November 4, 2020

No surprise: The real MVP is the user

Jessamyn Wallace

Experience Designer

Digital moves fast. Design guidelines and best practices from five years ago feel antiquated. Site platforms continue to push update after update, leaving old websites, browsers, and businesses in the dust. The pressure for brands to build something new, to revamp, rebrand, and redesign, is enormous. And that pressure, like all forms of it, creates mistakes, cuts corners, and leaves you with sloppy results.

If you’ve worked in digital, web, or product design, you’ve probably heard about an MVP. No, sports fans, this isn’t the digital world’s most valuable player. It’s a minimum viable product. Yet over the years, it seems like businesses, across industries, have largely replaced minimum with minimal -- slashing key features and entire site sections with the promise of a “phase two” release. But more often than not, the exhaustive efforts to launch a new site or product depletes resources, and the mythical phase two never approaches.

Minimum Viable Product:

The smallest thing that you can build that delivers customer value (and, as a bonus, captures some of the value back).

Two truths and no lies

Here’s the thing. The users of your website don’t really care about your site or what’s coming next. They simply want it to work in the moment, because they want something. If you can’t provide it or the site can’t achieve it, they will find another way. And they certainly don’t care about your phase two or what’s coming next. They want immediate satisfaction. The majority of online shoppers said they never returned to an e-commerce site that didn’t work or was too difficult to use. You usually have just one shot, if that, to turn first timers into returning customers.

But don’t get discouraged. Here’s another truism with a little more hope: your users don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t know they’re missing out on cool new features, more streamlined navigation, and clearer content. They don’t know about your nifty online scheduler, and they’re doing just fine when they call in. They don’t realize how much time they could save.

The point is -- no one is rushing you, but you.

Think about the evolution of game design. Before the rise of cloud-based game storage, developers had to create, test, and release hard copies in cartridge or CD formats. There were no updates. It had to be perfect. Games took a long time to make from start to finish, but when companies finally announced release dates, the excitement bubbled over; fans lined up in droves to be the first to play. Now, game developers can push beta versions more quickly, and iterate as players complain and bugs are discovered. There’s advantages and disadvantages to both approaches -- but ultimately, games are less perfect now.

Similarly, web design is just as time consuming – and overwhelming. It involves the cooperation of dozens of siloed teams and skillsets. It balances user desire and revenue increases. It requires businesses to move swiftly, a daunting and seemingly impossible ask of corporations that resemble 50,000-ton steamboats more than the little skippers. But it isn’t enough to build a beta version and call it a day. You have to be agile enough to respond to problems and iterate on designs. If you can’t adjust your development process to meet those needs, then your first version does have to be perfect.

So, what’s the key to making something viable?

You may think I’m about to tell you to take more time to launch an MVP, assume there is no phase two, launch the best possible product now. Maybe that is the approach you should take. But it isn’t the only approach.

Viability is inherently a subjective term. What does it mean to be truly viable? Does it work? Does it work well? Does it achieve key business goals, increase retention, or launch a new service? It needs parameters to maintain definition consistency, and I think we’ve lost the most valuable parameter (another MVP!) of all. It has to be viable for the user.

We always start with good intentions. Here’s a list of user pain points and needs; a list of business outcomes. Rank each on importance, define a few as critical, start building. As we truck along, sometimes we lose the end user. Someone in the C-suite says we need this to make money… it has to be worth the investment. Ultimately, user pain points are shunted to another release. The business is happy, but the user is lost, and left to decipher yet another muddled experience.

Business goals are funny. Spend too much time worrying about revenue and you might not make any. But spend your time worrying about usability and user goals, and you might just make your targets anyways.

Put your users first – always

My challenge to you is to challenge yourselves, to approach your new projects from a user-first perspective, to give business goals a backseat, and to remind yourselves of this pact over and over. Put yourself (and your brand) in the user’s shoes. Ask yourself, do I want this? Would this help me? Can I use it? Do I want to use it? Is this MVP truly viable? Because it should be.

Approach your MVP for the user, by the user, and with users – not for yourself. And then, maybe, you won’t even need a phase two.