How to Know You Have a Well Defined Minimum Viable Product

Conceptually, the idea of a minimum viable product (MVP) is easy to grasp. Early in a project, it’s a deliverable that reflects some semblance to the final product such that it’s barely able to stand on it’s own without lots of hand-holding and explanation for the customer’s benefit. In short, it’s terrible, buggy, and unstable. By design, MVPs lack features that may eventually prove to be essential to the final product. And we deliberately show the MVP to the customer!

We do this because the MVP is the engine that turns the build-measure-learn feedback loop. The key here is the “learn” phase. The essential features to the final product are often unclear or even unknown early in a project. Furthermore, they are largely undefinable or unknowable without multiple iterations through the build-measure-learn feedback cycle with the customer early in the process.

So early MVPs aren’t very good. They’re also not very expensive. This, too, is by design because an MVP’s very raison d’être is to test the assumptions we make early on in a project. They are low budget experiments that follow from a simple strategy:

  1. State the good faith assumptions about what the customer wants and needs.
  2. Describe the tests the MVP will satisfy that are capable of measuring the MVP’s impact on the stated assumptions.
  3. Build an MVP that tests the assumptions.
  4. Evaluate the results.

If the assumptions are not stated and the tests are vague, the MVP will fail to achieve it’s purpose and will likely result in wasted effort.

The “product” in “minimum viable product” can be almost anything: a partial or early design flow, a wireframe, a collection of simulated email exchanges, the outline to a user guide, a static screen mock-up, a shell of screen panels with placeholder text that can nonetheless be navigated – anything that can be placed in front of a customer for feedback qualifies as an MVP. In other words, a sprint can contain multiple MVPs depending on the functional groups involved with the sprint and the maturity of the project. As the project progresses, the individual functional group MVPs will begin to integrate and converge on larger and more refined MVPs, each gaining in stability and quality.

MVPs are not an end unto themselves. They are tangible evidence of the development process in action. The practice of iteratively developing MVPs helps develop to skill of rapid evaluation and learning among product owners and agile delivery team members. A buggy, unstable, ugly, bloated, or poorly worded MVP is only a problem if it’s put forward as the final product. The driving goal behind iterative MVPs is not perfection, rather it is to support the process of learning what needs to be developed for the optimal solution that solves the customer’s problems.

“Unlike a prototype or concept test, an MVP is designed not just to answer product design or technical questions. Its goal is to test fundamental business hypotheses.” – Eric Ries, The Lean Startup

So how might product owners and Agile teams begin to get a handle on defining an MVP? There are several questions the product owner and team can ask of themselves, in light of the product backlog, that may help guide their focus and decisions. (Use of the following term “stakeholders” can mean company executives or external customers.)

  • Identify the likely set of stakeholders who will be attending the sprint review. What will these stakeholders need to see so that they can offer valuable feedback? What does the team need to show in order to spark the most valuable feedback from the stakeholders?
  • What expectations have been set for the stakeholders?
  • Is the distinction clear between what the stakeholders want vs what they need?
  • Is the distinction clear between high and low value? Is the design cart before the value horse?
  • What are the top two features or functions the stakeholders  will be expecting to see? What value – to the stakeholders – will these features or functions deliver?
  • Will the identified features or functions provide long term value or do they risk generating significant rework down the road?
  • Are the identified features or functions leveraging code, content, or UI/UX reuse?

Recognizing an MVP – Less is More

Since an MVP can be almost anything,  it is perhaps easier to begin any conversation about MVPs by touching on the elements missing from an MVP.

An MVP is not a quality product. Using any generally accepted definition of “quality” in the marketplace, an MVP will fail on all accounts. Well, on most accounts. The key is to consider relative quality. At the beginning of a sprint, the standards of quality for an MVP are framed by the sprint goals and objectives. If it meets those goals, the team has successfully created a quality MVP. If measured against the external marketplace or the quality expectations of the customer, the MVP will almost assuredly fail inspection.

Your MVPs will probably be ugly, especially at first. They will be missing features. They will be unstable. Build them anyway. Put them in front of the customer for feedback. Learn. And move on to the next MVP. Progressively, they will begin to converge on the final product that is of high quality in the eyes of the customer. MVPs are the stepping stones that get you across the development stream and to the other side where all is sunny, beautiful, and stable. (For more information on avoiding the trap of presupposing what a customer means by quality and value, see “The Value of ‘Good Enough’“)

An MVP is not permanent. Agile teams should expect to throw away several, maybe even many, MVPs on their way to the final product. If they aren’t, then it is probable they are not learning what they need to about what the customer actually wants. In this respect, waste can be a good, even important thing. The driving purpose of the MVP is to rapidly develop the team’s understanding of what the customer needs, the problems they are expecting to have solved, and the level of quality necessary to satisfy each of these goals.

