MVP software development: what, why, and how

By Yelena Lavrentyeva, Innovation Analyst
Published on

Introduced more than two decades ago, the concept of a minimum viable product, or MVP, continues to be a cornerstone in software development.

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, MVP software development has become an integral part of the agile approach 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 the meaning of MVP in software development, why it matters, and ways to develop a successful 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.

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, including its defining swipe-right feature. To show approval or disapproval, users just clicked “heart” or “x.” 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 example of MVP development circulating on the internet for years:

mvp software development

The cake on the left is an MVP. It is a complete and simple product that can be used “as is.” It can be enjoyed in its current state even without decorative elements like icing and sprinkles that could be added in future product iterations.

The meaning of MVP in software development is the same. It’s a simple yet complete version of a software product, designed to be fully operational and useful from the outset. But how does it differ from a proof of concept and prototype? Read on.

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.

A 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.

An MVP is typically a complete, functional product of robust 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 to drive innovations.

The advantages of MVP software development are significant in both contexts. 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. A working MVP, showcasing user growth and tangible metrics like Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR), significantly improves funding prospects than a mere pitch deck. 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

To achieve this, it’s essential to gather insights through research that typically includes:

  • Market Research: This step involves analyzing the market size and trends, along with identifying target customer demographics, their preferences, and pain points

  • Customer Interviews and Surveys: Talking to potential users is a simple way to ask them directly about their challenges, needs, and opinions on existing solutions

  • Focus Groups: Group discussions with a small but diverse set of potential customers can provide clear insights into their attitudes, expectations, and reactions to your product concept

  • Online Polls and Social Media Engagement: These tools help gather straightforward feedback on public interest and trends related to the product idea.

Doing this research in MVP software development is extremely important. According to CB Insights, a third of startups fail because no one wants their product.

Step 2. Study the competition

Understanding what both direct and indirect competitors offer in your niche is crucial before MVP development. With dozens of products launching daily, your idea might not be as unique as you think. Be aware of potential substitute products, too.

When you find similar solutions in the market, it’s critical to figure out how yours can stand out. This forms the basis of a strong value proposition.

Another essential step is to estimate the market size to make sure there are enough potential customers who might want to spend money on your product. 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 MVP development for a very basic ecommerce site would center around 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. Use their feedback to refine and enhance the prototype. This iterative process is crucial in shaping the design and functionality of the final MVP.

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.

    For some products, it might be possible to 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 handle MVP software development 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 in MVP software development. 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 comes with higher risks.
    A more reliable approach to successful MVP software development 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 ITRex 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 that would direct your MVP software development process.

For example, you can label features as ‘beta’ on your screens and encourage user comments through visible feedback mechanisms, such as a feedback button. Apart from in-app surveys, you can also collect user feedback on social media platforms and via direct emails.

It’s recommended to gather comments 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. Acknowledging and responding to this feedback can also build trust and loyalty among early adopters.

Analytics tools can help, too. They track user behavior and engagement, offering quantitative insights that inform how users interact with your MVP, guiding its evolution.

Wrapping it up

Building an MVP 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 MVPsWhat 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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