, and ship the right features in your first release.

1. User Experience Research

A person looking at a board of cutout, written and printed papers

A user experience (UX) team is your ace in the hole for getting a start on your minimum viable product. The first step is to do research to find out who their target audience is going to be.  Then, they head out and start having conversations with that audience about what the product is intended to do or solve. Before any journey begins you need to figure out where you’re going. To identify your MVP’s end destination, the UX designer will construct personas of the people who are most likely to use your app. This is to design the app with a target demographic in mind. This step helps you find out whether your idea has a good product/market fit. For example, if your app is supposed to help people learn English, should it be geared towards children who need help reading, or adult English Language Learners? This is important to define based on the feedback of your target demographic which is based on research as well as interview feedback, which is why a UX expert is essential. This part of the development process is also where they will learn which features and functionality, like a login page, GPS connectivity, or voice recognition, are needed to support the user’s experience in order to have a successful MVP. Now that you have a solid jumping off point and an idea of the app’s final destination this is where the UI team jumps in and works with the UX team to get the project on its feet. 

2. Prioritize List of Features for an MVP

A wall with three rows of three sticky note each with someone placing the final sticky note.

The “P” in MVP doesn’t stand for prioritize, but maybe it should. Your next step is to take a hard look at your list of features and ideas discussed during the research process. Now, do a risk ranking from most important to least essential. Deciding what the app needs for launch helps give it shape so you can also start thinking about design. This is about balancing what can be done efficiently in order to get your MVP tested and launched without blowing your budget (the minimum part). Also in the balance is making sure it helps your user along their journey (the viable part) so you will get good feedback to develop future features.

Ranking features is a pretty straightforward process. If a feature is part of the core value proposition for the app, then it probably needs to go in the MVP. For instance, in the language learning app, students will need to create a login and sign up in order to use it. At first, you probably won’t have a ton of users, so maybe full functionality of the profile system isn’t the most important aspect of your launch.

By asking users to send a sign-up email and creating profiles for them, you can build out more important features for your MVP. Then when you have the resources, after launch, you can go back and set up a more efficient (and complicated) automated system for registration.

It’s important to note, you won’t always know everything about your target user base, which is one reason not spending tons of time and a big percentage of your budget on and MVP is important. For example, imagine a team working on a new social media app for retail workers. Their research tells them that direct, one-on-one messaging will be the most used feature in their app. However, after the release of the MVP, it’s found that the less fully-developed and lower priority group messaging feature is more popular. This is where being open-minded and accepting of user feedback is key. Now the team has the insight to develop that feature more, so this kind of incident isn’t really a failure. But it is an example of why you don’t want to invest too much in any one part of an MVP. 

3. Remember: A Solid MVP is a Solid Foundation

Person using an iPhone to scroll through a photo app

An MVP feels finished in itself, but it’s just the first iteration. It serves to build momentum for your idea and garner the feedback you need to make it truly great. Your users will probably have a lot of input for how you can improve it by adding features that will set it apart from any other product in the field. Take this feedback as constructive criticism that will make your investment in an MVP pay off in a second or third iteration and beyond. 

A good MVP wears many hats. Like any other web-based project it will probably change as new design trends come along and new technology enables new features that you may have never dreamt of before. By investing in an MVP, in many cases, you are also signing up for a continued education in the technological innovations that will help keep your app or website fresh, useful, and indispensable for your users who rely on it everyday.