Lean Startup MVP: How To Make Meaningful Products

Last updated on 6 March 2023

Jon Pittman says this about MVP in his Medium post: “engineering and business culture often focus (sic) on minimum features and forgets the viability part.” While I don’t think this tendency is limited to engineering and business culture, I agree that too many product development teams misuse Lean Startup MVP this way.

While approaches deal with that in different ways, I feel like they overlook one crucial thing…

However we choose to make an MVP, we need to make it meaningful.

Lean Startup, Summarized

First, some quick background. MVP stands for “Minimum Viable Product,” and it refers to a key component of the Lean Startup methodology. Lean Startup is a process for developing products by validating assumptions at every step of the way.

Instead of spending years and millions on developing a huge product that might fail, show something cheap to a small group of people and see if it works. If it fails, the losses are small; if it succeeds, make it a little bigger and keep trying. Check out Eric Ries’ book for more.

Different Approaches

Jussi Pasanen’s MVP Pyramid Model beautifully illustrates the issue. On the left, we have the broad “many features, none of them good” approach. On the right, we have the “fewer features, all of them delightful” approach.

Jussi Pasanen's MVP Pyramid Model

Jon Pittman’s Medium post is an appeal for us to strive for “romantic quality” when creating an MVP, Jussi’s right-side pyramid. Other folks say the same thing, but refer to the idea as “minimum delightful product.”

A friend of mine at Philips, Raymon uit de Bulten, adds another dimension. He shows meaningful MVP in context of product maturity, with the ‘slice’ getting larger as the product matures. Also, in his diagram (above), the pyramids are inverted, giving value the most space and features the least.

Diagram of different maturity levels of a product, illustrated in three inverted pyramids: MVP, Scalable product, and Optimized product. Each has three layers: Value on top, Benefits in the middle, and Features on the bottom. The difference is how they're sliced: MVP has the thinnest slice from top to bottom, Scalable product has a larger slice, and Optimized product has the whole pyramid.

“I never liked this giant block of ‘features,'” he explains, “It also says that you need a lot of features to create only incremental value increase, which should not be the case.” I agree, my friend!

In other words, we need to focus on the features that we think are most valuable for people. Then we test that assumption and build the next most valuable features, which we test again, and so on.

But what exactly is valuable for people? Which products should we be building?

Let’s Make Meaningful Products

We make stuff to address people’s problems, and meaningful solutions improve people’s lives in some way.

If a product isn’t meaningful for people, no amount of great design will make it successful.

Foursquare is a great example of this. A few years ago, they created a beautifully-designed app and pioneered many of the gamification mechanisms we still use now. While they grew quickly, people eventually lost interest, because most didn’t see the point. Foursquare wasn’t helping them in any way.

Thankfully, the company pivoted and is successful again, because they re-evaluated what is important to people and adapted accordingly.

Make it Meaningful

Jussi Pasanen’s pyramid model reminded me of a similar one that Stephen Anderson presented back in 2006 with meaningful at its peak. Here are the two models combined.

Meaningful MVP - brianpagan.net

The difference is subtle, but it’s also critical to a product’s success. If a product isn’t somehow meaningful, it won’t be successful.

Good news: the path to a meaningful product is validating your assumptions.

Most assumptions in product development revolve around these questions: which problem do we want to address? Do enough people have that problem, and are they willing to pay to have it addressed? Does our solution actually address the problem? As LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman puts it, “Getting engagement with members and seeing what is actually important is completely key.”

The Path to a Meaning

He goes on to say, “If you’re not embarrassed by your first product release, you’ve released too late.” Some think this means that an MVP should be what Adam Berrey calls a “very crappy product.” That’s a misconception!

MVP is for Learning

The point of an MVP is to learn, so we need to give it the key parts that the product needs to address the customer need. That way, we can first validate the problem, then validate how our solution fits the problem. Only then can we start working on a marketable product and validating whether the product fits the solution and the market.

Minimum Viable Product - Illustrated by Henrik Kniberg

Henrik Kniberg illustrates this beautifully. The point of an MVP is to learn about our customers’ underlying, meaningful need by building the cheapest and fastest thing that addresses what we think that need is. Then we give that thing to customers, let them use it, and learn from their feedback.

The Zappos MVP Story

Eric Ries uses Zappos (the online shoe marketplace) as a wonderful example of what he calls a concierge MVP. They didn’t start with a crappy website with crappy customer service and crappy shoes. “They went to local shoe store, took pictures of each of their products and put them online. If anyone bought shoes from them [at this early stage], they planned to go to the store, buy the shoes, and mail them to the customer.”

In other words, Zappos needed to know if people would even be willing to buy shoes online. Back then, people only bought shoes in brick-and-mortar stores. So they created the simplest customer experience they could that would still effectively deliver their value proposition: buy shoes without having to go to a store.

Another company might have built warehouses, bought a fleet of trucks, and set up a logistics team. That company would have risked years of effort and millions of dollars on an untested assumption.

Not Zappos! Instead of building a ‘car’ all at once, they gave people a ‘scooter’ first. If it hadn’t worked, they would only have spent whatever it took to create and advertise their simple website. But it did work: they’ve earned billions in revenue and have been in business for over 20 years now.

So how do we apply this to our own business?

Lean Validation Cheat Sheet

Hester Bruikman & I were on Bali in 2018, giving a workshop called Lean for Love. We created this Lean Validation Cheat Sheet as a quick & dirty reference for meaningful innovation.

👉🏼 Download the Cheat Sheet here (PDF) & let me know what you think.

👉🏼 También tenemos una versión en Español.

Lean Validation Cheat Sheet

Give People What They Need

In other words, before getting too caught up in the details of your design or engineering, validate your problem. And when you’ve done that, validate your solution. Understand what people really need, and the rest will fall into place naturally. Here’s more on how meaningful MVP fits into a larger Humanistic design process.

Any thoughts? Get in touch!

Special thanks to @Almar for inspiring this post.