Hi, I'm Ryan Singer. I design products and manage teams at Basecamp.

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Jun 26, 2011

What happens to user experience in a minimum viable product?

I gave a talk at Refresh Chicago last week, and afterwards a fellow came up to me with a question. He does UI on a team of mostly engineers, and the engineers are big fans of the “Minimum Viable Product” concept. MVP, if you aren’t familiar, is an idea from the Lean Startup scene. In a nutshell, it means to do as little as possible so you can learn if you did the right thing or not. The fellow who approached me after the talk was having a problem with MVP. It seemed like their product suffered from bad experience holes. Their team was trying to do the minimum possible to ship, but their definition of minimum didn’t include things like a smooth way to reset your password. Things like password-reset were “never important enough”, so they languished as swamps of bad experience among the dry hills of minimally viable features.

Does the minimum-viable approach lead to gaps in the user experience? It doesn’t have to. There’s a distinction to make: The set of features you choose to build is one thing. The level you choose to execute at is another. You can decide whether or not to include a feature like ‘reset password’. But if you decide to do it, you should live up to a basic standard of execution on the experience side.

Features can be different sizes with more or less complexity, but the quality of experience should be constant across all features. That constant quality of experience is what gives your customers trust. It demonstrates to them that whatever you build, you build well.

I like to visualize software. Here’s an intuition that works for me. Feature complexity is like surface area and quality of execution is like height.

Features as surface area and execution quality as height

I want a base level of quality execution across all features. Whenever I commit to building or expanding a feature, I’m committing to a baseline of effort on the user experience. That way feature complexity — scope — is always the cost multiplier, not user experience. There aren’t debates about experience or how far to take it. The user experience simply has to be up to base standard in order to ship, no matter how trimmed down the feature is.

Minimum viable products are about learning what you need to build. They are matters of surface area. Whatever minimal feature set you decide to build, you can decide to build it properly. That commitment to quality at every step is the way to keep customers with you as you work upward from minimally viable to featureful and beyond.

What do you think?