In the past few years, more and more clients have come to us seeking assistance in defining their minimum viable product (MVP). Popularized by Eric Ries in The Lean Startup, an MVP is a newly developed product that can validate the most learning from customers in the least amount of time.
Accordingly, an MVP is a tangible way to test your product or business's core value proposition. While “minimum” implies a completely bare-bones system architecture and feature set, it needs to be intelligently paired with what is “viable" in the eyes of your customer. That is, an MVP needs to have sufficient features, functionality, and experience to validate your hypothesized value proposition in the real world as quickly as possible.
Often, product teams need a way to formally understand their core users in order to form an evidence-backed product hypothesis and feature set. The criteria for a software MVP is usually different from those for physical products, although the principles certainly still apply. Because of manufacturing lead times, higher upfront capital requirements, and increased regulatory oversight, physical MVPs must often go-to-market more "finished" than their digital counterparts.
Yet the increased time, costs, and risks - all the things that make hardware "hard" - are exactly why IoT and hardware product teams can benefit from taking a minimum viable product approach to their development process. By building a product around a tightly focused hypothesis, you can get-to-market faster and test your idea before committing an even more substantial budget. This strategy also brings in revenue faster, which is particularly important for early-stage companies.
In order to build an MVP that has high chances of succeeding in your chosen market, you need to know your target users, understand their problems and expectations, and be able to test how effective your product is as a solution. Good user research throughout the product development process is essential to meeting those goals. In this guide, we walk you through how to use user research to define an MVP your customers will value.
1. Understand What Problem You’re Solving and for Whom
Once you’ve identified your business objectives and sized your market appropriately, user research can help you identify your minimum viable product's core customers and better articulate their pain points.
With contextual interviews, you can develop a deep understanding of user needs, behaviors, and motivations in context. These interviews allow you to find unique areas of need and understand what customers look for when they buy a similar product. Combined with strong competitive analysis, interviews in the product development process ensure your MVP can solve the right problem for the right group of people.
Recently, we engaged with a client working on a wearable device to relieve chronic pain and improve movement quality. The team initially hypothesized their target market was an extremely active adult population, but through user interviews, we revealed that pain was more likely to impact a moderately active group. While also impacted by chronic pain, this population was more motivated to find a lasting solution to improve their longer-term wellness, and therefore more willing to try a new product for their pain.
Using interviews and secondary research, you can construct a user persona for your team to continuously refer to when creating your MVP.
2. Explore the Environment to Build a Solution that Fits
In addition to articulating customers' challenges, methods such as ethnography and contextual inquiry reveal how a user's environment shapes those challenges. They also unearth insights that create highly-valuable prototypes and MVPs.
For example, when working on a dental imaging system that included a laptop-based solution, Manta’s VP of Industrial Design Betsy Goodrich visited dentists’ offices and interviewed dentists and hygienists who would be target users. With one look around, she realized that the laptop envisioned by the client would be a hindrance due to the limited desktop surfaces. From reviewing this environment of use, it became clear that the software needed to be more intuitive for a dentist in a busy workflow to use. Redesigning the system to a cart-based solution improved ergonomics and ease-of-use, ultimately leading to the successful sale of the company.
Even when done through remote user research, visualizing the space of your prospective user not only helps you better see their perspective and ask deeper questions, but it also provides the opportunity to gain key inspiration and references to help you design a minimum viable product that can meet - and even exceed - customer expectations.
Visiting with horses and veterinarians on farms was critical to our early work in building a product for Horsepower.
3. Hypothesize How You Can Solve Specific Pain Points
With the foundation of insights from contextual interviews, you can drill into the specific pain points customers experience and begin to ideate on solutions. Using either material from contextual research or a diary study, in which you ask customers to track their actions and behavior related to a specific task over time, your user researcher can begin to map your customer journey.
This customer journey reveals your users' current pain points as well as how they're currently addressed. It can also reveal how a user’s attitudes towards a product can change over time, allowing you to consider how you can later build on your minimum viable product to develop a solution with high lifetime value.
In addition, this method can uncover opportunities that customers themselves were not even aware of, giving you a path to true innovation. Your team may even realize that what makes a product compelling isn't limited to form or features – your pricing, packaging, or user instructions can all solve a top customer need.
In participating in such mapping, our clients report they can better align disparate parts of the team to hone in how to deliver real value to customers, and can begin prioritizing their product development in line with those values.
Mapping customer journeys and scenarios helps your team identify and understand critical pain points to solve for.
4. Prioritize the Values You Can Provide in the Time You Have
If your interviews and mapping were done right, what customers perceive as their greatest needs will easily rise to the top. From there, the hardest part of developing an MVP is prioritizing your product value and staving off feature creep. As Rich Miller, Manta's VP of Engineering, counsels product teams: "Develop the form and features that are absolutely essential for validating your product offering, and save your other ideas for the second-generation version."
Time, budget, and risk can be useful forcing functions for defining your minimum viable product. For teams with tight budgets or hard deadlines, a roadmap based on an established process can identify the cost of implementing certain features. In this case, product specialists with deep experience and vendor networks can help you accurately estimate production processes and timelines.
Following a minimum viable product strategy can also help you reduce risk early on, whether from business, technical, or consumer standpoints. While strong user research can help you meet customer expectations and values, engineering expertise can conduct a variety of risk analyses to identify and prioritize technical risks.
You can test and solve for your riskiest assumptions prior to going to market by building looks-like and works-like prototypes. These prototypes lay the foundation for launching an MVP with clearly defined customer acquisition and performance metrics that are easy to test.
Sorting your user needs and hypotheses with a prioritization framework can help you distill what value and features are essential for your MVP.
5. Evaluate the Experience of Your MVP
Creating an MVP without evaluating what it solves for defeats the purpose of building a product to test a hypothesis. Conducting concept and usability testing as part of your user research helps you identify which of your assumptions hold and which you can prioritize next to build a truly innovative product.
In developing a testing kit for a fertility company, we developed different versions of packaging and instructional materials. We tested this packaging material in the field with target customers to understand how the form and layout of the package could streamline the usability of the kit and reduce errors. In addition, we gathered valuable feedback on how well the package options represented the innovative, high-performance technology customers were interested in buying.
While it's essential to run such tests with your prototypes, it's also critical to establish a good testing infrastructure once you've launched. By tracking sales as well as your end-to-end customer journey through additional interviews, surveys, and usability tests, you can identify where your MVP succeeded, uncover new user needs to solve, and prioritize the features and offerings to include in your next-generation product.
Evaluating usability and user experience at the prototype and post-launch stage enables you to test your initial hypotheses and formulate new ones.
Ensuring Minimum Viable is Minimum Lovable
A minimum viable product will always be minimum because it is always intended to be iterated upon. While it may have limitations compared to the competition, if built right, those are likely not important to your initial customers.
Well-conducted user research throughout product development reduces the risk that your core product ideas are off-target and helps you go to market with a well-defined MVP that can delight customers and quickly generate revenue. From there, it will illustrate opportunities to add additional meaningful features and functionality in the next generation of your product and to build a brand that customers will flock to.
Ready to Develop Your MVP?
Whether your team is exploring a problem space or building prototypes, our researchers, designers, and engineers can help you hone in on your MVP. Start now.