Do you have an amazing idea for a revolutionary app or a groundbreaking technology and want to see if it can take the market by storm?
The concept of a minimal viable product is more than 20 years old and yet it’s still one of the most efficient ways to test a product idea in software development, both for startups and huge enterprises.
It’s not just an empty statement: most products you know and love today, be it AirBnB, Spotify, Tinder, or Slack were first launched as MVPs.
In this article, we would like to explain what an MVP is and figure out what makes it truly the most valuable player in software development.
On the spot
MVP stands for Minimal Viable Product and defines the approach to software development that allows you to test new ideas without overinvesting resources. The point is to put out a product that solves one problem and has no additional features and then gather user insights and feedback.
You can build an MVP in 8 steps:
1. Defining the idea
2. Conducting market research
3. Selecting features for the product
4. Defining limitations
5. Choosing the development method
6. Conducting the discovery phase
7. Developing the product
8. Gathering feedback
MVP in software development can be built without coding by creating a landing page or outsourced to a custom software development team. You don't need to be a developer to create the next AirBnB or Tinder (both were MVPs at one point).
If you want to get into more detail about what goes into an MVP, use cases, and common development mistakes — read on!
What Is MVP in Software Development?
Grasping MVP’s meaning is not hard but people often mix it up with other product development approaches and stages.
The abbreviation “MVP” stands for a minimal viable product. In the most basic terms, it is a product with the minimum qualifications and architecture to solve a specific problem of a user.
For example, the aforementioned Tinder started as an app that allowed you to like or dislike someone’s profile and text them, that’s it. The iconic swipes weren’t even there at that point!
An MVP is as much of a functional product as it is a marketing tool. Its goal is not to make a profit (at least, it’s not the primary one) but to understand what your customers need and how to build the product that responds to that needs. An MVP helps analyze the market and show the public and investors that your idea is highly likely to succeed.
MVP vs Prototype vs POC
People often mix up these three terms or assign the qualities of one to another. Here’s the breakdown to make sure you have a clear understanding of all these terms:
- Proof of concept (POC) is used to demonstrate that the product can be built technically. It can entail gathering a tech stack and making sure it works, building architecture or parts of it, or creating a backend solution without adding frontend elements.
- Prototype demonstrates the UI of the product and the intended user flow. It can be interactable on the most basic level, but it is still not a product that can be actually used to solve the problem.
- MVP is a product ready to be used.
Both prototypes and POCs can be created at the earlier stages of the MVP software development process, although it’s not obligatory. However, both can be useful to make sure you end up with the desired results.
In the words of SENLA's Technical Pre-Sales Team Leader Dzmitry:
An MVP can be built without producing a POC, but we recommend addressing the technical side of the product first through proof of concept to make sure you don’t waste your time on something unattainable.
For example, one of our clients had an idea to build a scanning medical device for home use in the shape of a pen. This could be an extremely popular product but it was impossible to fit the scanner into such a small, slim object. Thus, the idea was discarded and the client didn’t have to waste time on an MVP.
A prototype can be helpful to guide your team to make sure you achieve the desired look and user experience or can be presented to investors at the pitch meeting.
What’s the Purpose of MVP in Software Development?
Why build an MVP at all?
We touched on it when we were discussing the definition already, but here is the comprehensive and detailed list of the goals you can accomplish with a minimal viable product.
- Prove commercial viability. Releasing an MVP helps you understand if your idea could actually make a profit and prove it to investors or potential buyers if necessary.
- Conduct customer and product research. One of the vital things to do when making an MVP is to ask for feedback. An MVP allows you to see the growth points for the full version of the product and at the same time analyze the market, find a place for your product, and figure out how to promote it.
- Minimize risks. An MVP is the most reliable way to test your idea at low risk. Oftentimes, you can build it in a couple of weeks using technologies available to you through open-source models. While creating a fully realized app could take more time, money, and work only to fail in the end, an MVP allows us to minimize spending and get the most value. Oftentimes, solutions using brand-new technologies (AI, Big Data) will be launched as MVPs.
- Fast release. Sometimes a quick release is vital to make sure you beat the competition on the market. Choosing to build an MVP over a fully developed product may give you an upper hand in raising brand awareness and building a following when you are competing with other companies or startups.
