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Prototyping is always worth it

Use an MVP to test the core aspects of the product or service​ Use an MVP to test the core aspects of the product or service​

MVP, or minimum viable product, is a concept many of us know from Eric Ries' book Lean Startup. Usually it refers to a limited version of a product.

An MVP helps us learn more about the customers, how the solution actually works and the market we are going for. The MVP sets off the build-measure-learn cycle, which is vital for developing a successful product or service.

Sometimes the term is used a bit carelessly to explain why some of the specs are left off the first release. An MVP always involves iteration and learning. Getting the product out as fast as possible is not really the main point. We need feedback from users and the further development of the product or service should reflect the received feedback.

The MVP is a test. It's used to find out if your business assumptions hold any water.

For the test to work you need:

  • A hypothesis
  • A test setting for validating the hypothesis
  • An inexpensive and concrete prototype that helps the user see and experience what you are developing and how your product would change his or her life
  • A test yielding measurable results that can be used to bring the business logic into sharper focus

In addition to results, the test offers an opportunity to talk with consumers. Discussing the prototype with real users tends to bring up questions we'd never otherwise even think of.

Many of the best ideas come up when you show something incomplete to a person outside the project team. Conversations with users can also be used to lay the groundwork for a long-term customer relationship. Remember: a paying customer is the most important result of the product development process!

What to prototype?

Business design involves a lot of assumptions. Seeing if they check out is a good idea before sinking millions into product development. An MVP is a great tool for doing just that. It should answer the following questions:

  • Does anyone really want the product?
  • Is the problem the product or service solves worth solving to the customer?
  • How big is the potential market?
  • How much is the customer willing to pay for the product or service?
  • How does the customer find the product and, finally, decides to buy it?

Prototyping need not be limited to products or services. The way a brand resonates with people can be tested by creating images and stories that reflect the brand's worldview.

What is being prototyped has an impact on how to approach it and the results it yields. Designing and prototyping a story that evokes an emotional reaction is very different from developing a seamlessly working product.

Where to scrimp and save?

Minimum effort = maximum learning. A typical startup has access to a limited amount of people, money and even time. As a result they've found smart ways to get feedback from the market at minimal cost. Big companies have a lot to gain from this sort of optimisation, too.

As a term, MVP can be a bit misleading. It embodies both completeness and incompleteness.

The incompleteness awakens a sense of worry. Can the brand withstand a test like this? It's a common misconception that a product can be launched just once.

Customers usually appreciate being listened to. Early adopters have a high tolerance for the incomplete.

'Product' as a word implies that MVP is a whole. It doesn't have to be! The most common mistake is to make the MVP too big - not too small.

Figuring out how to get all the information you need as intelligently as possible requires creative thinking.

An MVP can be:

  • An advertisement or a brochure
  • A storyboard
  • A landing page
  • A product box
  • A video
  • A prototype
  • The Oz Paradigm, i.e.people simulate some or all the reactions of a system

The quality criteria for an MVP depend on what you are validating. Sometimes it's essential that a user not be able to tell the difference between an MVP and the finished product.

Create an ad to awaken interest. You don't have to immediately build the service. If the ad looks authentic, the user will make the decision to buy or not to buy based on the available information. You don't have to have a warehouse full of product waiting for orders.

Here are a few things to remember when making a successful MVP:

  • Remember that you can prototype anything.
  • Don't fall in love with the MVP. Be prepared to throw it out and change direction. We ARE looking for validation of our business hypotheses.
  • Don't sweat the details. If you're not a little bit embarrassed by your MVP, you probably took it too far.
  • Fake it till you make it. You don't have to build a finished product or service. First consider ways in which you can simulate the value proposition, user experience or functionalities of the service or product.

It's important to recognise which factors are vital for success and build the MVP based on them.

If the user experience is of critical importance, a "facade" is enough and building the MVP is a bit like designing a movie set. When the user's experience seems authentic enough and can be used to examine the service's or product's functionalities, what's behind the facade is irrelevant.

MVPs are churned out regularly, sometimes as often as weekly, as a part of iterative product development and tested in fast cycles. Time reveals the right direction to take and the tests start to form a basis for a real product.

When business assumptions have been validated or dismissed, focus moves on to building a sales process, growing an organisation and scaling the business.

Mari Piirainen & Olli Laaksonen

This is the sixth blog in a series written by experts at Futurice for Talouselämä magazine's partner blog. The original Finnish version is here.


  • Mari Piirainen
    Senior Consultant, Head of Advisory