The Good And Bad Of Minimum Viable Products

When is the right time to release a product? How do you know when it’s finished and ready for the public? Should version 1.0 be released as soon as possible to begin the process of collecting feedback? Should you hold onto the product longer to ensure it’s something more mature?

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A few weeks ago, Joshua Porter at Bokardo pointed me to an article by former Apple designer Mark Kawano. Both articles talk about Apple and how Apple doesn’t do minimum viable products. Instead they wait until a product is mature before releasing a first version.

My apologies if you’re tired of hearing the term minimum viable product and let me apologize in advance for the remaining mentioned in this post. I know I’ve had my fill of term. Still, I think it’s something important to understand.

I want to look at the idea of releasing something rough and early and then iterating based on customer feedback. Your customers tell you what’s wrong with the product and you fix it. They tell you features they want and you add them. They let you know what they don’t want and you remove it. Is that a good thing? A bad thing? A little of both?

The Value of Minimum Viable

Plenty of people talk about releasing minimum viable products. Not everyone is crazy about the idea. Some think it can lead to subpar first efforts. In an effort to ship earlier you release something closer to garbage than a usable product.

To some degree a minimum viable product could be seen as ripping off your customers, because you’re selling them a product you know isn’t ready and probably not worth what you’re charging. In exchange for a not quite ready product your customers get to work to help you improve the product for the next wave of customers. It’s putting your most loyal customer to work and charging them for the privilege.

Of course, most of these people wouldn’t see themselves as being ripped off. They’d be happy to help test your product. They want to get in on something early, especially if it’s something they want. It gives them the chance to help shape the product to their tastes. Still, a low cost first version or a free beta, might be the best way to start.

You do want to get your product in the hands of your most loyal fans and customers. They’ll be more likely to give you feedback and be more understanding about using an unfinished product. You want to attract more people like your loyal customers so it only makes sense to listen to their feedback. The others you want to attract will likely want similar things.

The counter argument is the Henry Ford quote

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

It is possible even your most loyal customers don’t know what they really want in a product. This can be especially true with a new product category. They’re feedback may not be what you need or want at times.

Iteration from a Starting Point

Iteration is a good idea. Regardless of when you release a product, it only makes sense to continue improving it if you expect to continue selling it.

Assuming you’ve created a product people want, others will copy it and improve on what you’ve done. If you aren’t doing the same, your customers will leave for your competitors. Even if you have no competition, you have to improve your products if you want people to buy again.

Back to the articles and Apple being the anti minimum viable product company (say that 10 times fast). They typically release something beyond what their customers think of as minimum viable. They want to perfect products before releasing. I’ll leave it to you to decide if they do, but it is their stated goal.

Because they work on the product beyond the minimum viable stage they start with a better product. Better than what they would have released as minimum viable. It’s one of the reasons people find delight in Apple products. They take the time to put the delight into version 1.0. Again I’ll leave it to you to decide if they do, but their customers certainly think they do.

It’s All About Defining Minimum

I don’t think what Apple does is really all that different, though. I mentioned last week how everything is a point on a scale and Apple has a different definition for minimum viable. Their minimum is at a different point on the scale of viable.

They’re following the same basic model of release and iterate. The differences is in the definition of what’s minimum viable to release to the public. Despite what some may think Apple does listen to customers and iterates based on customer feedback. In fact they’re often criticized for iterating this way and not coming up with something brand new every year.

In waiting Apple gets to add more of their own design opinions. Their opinions lead the product direction. It’s their vision for what the product will become.

When you release a rougher first version seeking customer feedback, it’s your customers who are shaping the product with their opinions, with their wants and needs. The product becomes their vision. Depending on your definition of minimum viable, your product could become nearly all your customer’s vision.

I think visions work best when unified and singular, which comes about when fewer people (or one person) create that vision. The danger of a minimum viable product is that it can lack this unified vision. Many voices are creating the vision as opposed to a few or even one.

You can still guide the vision of a product after releasing it rough and early, but the approach is clearly aimed at listening to more voices before your vision has completely formed. Your’s may be the lone guiding voice, but there are many voices informing it. That may be good or bad depending on your point of view.

Minimum Viable and the Design Process

Releasing rough and early and then iterating based on feedback has become my design process when working with clients. The overall vision is my vision for what the client wants plus what I think they need plus their thoughts about what needs to change. I guide the vision throughout to keep it as unified as possible with the original concept. The battles I pick with clients tend to be when client feedback is veering most from the unified vision.

No one other than myself and the client (and anyone either of us might show) sees the minimum we started with. It isn’t public. Hopefully by the time the public sees the site we’ve iterated a few rounds past minimum viable and start with something more mature.

What’s minimum viable between client and myself is different than what’s minimum viable for us together to release to the public. I determine what I think is the minimum the client needs to begin offering feedback. The process then becomes a push toward our combined definition of minimum viable.

I won’t let a client release until I think an acceptable minimum is reached. Once it is, I’ll let the client know I think the site is ready and let them agree or continue to supply feedback. I’ve had clients push for early release, but knew the important functionality wasn’t working so I held them back.

Every person and every company is different. Every client is unique. I don’t want to tell you or anyone else there’s only one way to do something. I do think the general idea of releasing something and improving it based on customer feedback is a good one. I also think waiting and perfecting and surprising your customs are good things to generate desire in your product and build brand loyalty.

In the end it’s a matter of how minimum viable is defined.

Thoughts for Defining Minimum Viable

This debate is another example of creativity and productivity at odds. It’s more productive to release early. It keeps you from chasing things your customers don’t want. You have more people filing bug reports and you can set up analytics to help detect problems.

If you start with something rougher and less unified though, it’s unlikely your high end will be as high as someone who’s definition of minimum viable is a more mature product with a more unified vision.

Who you define as your market helps define what the acceptable minimum is. Who are your customers? Will they accept less then your best effort to help you get to your best effort? Would they prefer not to wait for your product?

Think about your business and business model. Think about your revenue models and how you want to differentiate your business from the competition. These can also help you set the line for minimum viable.

Like most things balance is required. Too rough and it’s possible no one is interested. Too polished and you may have missed an opportunity cost or you may waste time and effort down an incorrect path.

You can see this playing out with Apple and Samsung. Apple releases more mature products that delight their customers. Samsung releases rough and often to the delight of their customers. Different company’s operating with different definitions of minimum viable and both pleasing their customers.

My definition for any project changes based on how much a client is willing to spend. Money certainly helps determine what’s minimum viable. A lower budget will lead to a rougher minimum with more iteration after launch and when the client has more to spend.

It’s end points on a scale. At one end you try to perfect everything, but never release, because you can never make something perfect. At the other end you release so rough there’s no idea for anyone to hold onto. There’s no interested in your product or worse you produce a faster horse at the dawn of the automobile.

Balance is important, but it doesn’t have to occur between equidistant opposites. What you’re balancing depends on so many things. You’re balancing everything you can to move the minimum viable point to where you think acceptable.

This point of balance depends on who your customers are and what level of minimum they’re willing to accept. What level of minimum will make them happy enough to buy and continue buying.

Where minimum viable is located is something you should think about as early as you can. Decide whether to release early or wait for something more mature. Either path can work, but once you choose you’re setting expectations for your customers. It could be difficult to change paths later without having to find a different group of people to become customers.

A rough first version could lead to less patience for a more mature second version. A more mature first version could lead to less patience for anything less than a mature second version.

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