Recently, the phrase MVP—Minimal Viable Product—has come into vogue in circles of startups and bootstrapped entrepreneurs. It refers to the bare minimum functionality necessary to bring a new product to market in order to attract early adopters. Eric Ries—who is credited with coining the phrase and the methodology of a lean, measurable startup—states that early adopters are "the most forgiving. They will fill in, in their mind, the features that aren't quite there... The minimum viable product is one that allows you to ship a product that early adopters see, and at least some of them pay you money for, and start to give you feedback on." The intent is to launch something quickly, position it directly to people that can see beyond (and are willing to put up with) a broken and incomplete product, track metrics aggressively, and capitalize on the learning from this subset of individuals.

In circles of innovation, ethnographic research and design synthesis are considered pivotal for arriving at a new, novel, useful, and powerful design solution to a given problem. Known as design research, or DR, this is a form of provocative and exploratory applied anthropology; the intent is to rapidly gain an understanding of a novel space, but more importantly, gain some degree of empathy with a target audience to better understand desires, aspirations, and mental models.

I've had success combining the approaches. But I've also identified something that bugs me about the "MVP" approach.

DR and MVP give us data. MVP is about gaining detailed metrics that can be used to understand the way a product is working. Design Research is different; it's about establishing a basis for design synthesis. Through synthesis come formative pillars or themes that can be used as rallying points for the preliminary product design that is created. These become the foundation of the "minimal viable product". And these are explicitly _not_ features or optimizations; they are thematic design principles that point to the major user goals that a given design will support. DR requires a design team that's skilled in translation; an utterance from a user isn't a design solution. Neither is a click trail. Someone needs to interpret the data and make meaning out of it.

DR and MVP share a goal of provocation. Using design research to guide synthesis, and alpha-testing incomplete software with early adopters, are both intended to provoke a reaction. They aren't intended to offer statistically significant views of how the market might behave, and they don't act as predictors for mass-consumption or mass-behavior. Instead, they provide product designers with a platform for abductive thinking—for informed decision making. The focus on metrics in many lean startup conversations is used as an unfortunate abdication of point-of-view; it's easier to say "let's A-B test this" then offer an informed opinion based on experience and information intuition. But when metrics are combined with qualitative findings from design research, a design team can move beyond an A-B answer; they can answer the elusive question of "why", arriving at a rationalization of why one decision is a better decision than another.

DR and MVP drive towards reduction. As a designer begins to realize the value of research and synthesis, a curious thing happens—they begin to arrive at the same high level design principles in extremely diverse contexts. Typically, these focus on issues of simplicity, a "hero-path" through an interface, a reduction of linguistic complexity, and so on. MVP arrives, explicitly, at the same conclusions. A minimum level of viability implies that a product offer value—just enough value—to attract or hold someone's attention (or entice them to pay for a given product). This drive towards reduction is also supported by mobile computing, which forces a level of simplicity due to small screen size, a lack of explicit focus from most users, and a constrained series of inputs. And it falls nicely in line with the ubiquitous trend towards "app stores", as this implies a modal focus on Doing One Thing At a Time.

But while there are a lot of similarities between DR and MVP, there's seems to be a subtle difference. The focus of an MVP is on early adopters—those at the front-end of the bell curve, savvy with technology and forgiving with complexity. The emphasis is on features, functions, and advancement; color is a wonderful example of technology-driven product design, or even venture-driven product design, in the same way that was successful in pioneering massive technology advances on the web. But a DR approach emphasizes and embraces mid or late adopters, or ignores the adoption curve altogether. The focus is on people, humanity, and culture, and the goal is empathy-driven design. Value is created by providing products and services that resonate in new, exciting, useful, subtle or magical ways. It really is a subtle distinction, but one that can be found through intent. As Ries describes, "Why do we build products in the first place? In the end, we hope to be able to launch a product for a lot of customers and have them give us money, so we build a great business." Many who embrace a DR approach have a passion not for piles of money, but for changing the world, driving a particular value system by shifting behavior, or improving the quality of life.

I wonder if a subtle shifting of MVP focus—from early adopters, to appropriate audiences—can be introduced into the conversation of lean startups?

Originally posted on Wed, 06 Apr 2011 22:44:13