How to Build an App and Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

By Thursday April 24th, 2014

In 2014, if you’re thinking about creating an app, strongly consider the MVP approach. Otherwise, you might fail.

As an agency, we often get asked to build apps.

Sometimes, they’re apps to supplement or compliment an existing business, but more often, the app we’re being asked to make is the business.

Apps of this nature are often still in the “idea” phase. Sometimes, a company has raised a little money or they have money ready to go, and they’ve typically done some market or user research to validate their idea.

The first thing we ask in this situation is: “Have you heard the concept of MVP?”

Based on how many prospective clients haven’t, I’d like to explain what MVP means and why the concept of MVP is very important.

What is “Minimum Viable Product”?

Minimum Viable Product, or MVP is more of a concept or philosophy than a specific process or technique. The idea is to get something to market as soon as possible, get real people using it and then iterate or add features based on user feedback instead of assumptions.

It’s very tricky to actually execute a minimum viable product launch, however. No one wants to put anything but their best foot forward, so why would anyone put something out into the world that’s… unfinished? (Gasp!)

The short answer is because businesses shouldn’t waste valuable time and resources on anything that isn’t essential to their business. The only way to really know what your app needs is to see how people are using it.

The longer answer, though, is that to make an MVP approach work, you don’t put out an unfinished product.

Or, if you look at it the other way around: no product is ever finished.

Here’s an Example

Think back to the first time you used Facebook. Did it look like it does today? Do you think that Mark Zuckerberg, in his Harvard dorm room, envisioned the Facebook that exists now?

Of course not. How could he? In fact, some technology that Facebook relies on wasn’t even available back then.

One of the reasons Facebook is especially successful is that they’re constantly assessing, iterating and evolving. They didn’t build a product, “launch” it and then sit back. To this day, they push code changes live twice a day, every day!

How about Twitter? They didn’t start out with a “retweet” button, but they noticed that users were manually copying Tweets and prefixing them with “RT,” so they built the feature into their product.

Instagram? Remember the days before Instagram video? That was a reaction to Vine. Remember when there was no Instagram website? Or no Android version? I do, and I was by no means an early adopter. Instagram’s concept was that they could do better by getting to market, and they’d build an Android version and a web version while iOS users started using the product. They were out there, even though they weren’t finished.

What does MVP mean to your business/app/idea?

The term MVP in itself is quite subjective. Where do you stop? How far should you take your product? Which features are essential?

No one knows all of those answers, especially for a business that isn’t their own (like when an agency builds your app), but here are a few guidelines that allow the MVP approach to succeed.

  1. The product or app has to look and feel finished. This means it should be fully branded and designed, it shouldn’t have bugs, and every visible button and link should work. First impressions and trust are still immeasurably important– maybe even more so for an MVP approach. Read about Minimum Delightful Product here.
  2. This may go without saying, but the core functionality of the product or app needs to work. For example, if your app is a photo-sharing service, it needs to be able to share photos. It doesn’t need to have full tagging capabilities or an advanced search yet, but it needs to do what it’s supposed to do.
  3. Anything that doesn’t absolutely have to be automated can start as a manual process. Realistically, you’re not going to get a million users your first month. It would be really nice to have a custom and robust automated customer service platform, but it’s probably smarter to launch the product with a simple “Email me with questions or comments” link.
  4. Implementing change needs to be as simple as possible, with few barriers. One thing about releasing a “young” product or app in hopes of letting it grow with its users is you actually have to react to how people are using it. You have to keep improving it. If you see something to add or change, you need to be able to change it as quickly as possible.
  5. Owners and other stakeholders need to be open-minded. The MVP process is new and subjective, and there’s still a lot of trial and error involved. If the decision-makers are fighting the process the whole way, it will surely fail.

The takeaway really is that a lot entrepreneurs should rethink what it means to launch a product, an app or a business. The traditional methods of product launches are suffering as products are coming to market faster than ever. The “Big Reveal” isn’t as smart a move as it used to be, especially if your competitor launches their product while you’re fine-tuning yours for its reveal.

If I’ve piqued your interest (and I sure hope I have), please research the topic a little more. You’ll find that tons of people are talking about it, and a lot of really successful entrepreneurs believe strongly in it.

Here’s some more info:
Startup Lessons Learned by Eric Ries
Distinction between experience and features from Basecamp (formerly 37 Signals)
Definition of MVP from SVPG

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About the Author

Drew Thomas is the CTO and co-founder of Brolik. He oversees Brolik's technology projects, including Leverage, Brolik’s proprietary technology platform. Drew spends most of his free time on side projects and prefers to blend work and life into a balanced, enjoyable experience. He lives in Austin, TX.
Twitter: @drewbrolik
LinkedIn: Drew Thomas
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