In many discussions in product design workshops the question of the differences between prototype and minimum viable product arises. The confusion usually begins at the moment when a concept idea is first put into a prototype. Be it as a structure made of cardboard and other materials, as the first version of an advertising poster or landing page.
We have to make a fundamental distinction here between the classic way of product design and modern, agile work. Above all, the difference results from a very different attitude towards design processes.
A matter of attitude
The classic waterfall process assumes that the engineers and designers have an understanding of what is bothering a customer. They write a specification, design a solution and a product, build a first version and test its functionality thoroughly. After that they test the reaction of the first customers. This is an exciting moment – because as we know, the designers meet the actual needs of the customers much less often than expected. This is shown by the many failures and the many improvements that were necessary to turn average products into successful products: That is why many products are often derisively called banana products – they develop by the customer feedback. Windows regularly needs a few attempts before the versions are really usable. Similarly, new features in cars often only evolve after customer complaints
The approach to the waterfall process can be well described with determination, strength of execution, and a strategic plan that is implemented incrementally with the goal of market introduction.
When Eric Ries described the agile method Lean Start-up in his book in 2011, he set the foundation for a radically different approach to product and service design. The „Build – Measure – Learn“ process is all about learning as much as possible as early as possible. This means that at the earliest stage of idea generation, possible features, solution concepts are defined as hypotheses and tested by real users. The findings are incorporated into the design process. Steve Blank,, one of the main promoters of the lean start-up model, describes the goal as follows: „It’s not about building a ready-to-use product, but about maximizing the knowledge gained from the learning process, through incremental and iterative design“. The subject of learning can be product features, customer needs, the right price model, the appropriate sales channels or other aspects.
According to consultant Steve Blanck, the „Build“ step results in a minimum viable product. This is not simply a product with as few functions as possible. Instead, at this point a tangible version should be created that „allows the maximum learning progress at this point in the development process“. Basically, the focus is on the pursuit of knowledge.
For this reason, each MVP requires not only a form (a cardboard model, a presentation slide, a wireframe), but above all parameters that allow a hypothesis belonging to the MVP to be tested.
It is very important to understand that a MVP is always built with the objective of shaping a hypothesis so that it can actually be tested. This is the main difference to the prototype, which is built first to better understand and explain an idea or to test the technical functionality.
THE PATH IS THE GOAL
It is therefore a matter of establishing a certain distance to one’s own knowledge and experience. A kind of general skepticism about whether what we know is in fact true. The process around the Minimum Viable Product aims at considering all assumptions as confirmed only when verifiable data are available. The path of constant reiteration is the goal in the search for knowledge about the real needs of customers and a solution to fulfill them. A touch of philosophy hovers over this principle. According to Socrates, the mantra of the innovator could also be: „All I know is I know nothing.“