- Lead generation. As mentioned above, MVP gives you the opportunity to assemble a user base. You can gather emails from users or even turn them into loyal brand advocates by involving your users in the development process from an MVP to a state-of-the-art solution.
These points make an MVP an integral part of software development. Skipping it can result in a longer production cycle or even a failed product.
As with any software project, MVP development includes several stages. According to SENLA’s Technical Pre-Sales Team Leader, MVP development can be broken down into 8 steps.
While this may seem like a long list, you’ll see that many of these steps are pretty intuitive and don’t require much time.
Stages of Building an MVP in Software Development
Step 1: Envision the Idea for Your Product
Obviously, the first step is to come up with an idea for a product.
Some come organically, as in the case of Slack - the founder lacked a good way of communicating with players when developing video games and ended up creating one of the most well-known professional messengers.
Some can emerge at hackathons or even regular business meetings.
The best way to come up with an idea for a product is to find the problem it will solve. After all, improving the life of your customer is the best selling point you can have. So when brainstorming a new idea, focus on what problem it tackles and the effective solution.
Step 2: Conduct Initial Market Research
Once you have the idea in mind, it’s time to check if someone else has already done it!
In all seriousness, while the initial market research is relatively surface-level, it’s important to do it to move forward. Here are the questions you could answer with that research:
- Are there similar products on the market?
- What kind of hindrances could be there?
- Could the product be commercial?
- How big could the market demand be?
The latter question is kind of more specific and should be given more attention during the discovery phase, but it’s good to have some estimations before you decide to go on with the project.
Step 3: Select Core Features
Now is the time to finally think about what your MVP will look like. Or, rather, what it will contain.
Think about the features you want to include in the project. At this stage, it’s important to remember the minimal part of the MVP abbreviation and not try to include everything you want to be in the final version of the product.
Generally, you would only add the features that the software absolutely requires to solve the user’s problem. Everything else is nice-to-haves and can be added later.
The vision you come up with can be tweaked at the latter stages of the MVP software development (spoiler alert: during the discovery phase), so don’t treat it like it’s set in stone.
Step 4: Consider Limitations
It’s always a good practice to evaluate your blockers and limitations before starting a project. Before the MVP development process fully takes off, you need to identify what constraints could impact the result.
Here are three types of limitations that are worth considering when developing an MVP:
- Time. Are there any deadlines that you need to meet? A presentation for investors or a specific date for the launch? If so, this will be the principal for deciding how you will be developing the MVP.
- Budget. How much finance can you allocate?
- Regulations. Are there any government regulations or legal issues that could affect the product you want to create?
Once you go over these limitations, you may realize that the MVP you want to develop is actually not even feasible at the moment. This is, of course, the worst-case scenario.
In most cases, answering those questions would simply help you pace your project and assign resources in a way that makes more sense, thus yielding the best results with minimum investments.
Step 5: Choose the Development Method
There are many ways to materialize your idea and make it real. Only one of them requires you to have a firm grasp of programming. Here are the approaches to building an MVP that you can take:
If you don’t want to build the product from scratch, there are a couple of methods you can choose to have an MVP without writing a line of code.
- Flintstone method: you can execute the operations your product offers manually “behind the scenes” until you can automate them.
- Landing page method: sometimes a landing page that explains what the product does and offers early opt-in is enough to gather customer insights and leads.
- Constructor method: you can use various open-source software and available platforms to combine them to solve the problem. Granted, this method may require a bit of technical knowledge to integrate various APIs, but it’s nowhere near developing an app from scratch.
Developing the Product Yourself
This one is pretty self-explanatory: if you have the knowledge and human resources required to develop this MVP, you can do it in-house.
Mind you, it’s not just the technical knowledge that’s necessary to build an MVP, there are often designers, business analysts, and marketers involved, so make certain that you truly have all the perspectives you need.
Hiring a Development Team
It’s a common practice to outsource MVP development. SENLA has built hundreds of MVPs for various enterprises.
For instance, Schlumberger, the provider of technology for the energy industry, reached out to us to automate the process of identifying a large number of parts with a small visual difference. It used to be done by hand and took 25 minutes for each part.
We developed an MVP consisting of hardware and software elements empowered by data science that could identify the parts in less than 10 seconds. Schlumberger built upon our MVP in-house and developed it into a product that improved the company's day-to-day operations.
