Differences between a mobile app POC, prototype, and an MVP

11 min read
September 19, 2022

Why do only 0.5% of apps succeed?

There are multiple factors to consider for app failure, the most notable of them being a lack of a market need, poor UX, and lack of originality.

But all of them point to a common thread—the app wasn’t user-centric enough.

The best way to avoid this is to validate your app idea with your end users.

This article will discuss the three most common app validation tools—proofs of concept (POC), prototypes, and MVPs—as well as explain the differences between them and advise you on when to use each.

What is a proof of concept (POC)?

A proof of concept (POC) determines whether the app idea is technically possible in the first place.

The goal here is to answer a simple question—can the app idea deliver on its promise?

At this point, you don’t care about the user experience. The only focus is execution. Thus, a POC often covers only one feature with a rough or simple UI.

A POC is common for innovative apps which require a new algorithm or approach that hasn’t been done yet. Since there’s no frame of reference yet, you’ll need to test your hypothesis.

Amazon Go is a good example.

Amazon Go

Source: Econocom

Amazon Go is the pioneer of a completely staffless experience. That means the customer can buy groceries and check out the store autonomously.

The store can detect whenever items are placed in the cart. And when customers leave, the order is charged to the person’s Amazon account.

Although the technologies used in Amazon Go already exist (and are therefore reliable), they weren’t used in a retail setting yet.

So Amazon did a proof of concept run months before launching the concept to the public.

Another example of a POC is an app that can detect people that don’t wear a face mask in public.

app that can detect people that dont wear a face mask in public

Source: Fulcrum

The developers needed proof that they had the technical capability to code the neural network algorithm to detect face masks in a video. Notice that their POC has a non-existent UI.

A POC is often used in the early stages of the project before formal development begins.

It’s a tool for attracting investors to the project—proof that your idea works and is worth risking money on.

But that’s not the only purpose and benefit of a POC.

Benefits of Proof of Concept

Source: Ailoitte

For one, a POC can uncover any technical challenges or issues so that you can prepare for them during development. This helps smoothen the process and reduces the risk of failure.

Running a POC with external stakeholders is also a good approach to analyzing market demand.

It could answer questions such as—are people receptive to your idea? Is it tackling a real problem that they have? And is your app idea the best solution for them?

You can also collect feedback with a POC., validating what works with your market and detecting the things you need to improve.

This is invaluable for refining your idea into something that target users want.

In other words, a POC can tell you if it’s worth investing in your idea in the first place.

What is a prototype?

A prototype is an interactive mockup of your app. It often looks close to the final version but lacks complete functionality.

Here’s an example of a prototype. Notice that it already includes a polished design and the graphic assets that will be used in the launch.

example of a prototype

Source: KindPNG

The main focus of a prototype is validating the user experience (UX).

That’s why it’s almost always used in a usability test, where end users evaluate the software instead of internal stakeholders.

This gives developers insights into what works and what doesn’t in terms of UX.

Most of the interactivity in a prototype is simulated, as this is much faster than finishing the app to full development.

Thus, it’s possible to evaluate the UX while the app’s core function is still being created.

For instance, look at the doctor’s appointment app prototype below:

doctor booking app prototype 2

Source: Marvel Apps

Notice the blue highlights? These are the only areas where the user can tap. And interacting with them triggers a simulated response.

As an example, tapping on the chat box won’t allow you to type a message. Instead, it automatically sends a pre-scripted message to an imaginary doctor.

This is fine, because, remember, you’re evaluating the user experience, not how well a particular functionality works.

App prototyping is a crucial step because it helps validate your app experience against real-world users.

This will enable you to refine your UI design, app flow, and navigation scheme, among other things.

Other benefits include the following:

Benefits to design mobile app prototype

Source: Aglowid

A prototype takes significant effort and collaboration to build. It requires the input of multiple team members, including developers, designers, and product owners.

And while it may seem like too much work to create a prototype, you shouldn’t skip it because it can give you plenty of insights and feedback to create the best app on launch.

What is an MVP?

An MVP, or minimum viable product, is a stripped-down version of your app that only includes core features.

But unlike the other approaches we’ve discussed thus far, an MVP is a working app you launch to the public.

That means all its features, no matter how limited, should be 100% functioning.

The main difference between an MVP and a regular app is its purpose. The primary goal of an MVP is to prove the effectiveness of your app to the public.

It tests every aspect, from the user experience to the technical implementation.

ubercab ubers first app

Source: Wayback Machine

The biggest challenge of creating an MVP is balancing development time and functionality.

For one, you want to polish your app as much as possible so it would be marketable to end users.

But you don’t want to take too long since an MVP exists as a way to test your idea with the users rapidly.

So, as a rule of thumb, an MVP should only perform the core functionality and include just the essential features. Creating an MVP should also take only three to four months on average.

But the hurdle of building an MVP is worth the effort, as it can give you myriad insights to refine your app.

Ways to measure success after building an MVP

Source: Wire Delta

An MVP is very effective at evaluating the profitability of your app idea, using acquisition metrics like customer lifetime value (CLTV) and client acquisition cost (CAC).

