MVP software development: what, why, and how

By Yelena Lavrentyeva, Innovation Analyst
Published on

In 2021, a minimum viable product, or MVP, marked 20 years since the introduction of its concept.

Defined by its godfather, SyncDev CEO Frank Robinson, as a product that “is big enough to cause adoption, satisfaction, and sales, but not so big as to be bloated and risky,” the MVP concept was brought into the mainstream a few years later by Eric Ries. In his The Lean Startup book that has become the MVP bible, he described MVP as it is commonly known nowadays:

An MVP in software development is “that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort”.

Since then, an MVP has become an integral part of the agile software development process that is based on iterating and improving the product. Many popular apps were released as MVPs first: Snapshot, Dropbox, Instagram, Airbnb, and Facebook, to name just a few.

Should you follow suit?

Let’s find out.

In this guide, we will take a detailed look at what makes an MVP in software development, why it is needed, and how to build a great one. Dive in.

Quick facts about MVPs

  1. MVP in software development is an approach to building an early version of the product with the basic minimum of features that is launched into the market or put in front of users to check how the product fills a need, and collect feedback for improvement.

  2. MVP is a perfect way to test hypotheses for both startups and enterprises working on innovative solutions (AI, RPA, big data, etc.)

  3. MVP is not about releasing a half-baked product for users to test.

  4. MVP is not a prototype or proof of concept.

  5. MVP can be built with no coding skills.

So what is MVP software development, exactly?

Key MVP characteristics

  1. An MVP has a minimum set of features that users require. This is a small and simple product, with all the fluff added at later iterations. Take the early version of Tinder which lacked most of its current functionality, even its defining swipe-right feature. Instead, users clicked “heart” or “x” to show approval or disapproval. Or take Snapchat. The app was initially just about taking a picture and sending it to another user, after which this picture disappeared.

  2. An MVP is viable. This is a product that can be used for completing a specific task, and people are willing to use it for this purpose. Zooming into the examples above, Snapchat made it possible to share photos instantly without storing them, while Tinder created a super-easy signup process when most dating apps required users to answer long and tiresome lists of questions.

Let’s look at a popular MVP example circulating on the internet for years:

mvp software development

The MVP in the picture is a complete and simple product that can be used “as is.” The cake is perfectly baked (and hopefully tasty) even without icing and sprinkles that will be added later.

This point should be clear now. Let’s move further.

How does MVP software development differ from a proof of concept and prototypes?

MVP software development vs. PoC vs. prototype

Proof of concept or PoC is usually developed as an internal project at the pre-product stage. Its purpose is to verify that an idea is feasible and can be turned into reality from a technical perspective.

Prototype is a visual representation of a product concept, whose purpose is to test usability or pitch to investors at the pre-product stage. A prototype often includes screens to show how users will interact with the interface. It is clickable, often interactive, but not necessarily functional.

MVP is typically a complete, functional product of top quality that helps discover market fit, i.e., whether people want the product and ultimately, whether they are willing to pay for it.

Why build an MVP

Designed initially for startups, MVPs are now widely used in enterprise projects, too, as part of the agile methodology.

The value that MVP software development brings in both scenarios is huge. It helps:

  • Test if the product is solving the problem it is supposed to solve

  • Make sure there’s a (market) demand for it

  • Learn from users what they value most and what they’d like to see change

  • Release the product quicker and with a smaller budget (and probably outrun potential competitors with a similar idea)

  • Save money and time on a big roll-out to the market if the idea doesn’t work

  • Grow a pre-launch user base

For many startups, MVP software development is the best go-to-market strategy. Investors want to see sales, not just an idea-only startup. Chances of raising funding with a working MVP are much higher than with a pitch deck lacking a user growth rate, MRR, and other field-tested product metrics. The terms are also better.

How to approach MVP software development

Step 1. Define the problem your product should solve

Whether you are a startup or an enterprise, your product should help users solve a problem that they want to be solved badly. Before getting down to MVP software development, you need a powerful value proposition that includes the following three elements:

  1. A specific audience that has a specific need

  2. The way your product will address it

  3. The benefits the audience will get

This is extremely important. According to CB Insights, a third of startups fail because no one wants their product.

Step 2. Study the competition

Conducting thorough market research is essential to understanding what direct and indirect competitors have to offer in the niche. Dozens of products are released daily, and chances are your idea may not be that unique after all. There can be substitute products, too.