MVPs are not the truth. They are experiments meant to get the team to the truth. By virtue of their low-quality, low-cost nature, MVPs quickly shake out the attributes to the solution the customer cares about and wants. The solid empirical foundation they provide is orders of magnitude more valuable to the Agile team than any amount of speculative strategy planning or theoretical posturing.

(This article cross-posted on LinkedIn.)

The Value of “Good Enough”

Any company interested in being successful, whether offering a product or service, promises quality to its customers. Those that don’t deliver, die away. Those that do, survive. Those that deliver quality consistently, thrive. Seems like easy math. But then, 1 + 1 = 2 seems like easy math until you struggle through the 350+ pages Whitehead and Russell1 spent on setting up the proof for this very equation. Add the subjective filters for evaluating “quality” and one is left with a measure that can be a challenge to define in any practical way.

Math aside, when it comes to quality, everyone “knows it when they see it,” usually in counterpoint to a decidedly non-quality experience with a product or service. The nature of quality is indeed chameleonic – durability, materials, style, engineering, timeliness, customer service, utility, aesthetics – the list of measures is nearly endless. Reading customer reviews can reveal a surprising array of criteria used to evaluate the quality for a single product.

The view from within the company, however, is even less clear. Businesses often believe they know quality when they see it. Yet that belief is often predicate on how the organization defines quality, not how their customers define quality. It is a definition that is frequently biased in ways that accentuate what the organization values, not necessarily what the customer values.

Organization leaders may define quality too high, such that their product or service can’t be priced competitively or delivered to the market in a timely manner. If the high quality niche is there, the business might succeed. If not, the business loses out to lower priced competitors that deliver products sooner and satisfy the customer’s criteria for quality (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Quality Mismatch I
Figure 1. Quality Mismatch I

Certainly, there is a case that can be made for providing the highest quality possible and developing the business around that niche. For startups and new product development, this may not be be best place to start.

On the other end of the spectrum, businesses that fall short of customer expectations for quality suffer incremental, or in some cases catastrophic, reputation erosion. Repairing or rebuilding a reputation for quality in a competitive market is difficult, maybe even impossible (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Quality Mismatch II
Figure 2. Quality Mismatch II

The process for defining quality on the company side of the equation, while difficult, is more or less deliberate. Not so on the customer side. Customers often don’t know what they mean by “quality” until they have an experience that fails to meet their unstated, or even unknown, expectations. Quality savvy companies, therefore, invest in understanding what their customers mean by “quality” and plan accordingly. Less guess work, more effort toward actual understanding.

Furthermore, looking to what the competition is doing may not be the best strategy. They may be guessing as well. It may very well be that the successful quality strategy isn’t down the path of adding more bells and whistles that market research and focus groups suggest customers want. Rather, it may be that improvements in existing features and services are more desirable.

Focus on being clear about whether or not potential customers value the offered solution and how they define value. When following an Agile approach to product development, leveraging minimum viable product definitions can help bring clarity to the effort. With customer-centric benchmarks for quality in hand, companies are better served by first defining quality in terms of “good enough” in the eyes of their customers and then setting the internal goal a little higher. This will maximize internal resources (usually time and money) and deliver a product or service that satisfies the customer’s idea of “quality.”

Case in point: Several months back, I was assembling several bar clamps and needed a set of cutting tools used to put the thread on the end of metal pipes – a somewhat exotic tool for a woodworker’s shop. Shopping around, I could easily drop $300 for a five star “professional” set or $35 for a set that was rated to be somewhat mediocre. I’ve gone high end on many of the tools in my shop, but in this case the $35 set was the best solution for my needs. Most of the negative reviews revolved around issues with durability after repeated use. My need was extremely limited and the “valuable and good enough” threshold was crossed at $35. The tool set performed perfectly and more than paid for itself when compared with the alternatives, whether that be a more expensive tool or my time to find a local shop to thread the pipes for me. This would not have been the case for a pipefitter or someone working in a machine shop.

By understanding where the “good enough and valuable” line is, project and organization leaders are in a better position to evaluate the benefits of incremental improvements to core products and services that don’t break the bank or burn out the people tasked with delivering the goods. Of course, determining what is “good enough” depends on the end goal. Sending a rover to Mars, “good enough” had better be as near to perfection as possible. Threading a dozen pipes for bar clamps used in a wood shop can be completed quite successful with low quality tools that are “good enough” to get the job done.

References

1Volume 1 of Principia Mathematica by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell (Cambridge University Press, page 379). The proof was actually not completed until Volume 2.

(This article cross-posted at LinkedIn.)

Minimum Viable Product – It’s What You Don’t See

Take a moment or two to gaze at the image below. What do you see?