While IT outsourcing makes your life much easier, make sure you go with a trusted outsourcing partner, and if you decide to fully outsource MVP development to a custom software development team, get involved in the discovery phase.
Step 6: Carry Out the Discovery Phase
The discovery phase is what makes or breaks MVP software development.
If the project was outsourced to us from the very beginning, SENLA starts the development process with a discovery phase that can last from two weeks up to two months. The team responsible for it provides a completely formed understanding of your product and how it will perform on the market. This team is usually comprised of:
- A business analyst(s) who runs a detailed market analysis, describes what the final product should look like in minute details, and creates a technical task for developers.
- A technical specialist(s) who drafts the architecture of the product, determines technical limitations and the stack needed for the project. This stage can also include building a POC.
- A designer(s) who makes clickable prototypes and develops a style guide and design code for the product.
Once the discovery phase is complete, you should have the exact cost of the project, the time it will take, and the necessary documentation that describes the project to a T. This enables you to start development and be certain that you won’t end up with an unsatisfactory result.
Step 7: Development
And now it’s finally time to build your MVP.
With the documentation you received after the discovery phase, there should be no issues: your software engineers have the technical specs, and designers with front-end developers have style guides for UI to base their work on.
Testing should also present no problems since you have detailed documentation describing how the product should perform.
There is no general rule on how much time development can take, it truly depends on how complicated the project is. The simplest MVPs can be completed in a couple of days, while more intricate projects can sometimes take up to a year.
Step 8: Launch and Gather Feedback
The release is always an exciting and nerve-racking part of software development, but when it comes to MVPs, it’s far from the culmination of your story.
Since one of the principal goals of MVP in software development is to gather marketing insights, the release is the time to focus on analysis.
Make sure you facilitate and encourage giving feedback when building and launching your MVP. Incorporate relevant calls to action in your website copy, promotional posts, and so on.
You can also reach out to your users for interviews and run free-form surveys. The points to focus on are likes, dislikes, and unfilled gaps in user experience.
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Top Mistakes in MVP Software Development
MVP software development seems like a straightforward process, but there are still some errors that can lead to disappointing results or frustrating development.
Our R&D department lists the most common mistakes when it comes to software MVP development and gives tips on how to avoid them.
1. Trying to Include Too Much
The MVP meaning in software development is not complex, but it’s easy to forget about the minimal part of the abbreviation. Once we get an idea, we want to build the best possible versions of it, and it’s easy to get carried away with additional features and decorations.
Check yourself at the discovery phase and ensure that all the features are absolutely essential to the product’s core value.
2. Not Building a Proof of Concept
So many great ideas came too early for their time - and the technology of the time.
If you skip creating a proof of concept, you run a high risk to invest time and sometimes money into a project that is not feasible. Unless you’re 100% certain of the technological side of your idea, build a POC.
3. Skipping the Discovery Phase or Not Producing Documentation
As mentioned above, the discovery phase is what lays the foundation for the whole development. Neglecting it, you risk starting a tedious and frustrating development cycle that will result in a completely different product from what you had in mind.
The same goes for documentation: it facilitates the development process and ensures the result. It’s especially valuable when you decide to outsource development fully or partially.
Moreover, documentation supports further development of the product beyond MVP and helps a team in moving forward.
4. Miscalculating the Demand
Scaling can be tricky. A common practice with MVP in software development is to plan a product for a smaller user base and develop the architecture fit for it. But then, if the product becomes more popular than expected, it crashes. And your competitors will be happy to pick up the idea while you’re working on the technical support.
Proper market research and analysis prevent this from happening, so dedicate enough time to them during the discovery phase.
5. Trying to Save on the Development Team
The meaning of MVP implies minimum investments - after all, again, M in MVP stands for minimal. However, it would be unwise to hire developers based only on their low rates.
You’ll likely end up with a bad product that will need changes, updates, or a complete rebuilding so make sure you read the reviews and outsource the work to a trusted team.
MVP is a great approach to software development that helps you accomplish multiple business goals at once. To take your idea to MVP to a product that blows up the market, you just need to follow the steps of MVP software development and set aside enough time for planning and research. SENLA will always be happy to help you at any stage of the MVP development process.