You can even use it to refine your monetization strategies on fewer users, thereby minimizing risk.

It can also reveal bugs that slipped through the cracks during development and testing. This can help you release patches and updates immediately, leading to a stable app.

It could also help you lower your overall costs, thanks to the 1-10-100 rule.

How early prototyping prevents costly errors in advance

Source: Interaction Design Foundation

But ultimately, an MVP can effectively convince investors to join your cause.

See, an MVP provides real-world evidence that your app is viable, such as positive reviews and actual revenues. And having facts to back up your speculation is immensely powerful.

Indeed, most of today’s tech giants like Amazon, Facebook, and Uber can credit their success and funding to MVPs.

POC vs. prototype vs. MVP: key differences

Now that we’ve discussed each validation approach in detail, let’s delve into the differences between them.

Here’s a summary:

differences between POC prototype and MVP infographic

Source: Asana

The key differentiator is the purpose of each.

A proof of concept helps you determine if the idea is feasible or not, especially from a technical standpoint. In many ways, it’s your first gatekeeper.

After all, no matter how profitable or innovative you think your idea is, it’s impossible to create if it doesn’t pass the POC test.

And since a POC is your first litmus test, you should make it as fast as possible, ideally only over a few days.

The target audience here is primarily the development team, but a POC can also be used to attract investors.

On the other hand, a prototype shows what your app will look like once it’s launched. The focus here is more on the user experience (UX), like the UI elements, app flow, and interactivity.

Because a prototype is more polished than a POC, it takes more time and effort to create – roughly around a few weeks.

It’s also very flexible and can be used in beta testing, design validation, and updating investors.

An MVP, at its core, is a combination of a POC and a prototype. That’s because it verifies both the visual and technical aspects of the app.

Its main purpose is to gather live feedback from the public. You use this feedback to refine the app or even pivot it completely in case of an initial negative response.

Compared to a POC and a prototype, an MVP takes the longest to create—several months.

That’s because it’s a working app and, therefore, goes through a complete development process, including wireframing, testing, and marketing.

Another way of looking at POCs, prototypes, and MVPs is that they are validation tools to prove product-market fit, but at different stages in development.

The Three Steps to Product Market Fit PoC vs Prototype vs MVP

Source: Net Solutions

In short, the earliest tool you’ll use to prove the feasibility of your idea is the POC.

Once you know it’s technically possible, you can work on a prototype to show how your concept will look in app form.

You can then take your prototype and turn it into a working MVP for validation in the real world.

POC, prototype, or MVP: which concept should you choose?

Going through the definitions and differences of our three validation approaches, you’re probably asking yourself—which ones do I need?

The reality is that you don’t need all of them for every project. It all depends on the level of validation you want for the app.

However, the sole exception is the MVP. If you had to pick only one tool, we firmly believe it should be an MVP.

Skipping it won’t allow you to gather valuable user feedback, putting your app at a disadvantage.

Let’s start with the POC. Fortunately, it’s an easy decision, as this chart shows:

proof of concept in software development

Source: Ruby Garage

In a nutshell, if your idea isn’t unique, a POC can be a waste of time. Instead, if someone else has done it, their product can be your POC.

In this case, you should do a competitor analysis instead.

A prototype is ideal if you have a complex user interface and want to refine it further. For example, suppose your app requires a new navigation scheme or gesture controls.

In that case, usability testing with a prototype is highly recommended.

Prototypes are ideal if you want to showcase your app to stakeholders quickly but don’t have the time and funds to create an MVP.

This approach will enable them to visualize your concept with minimal risk.

Lastly, as mentioned above, an MVP should be your minimum validation tool. But it can do more than verify your app’s technical and UX aspects.

You could also use it to test app features that are otherwise impossible with a POC or prototype.

One good example is your app’s monetization strategy.

App monetization

Source: The Manifest

Monetization is one of the trickiest things to get right in the app. You want to use a method that gives you the most revenue, but you don’t want to scare off your users.

An MVP is the perfect place to do this. Testing your monetization with real users gives you the most accurate insights.

At the same time, fewer users in the MVP stage means there’s minimal risk should you use the wrong strategy.

The next steps

We hope we’ve shed some light on the differences and use cases for a POC, prototype, and MVP.

Of course, knowing them and using them in the right way are two separate things. This fact is especially true for MVPs and prototypes, which can be technically challenging.

Luckily, we have a few resources to help you out.

If you’re interested in prototyping, we recommend reading this article. For MVPs, we have an excellent primer on the development process.

Finally, you can get in touch with us here at DECODE and we’ll be happy to help build your project.

Written by

Marko Strizic

Co-founder and CEO

Marko started DECODE with co-founders Peter and Mario, and a decade later, leads the company as CEO. His role is now almost entirely centred around business strategy, though his extensive background in software engineering makes sure he sees the future of the company from every angle. A graduate of the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing, he’s fascinated by the architecture of mobile apps and reactive programming, and a strong believer in life-long learning. Always ready for action. Or an impromptu skiing trip.

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