Do you see white dots embedded within the grid connected by diagonal white lines? If you do, try and ignore them. Chances are, your brain won’t let you even though the white circles and diagonal lines don’t exist. Their “thereness” is created by the thin black lines. By carefully drawing a simple repetitive pattern of black lines, your brain has filled in the void and enhanced the image with white dots and diagonal white lines. You cannot not do this. This cognitive process is important to be aware of if you are a product owner because both your agile delivery team members and clients will run this program without fail.

Think of the black lines as the minimum viable product definition for one of your sprints. When shown to your team or your client, they will naturally fill the void for what’s next or what’s missing. Maybe as a statement, most likely as a question. But what if the product owner defined the minimum viable product further and presented, metaphorically, something like this:

By removing the white space from the original image there are fewer possibilities for your team and the client to explore. We’ve reduced their response to our proposed solution to a “yes” or “no” and in doing so have started moving down the path of near endless cycles of the product owner guessing what the client wants and the agile delivery team guessing what the product owner wants. Both the client and the team will grow increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress. Played out too long, the client is likely to doubt our skills and competency at finding a solution.

On the other hand, by strategically limiting the information presented in the minimum viable product (or effort, if you like) we invite the client and the agile delivery team to explore the white space. This will make them co-creators of the solution and more fully invested in its success. Since they co-created the solution, they are much more likely to view the solution as brilliant, perfect, and the shiniest of shiny objects.

I can’t remember where I heard or read this, but in the first image the idea is that the black lines are you talking and the white spaces are you listening.

Responding to change over following a plan

Welcome changing requirements, even late in
development. Agile processes harness change for
the customer’s competitive advantage.

Agile Manifesto Principle #2

Following from the Agile Manifesto value that is the title of this post, Principle #2 may be the most mis-interpreted and misunderstood principle among the set of twelve. Teams frequently behave as if this principle was prefaced with the word “always.”

Constantly shifting requirements leads to a frustrating and unsatisfying environment in which to work. It feeds burn-out and loss of morale. The satisfaction of a job well done depends on the opportunity to actually finish the job, no matter how small. Consider the effects on a finish carpenter who has just spent several days installing and trimming a full set of kitchen cabinets when the homeowner declares they want to change the kitchen design such that all those new cabinets will need to be ripped out and work begun on a new design. Or a film editor who has just worked 21 days straight to pare down an hour’s worth of video to fit into 7 minutes only to learn the scene has to be re-shot from scratch in order to match a change in the storyline.

Of course, the second principle does not state we should “always welcome changing requirements.” Nor does anyone I know claim that it does. But that doesn’t stop people from behaving as if it did. The rationale offered for agreeing to change requests from the stakeholders may be “We’re an agile shop and agile welcomes changing requirements” when, in fact, the change was agreed to because the product owner didn’t challenge the value of the change or make clear the consequences to the stakeholders. Or the original design was, and remains, needlessly ambiguous. Or the stakeholders have changed without renegotiating the contract or working agreements. Or any number of reasons that are conveniently masked with “welcoming changing requirements.” At some point, welcoming changing requirements is about as attractive as welcoming a rabid dog into the house. This won’t end well.

So, what kind of change is the Agile Manifesto referring to? There are several key scenarios that embody the need for flexibility around requirements.

  • The change that results from periods of deliberate design, such as during design sprints.
  • The change that is driven by the lessons learned from exploration and prototyping. If it is understood that the work being “completed” is for the purposes of testing a hypothesis and the expectation is that the work will most likely be thrown away, there can still be a great deal of satisfaction derived from the effort as the actual deliverable wasn’t working software, but the lessons from the experiment (usually in the form of a wireframe or prototype.)

So what is it that locks out the option for additional change? It’s a simple event, really. A decision is made.

Each of these scenarios where adapting to lessons and discovery is essential nonetheless end in a decision, a leverage point from which progress can be made toward a final deliverable. Each of these decisions can themselves form the basis of a series of experiments which, depending on the eventual outcome, may change.  Often, a single decision point may look good but when several decisions are evaluated together they may suggest a new direction and therefore impact the requirements. If the cumulative insight from a series of decisions results in the need to change direction, that shift is usually more substantial and on the scale of a project plan pivot rather than a simple response to a single change in a single requirement. The need to pivot cannot reliably be revealed if the underlying decisions do not coalesce into some sort of stable understanding of the emerging design.

Changing requirements cannot go on indefinitely or a final product will never be delivered. Accepting change for the sake of change is what gets teams into trouble.

Much like the forces on evolution, there will always be some external force that seeks to change the project requirements so that the delivered product can be stronger, faster, better, taller, smarter, etc.  This must be countered by clear definitions of “minimum viable” and “good enough” relative to what the customer is expecting.

In addition, product owners would serve their teams well by vigorously challenging any proposed changes to the requirements.

  • What is the source of the change?
  • Is it random change or triggered by some agent that does not announce its arrival ahead of time?
  • Was the change in requirements a surprise? If so, why was it a surprise?
  • Will this (or something like it) happen again? With what frequency? At what probability?