Align with Users Through a Minimum Viable Product Process
Some design practices can be described as just good common sense because they efficiently move progress on the project or mitigate risk of failures. Advancing a new product or service concept in the form of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) fits into this category of a commonsense practice.
After all, if you’re going to launch a new product or even a big, new feature of your existing product, it makes good sense to first launch a small, simple version to test its viability, see how your audience responds, determine whether you’re ready internally to provide the requested support, find out whether your servers can handle the traffic, and discover anything else you may have forgotten.
Mostly it’s about not investing too much time and money into a venture until you know it has potential to succeed, and to give your company the resources to pivot the product focus if needed.
Launching a new product or feature via MVP gives your company the time and resources to iterate on the design, to evolve it, fix it – to get it right. If it’s not obvious, an MVP is a fast, economical version of a product concept – but it is a product nonetheless, not just a prototype or mockup. It is deployable.
Minimum Viable Product, Prototype, Mockup – What's the Difference?
People sometimes get confused by the differences between an MVP, a prototype and a mockup since they each can be part of a design process, and each can be tested with users to push the design forward to a better-refined state. To clear things up, here are some brief definitions:
MVP: A small version of a deployable product with just enough features or functionality to have some value to customers. 
Prototype: An interactive wireframe or software simulation of a proposed product or feature. 
Mockup: A static image or a 3-D model of an aspect of a proposed product or feature. 
As we’ve defined an MVP, it sounds like a thing. While that can be true in some circumstances, for user experience (UX) designers an MVP is better defined as a process. And rather than thinking of an MVP as a single task to complete before product deployment, the emphasis should be on multiple iterations.
Typically, a product manufacturer would not deploy just one MVP and then move onto a full-fledged product release. Instead, they would follow a step-by-step process that allows the manufacturer to iteratively expand and improve the product by leveraging quantitative user data and qualitative customer feedback. In other words, MVP is a process of refining a product while deployed as opposed to spending more time in an iterative design process with mockups and prototypes. 
UX designers tend to like an MVP process because it offers a better testing venue than mockups and prototypes – real life as opposed to staged events. Instead of recruiting potential users, scheduling meetings, and testing a small slice of a product, the MVP process can offer a robust feedback channel encompassing everything related to the product. And by testing a product rather than testing a design for a product you can accelerate the product deployment timeline.
But to be clear, deciding to execute an MVP is not a UX decision. It’s primarily a business decision based on the economics involved, the proposed product roadmap, and the resources and experience a company may already have in place to support a product launch, as well as the type of product. Some products are a better fit for the MVP process.
For example, a safety-critical medical device that could potentially present a risk to patients may require more time in design testing before being placed in the hands of practitioners, meaning it might not be the best candidate for the MVP process.
On the other hand, an industrial cobot that poses a low safety risk is potentially a good candidate for an MVP process – a process that allows real users who will be working side-by-side with the device to shape the design so that it delivers the most value for them.
Using the MVP Process is a Modern Approach to Product Development
Thinking about “digital products” as opposed to “software applications” is a newer, more holistic mindset used today to build a successful product or service-based business. Designing “products” implies a concern for all aspects of a venture that includes software as a key element. It’s not just about achieving an interface design and software implementation – but rather addressing a wider range of issues, such as:
- Does the product fill a need for customers or offer something of value to them?
- Is the marketing strategy working?
- Can the support team handle customer requests?
- Is the product sustainable?
To reiterate, the digital world has moved in the direction of thinking about product design and away from thinking just about software design. For instance, the practice of human-centered design (HCD) has superseded the practice of user-centered design (UCD) as a UX best practice because it is a more complete methodology. HCD is conceptually holistic in its approach, taking into consideration the experience of a whole product as opposed to just the software interface.
The “fail fast, fail early” business philosophy pairs well with the MVP process. With an MVP you’ll know very early whether there are problems, you’ll have time and resources left if a course correction or product reinvention is necessary. Without the MVP process – If you go for a large initial product release and there are significant issues – losses may be so great that recovery may not be possible.
The key takeaway is this: digital products and services can continue to become more useful, valuable and good for people if the practices used to make them are also thoughtful and based on solid common sense.