It is important for startups to estimate the market size to make sure there are enough potential customers who might want to spend money on their product. Also, it is always good advice to try to reach founders of similar startups that didn’t make it to find out the reason. Many are quite eager to talk.

Step 3. Select core features

It is likely you already know what features your product should include. Now it is important to prioritize them based on user stories or user scenarios to figure out which features are must-haves and which are nice to have (use the MoSCoW methodology or Kano). The goal is to identify features that are absolutely necessary for MVP software development to provide the core value proposition.

For example, the scope of an MVP for a very basic ecommerce site would focus on the steps customers must take to buy an item:

  1. Create an account

  2. Choose a product category

  3. Open the page

  4. Click a button to buy a product

  5. Check out

Everything else can be added later.

Step 4. Prototype the solution

This isn’t something one wants to skip. An interactive representation of a concept will help roadmap the user flow, estimate MVP software development costs, and get early feedback. It is also helpful in a sales context.

Prototypes are created using UX tools such as Figma, Marvelapp, Miro, AdobeXD, or Axure. Some of them have free pricing plans.

After building the prototype, put it in front of early adopters to test an interest in the product.

Step 5. Create an MVP

At this stage, you finally create your MVP with the must-have functionality you’ve settled on. There are three ways to do it:

  • No-code MVP approach

    Not every MVP requires writing code.

    In fact, businesses can sometimes gauge demand going as lean as possible with free online tools. This is done by either building just a landing page with a product text or video description and adding a call-to-action button (e.g., for collecting email addresses from those interested to know when the product is ready) or performing manually behind-the-scenes processes to fake their automation.

    The best examples here are 1) Dropbox that got great feedback and funding by making a short video presenting the full functionality of their product without building anything upfront and 2) Zappos, whose founder posted photos of shoes from local stores and bought them himself after receiving an order to test if people were willing to buy shoes online at all.

  • Building MVP software yourself

    Not every MVP software development project requires an experienced developer.

    Even if you don’t have engineering skills, you can still develop an MVP yourself using drag-and-drop tools, provided that your core functionality is not too complex. We recommend Webflow, Softr, or Bubble for building websites and Adalo or Glide for building mobile apps. They might have some issues with responsiveness, UI sleekness, scalability, or integration, but they have actually worked for many startups.

    For something more complex, non-technical founders usually look for a CTO/technical founder who can bring a solid development background to the table (check here for tips on where to find one).

  • Hiring developers

    This is a common practice. Just be cautious about bad hires.

    You can find a freelance software engineer on platforms like Upwork or Freelancer. They provide developers’ internal ratings, a description of previous projects, and client feedback. However, you should at least have some technical knowledge to vet your candidate — hiring freelance developers goes with higher risks.

    A more sure way to get MVP software development right is to partner with an experienced IT agency that can also provide valuable consulting and a CTO as a service. Besides, they can quickly set up an entire project team consisting of a business analyst, UX/UI designers, developers, and testers, taking care of all the recruitment hassle. From market research to feature roadmapping, MVP architecture design, tech stack selection, and testing, all your technology needs will be covered.

    Clutch, AppFutura, and GoodFirms are good places to start looking for the right technical partner. Or you can request our MVP development services — our talented team has delivered a number of great products for startups and enterprises across industries.

Step 6. Collect feedback and iterate

To figure out which features need to be changed and which functionality to add next, it is important to build efficient feedback loops.

You can indicate on your screens that these are beta features and ask for comments from users by adding a feedback button or creating another feedback mechanism that is easily noticed. It’s recommended to collect feedback via a free-form survey, where, for example, end users are asked to share which features they don’t like and which ones they would like to see instead. This will help get unbiased reviews and improve your product.

Wrapping it up

Building MVPs can be challenging but it’s a crucial litmus test to see if people really want what you are selling. We hope this MVP software development guide will prove useful to you and help you build a great product, no matter if you are a startup or an enterprise.

Quick facts about MVPs So what is MVP software development, exactly?Key MVP characteristicsMVP software development vs. PoC vs. prototypeWhy build an MVPHow to approach MVP software developmentStep 1. Define the problem your product should solveStep 2. Study the competitionStep 3. Select core featuresStep 4. Prototype the solutionStep 5. Create an MVPStep 6. Collect feedback and iterateWrapping it up
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