The first version of your app: Prototype or MVP?

What should the first version of your app bea prototype or a minimum viable product (MVP)? What’s the difference between the two and what are they used for? This article explores the definitions of these two testing options for digital products and their relative advantages, including how we understand and use them here at Boldare.

The digital product development context

Our experience is that an Agile approach to creating digital products is the most effective. Not only does it ensure full engagement with users and their needs, it has a high degree of flexibility. This means projects can be pivoted quickly and easily if the planned product doesn’t match the emerging needs.

Digital product development becomes even more efficient when the agile scrum methodology is combined with the lean startup approach. Lean startup can incorporate both prototyping and MVP stages in a structured process that turns business ideas into concrete, detailed propositions. It uses testing and data to refine the product vision. Following this, scrum’s iterative sprint-based approach is ideal for actually building the product, and later scaling it.

It depends on the product you’re developing, it’s scope and intended user audience, but we find that for validating an initial business idea, either a prototype or an MVP app will be sufficient. Those two approaches can save you time and money, so there’s no need to invest heavily in a huge, complex platform without going first through one of those (or both) stages.

A prototype is like a first draft of the product. Not quite a sketch on the back of a napkin (although, by definition, a napkin sketch can be a prototype, and if it will help you to solve your problem it’s perfectly valid!) but definitely a low-engineering, low-functionality item – a kind of clickable trailer for the main feature. A prototype is a way to rapidly test the basic ideas and assumptions behind the product.

In contrast, an MVP is a usable version of the product with just the core feature or features, ideal for testing, resulting in feedback and useful data, yet with a minimum of time and money invested at this stage.

To highlight the differences between a prototype and an MVP:

  1. A prototype tests the idea. An MVP tests the product.
  2. A prototype tests the basic concept; an MVP tests features, treating the basic concept as already proven.
  3. An MVP is functional, it can be used (in however limited a way). A prototype is often more like the visual appearance of the product.
  4. A prototype can be a foundation for the MVP design (in some cases, it makes sense to validate the basic hypotheses using the prototype, and then develop an MVP to progress the work further).

In practice, according to what you need, these definitions can blur – a prototype may be more detailed, or an MVP more basic. Our experience at Boldare means we tend to produce prototypes with more functionality, but there is still a clear difference between them and our MVPs:

  • A prototype of an app is an interactive, working visualization of the product, meant to identify usability flaws in design.
  • A MVP app is the core-value-proposition-wrapped-up-in-essential-features-only version of the product to bring value to the market ASAP.

Prototype vs MVP: Digital prototypes explained

At the heart of the lean startup approach, and any agile development methodology, is the product’s intended user. After all, how can you really know if you’re building something that people will want and use unless you ask them?

The key difference to using an MVP is that with a prototype you’re testing the concept and potential visual experience of using the product. A prototype has no features or functionality, no engineering (or very little). It is something to put in front of users (or stakeholders, or investors as very often it’s used as a pitch tool) in order to validate the look and feel of the product. It’s your first ‘real world test’ of your concept and as such it’s done quickly, with minimal development, time or resources. If that sounds a little ‘light’, not giving users much to go on, that’s okay because a prototype aims to get a reaction, not detailed feedback. You don’t want your testers to start imagining the final product (effectively designing it in their heads). You just need to know their reactions to the business idea, the product concept – is there an audience for it and are you headed in the right direction, are the key questions.

The benefits of prototyping

Apart from the primary benefit of reaction testing your proposed product with real users in a way that makes efficient use of time, money and resources, there are a number of other advantages to creating a prototype of your digital product.

  • Gaining commitment – Every project has stakeholders, people with interest in the project and influence over how it proceeds. Many projects also have (or need!) investors, people to put up the funds to make your digital product a reality and get it onto the market and into the hands of users. A prototype can be a great way of ensuring stakeholder and investor commitment.
  • Greater insight – The reactions to your prototype will help you better understand your design and its potential impact on the market. You may have the best team in the world working on your design, but so long as all the thinking about the product is done within a team ‘bubble’, you’re not dealing with the so-called real world. Hearing what future users have to say is a reality check that can surface your product’s risks and flaws, and simply confirm that your product idea is worth pursuing. Or not, as the case may be.
  • Quicker to market – Based on our vast experience, without some form of testing during the development process, your final product is unlikely to be market-ready; not so ‘final’ after all.

In the words of Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz, authors of “Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas In Just Five Days”:

Sure, you could take a longer time to build a more perfect prototype—but doing so would only slow down the learning process. That may not matter if you’re on the right path, but let’s face it—not every idea is a winner. Whether you’re taking a risk on a bold idea, or you’re just not sure, it’s better to find out early.

MVP vs Prototype? MVPs explained

One of the key principles of the lean startup approach is validated learning; i.e. measurable (and useful) responses from your intended users that influence the design. We’re talking about quantifiable data, such as revenue, user engagement, and evidence-based feedback leading to genuine improvements in future product iterations. Eric Ries, inventor of lean startup, has defined MVPs as, “…a version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.

The word ‘minimum’ is important here. There is nothing extraneous in an MVP. In fact, another definition of an MVP would be, a product which has just enough features to gather validated learning about the product and its necessary further development.

Unlike a prototype, which conceivably could be a sketch on a napkin, an MVP is always a functioning version of the product. Usually focused on one or two core features, an MVP can be used, tested, played with. You’re not asking theoretical questions of your test group, you’re observing their use of the MVP and gathering specific feedback of a practical nature. However, let’s be clear… an MVP is not just the final product with a few features missing; nor is it an early release version of the final product (though it may well lead to one). An MVP is an experiment, testing part of your solution with the people who are experiencing the problem with the resulting data guiding you to produce a better, more marketable version of the final product.

(For more on MVPs, check out our article, “Do you need an MVP? – your questions answered”. It’s essentially a set of FAQs based on real-life questions and interactions with Boldare clients.)

## The benefits of MVPs

Like prototypes, MVPs are a method of testing and gathering feedback; all part of an efficient digital product development process. That efficiency is demonstrated in a number of ways.

  • Time – no matter how much effort you put into your final product, without prior testing and feedback you’ll almost certainly have to refine it further once it comes into contact with the market. (Or worse, redesign it completely!)
  • Better understanding of the ‘problem’ – Put simply, is the issue you’ve identified addressed or solved by what you’ve developed so far? Are you on the right track?
  • Confirm and engage with your user audience – You’re not just testing the product, you’re also testing the audience. Are they a fit for the final product? Have you identified the people who really need your design? In a nutshell, are you doing this for the right people? You’re also putting the word out on the upcoming product, creating interest, a buzz.
  • Profitability – Responses to an MVP can be an indicator of future interest in the final product, including potential sales.

Finally, let’s not forget the devteam. Putting out an MVP is motivational: there’s a tangible representation of the future product; an MVP signifies progress.

So, which should you use: Prototype or MVP?

Both are techniques used to test the product earlier in the development process, without having to commit to building the whole product first. As such, both prototypes and MVPs can be used to reduce costs, reduce risk, and even reduce future technical debt. If you need to test the basic product concept and you’re working within a very limited budget, create a prototype.

If you want to compare a feature’s performance against what users really want, build an MVP.

Do you want measurable feedback from users or an initial gut reaction? Do you need a response and commitment from investors? There is no clear winner. Which option is better depends on the stage of the project and on the audience you have available. When our team is working on a proposal, they always choose the solution that best fits the user needs, budget and business aims.

If you’re not sure which option would work best for you, you can use our App Cost Calculator, a simple tool that also helps define what kind of solution you need. Our team is always happy to chat and help you with your challenge, so feel free to contact us as well!