The phrase “minimum viable product” is nice because it suggests at least three ways your MVP could fail: it could include too many features; those features could fail to function together; or it could fail to be a product.
It’s that last failure that I’m thinking about today.
What does it mean for something to be minimal, viable, but not a product? I think this happens when a team spends too much time in the engineering mindset while they’re cutting scope. You can end up with a nice, small, working piece of software that no one wants to pay for — they build a sausage with no sizzle. That’s a terrible place to end up if you’re launching your product quickly in order to prove there’s a market for it.
For some projects, the “product” part of MVP is a bit of a lie; if you’re building internal-facing software, maybe no one needs to market it or sell it to an uncaring public. But if a product really is what you intend to make, you’d better succeed on that count.
One way to keep the team in the product frame of mind while you’re talking about scope is an exercise I think of as the marketing-driven MVP.
For a marketing-driven MVP, start by writing your marketing copy, before you have a product, before you even have a feature list. Don’t write breathless, gushing, “it can do anything” copy — write a real, clear description of the problem your users have and how your software fixes it, explained in a way that your users will understand and will leave them eager to try.
What pictures will help explain it? Animations? Anecdotes?
What differentiates you from the competition? What tone do you want to strike?
Then use that vaporware marketing material to help drive your decision-making about what features should and should not be in your first release. If a feature is not worth mentioning when you’re trying to sell the product, is it worth building at all? And, conversely, even if your engineers point out that a feature is technically unnecessary, if it’s a differentiator, if it’s hugely saleable, then might be economically necessary.
This trick works because many of the things that make for a good marketing page also make for a good product:
- Good marketing copy will center on your differentiators; a marketing-driven MVP will not get distracted by attempting feature-parity with your competitors.
- Good marketing copy is short! People will not read more than a sentence or two before they decide to move on. A good MVP works the same way: it pushes a small number of compelling features, and disregards the rest.
- Good marketing copy shows customers what to expect. If a screenshot conveys the feature well on the marketing page, then the UI that screenshot is a picture of probably conveys the feature well, too.
- Good marketing copy is user- and problem-centered. If you understand your customers’ well enough to pitch something they want to try, then there’s a good chance what you build will actually help them.
Obviously, this is a quality-in, quality-out sort of trick. If you write a bloviating, vague, self-important heap of nonsense as your marketing page, that’s never going to inspire a tidy little success of an MVP. But if you can’t write a short, sweet, convincing pitch, even if the product idea is brilliant, then what hope does your product have?