What is an MVP in the mobile app development process

11 min read
August 17, 2022

I’m sure you or someone you know thought of a brilliant app idea at some point. Maybe you even dreamed of developing the next million-dollar app like Instagram or Tiktok.

Of course, that idea will remain a vision in your head until you bring it to life.

That’s where an MVP comes in.

MVPs allow you to build a working version of your app as rapidly as possible. It exists to answer one critical question—will my app idea make it in the real world?

Because while there’s no shortage of app ideas in the world, only a handful of them are truly viable. MVPs allow you to know which ones.

What is an MVP?

A minimum viable product, or MVP, is a bare-bones version of your app that contains only the essential features.

This is because an MVP’s primary purpose is to test the viability of your app. You test the waters to see if there’s a genuine demand for your app from actual users or if your solution works.

There’s a reason why many successful apps like Facebook and Airbnb all started as MVPs—it works.

Facebook MVP

Source: Arkenea

Using an MVP is a great approach to building successful apps through iterative development.

An MVP can quickly gather feedback on a new feature you want to add, which you can incorporate rapidly into the next version.

Repeating this process multiple times allows you to refine your app idea, ironing out the issues with each iteration.

Design thinking Lean UX helps to build an MVP

Source: Net Solutions

To achieve these benefits, it’s crucial that you develop MVPs as quickly and cheaply as possible. That way, if the app idea was a failure, you didn’t put as many resources into it.

MVP characteristics

For an MVP to be called an MVP, it needs to have these characteristics.

One is that it contains all the core features essential for communicating the main app idea. This allows users to evaluate your app and give reliable and accurate feedback.

For instance, Spotify began as a desktop-only MVP that only offered a basic music streaming service.

Spotify began as a desktop only MVP

Source: Imaginovation

Next, an MVP should still provide value. Even if it’s a rough and rushed early version of your app, it should still deliver on the core promise.

Remember, an MVP can also help you convert early adopters if done right.

A good example is the MVP for grocery delivery app Instacart.

In the beginning, founder Apoorva Mehta didn’t have the resources to build the extensive backend of his app idea.

As a workaround, Mehta manually bought and delivered items to customers who ordered through the app.

It was a bootstrap way of doing things, but it worked. App users were unaware this was happening in the background.

That allowed them to evaluate it fairly as if the backend was already in place.

Instacart screenshot

Source: Arkenea

Of course, an MVP should be low-cost. That means spending the least amount of time and resources building it.

For instance, the Spotify MVP we discussed above only took four months to build.

Lastly, an MVP is best treated as the foundation of your final app. It should enable you to gradually improve and add features on top of it as you go along.

Importance of MVPs

Now that we know what an MVP is and what it does, the next question is—why go through with building it? Well, it can give you numerous benefits.

Proving the product viability

The top reason for creating an MVP is to test an app idea in the real world.

The truth is that everyone thinks that their app idea will be a success. Some might even sound great on paper. But it will be users who will ultimately be the judge of that.

Eric Ries, who popularized the concept of MVP, agrees with this assessment:

“We must learn what customers really want, not what they say they want or what we think they should want.”

Sad to say, many developers don’t do this as much. The biggest reason most apps fail is that there’s no clear market need for them.

Most common reasons for app failure

Source: The Webb App Market

MVPs are one of the fastest, cheapest, and most effective ways to prevent such a scenario.

If you launch an MVP and enough people use it, it’s a good sign that there’s a potential market for your app idea.

But if not? Well, at least you didn’t pour as much time and resources into an app project that turned out to be a failure.

And while building an MVP costs money—estimated to be around $15,000—$50,000—the expense of building a full app is relatively higher.

Alternatively, you can go back to the drawing board and refine your idea further.

Because not only can an MVP tell you if your app is viable or not, but it can also tell you what you need to improve.

Receiving feedback from users

MVPs are a treasure trove of feedback for your app idea, both qualitative and quantitative.

This is important because it allows you to refine your app and release fixes faster. It will lead to a better product, more users, and bigger revenue.

Here are the common metrics you can use to measure your MVP.

  • Word of mouth
  • Engagement
  • Sign-Up
  • Better client appraisals based on the feedback
  • Percentage of active users
  • Client acquisition cost (CAC)
  • Number of paying users
  • Client lifetime value (CLV)
  • Churn rate

For instance, if you find that your percentage of active users is high, it’s a strong indicator that your core idea is engaging enough. That might mean you’ve included the right core features.

However, if your churn rate is rising steadily, then that indicates that your app is not sticky enough to retain users. You might have a problem with your UI design or a core feature.

MVPs can also quickly give you reviews directly from users, which is the most valuable feedback you’ll get.

Most of the time, these users will tell you exactly what they don’t like about your app so that you can fix it immediately.

Identifying bugs

Here’s the reality—it’s impossible to release any software that’s 100% bug-free, no matter how good your team is.

Even a big company like Google released a faulty product with a catastrophic glitch in 2016.

BBC news

Source: BBC

Thus, the mindset is not to launch a fault-free app but to fix it as fast as possible post-launch. And this is where an MVP can help immensely.

Detecting and fixing critical issues early can lead to a safer and more stable app. This helps prevent more users from dropping out or leaving bad reviews, which can hamper your app.

An MVP can also help lower the cost of fixing these bugs. This is based on the 1-10-100 Rule:

How early prototyping prevents costly errors in advance

Source: Interaction Design Foundation

According to this rule, it’s 100 times costlier to fix a problem in the final product once it’s launched.

However, MVPs present a nice loophole. True, you launch them, but they’re not the final product yet. That means you have the luxury of spotting bugs and fixing them at a lesser cost.

MVP types

There are two major categories of MVPs—low and high fidelity.

Low-fidelity MVPs are what you call fake MVPs. That’s because they don’t do anything in the background. Rather, they’re used to test potential demand.

One example would be a fake website for a paid subscription service. When people sign-up for it, it only leads to a blank or thank you page and does nothing.

The purpose is to check if enough people are willing to sign up before committing to full app development.

Buffer screenshot

Source: RST Software

The other kind of MVP—and the one we’re interested in—is the high-fidelity MVP. This is an actual and working (if limited) version of your app.

Its purpose is to test the app’s functionality against real users.

Let’s go over further subcategories of high fidelity MVPs you can use.

Single-feature MVP

A single-feature MVP is just what it sounds like—it only includes one feature that you’d like to test against your users.

Of all MVP types, this is one of the fastest to set up since you’re focusing your energies on only one thing. It’s also the easiest to explain to users.

Single-feature MVPs are useful if you’re confident that you know your app’s core feature. For instance, take a look at how Uber created its first MVP in early 2010.

ubercab ubers first app

Source: Wayback Machine

At this point, Uber founders Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp already knew the unique selling proposition of their app—allowing users to book a ride from their smartphone.

Thus, their MVP did only one thing – it allowed people to enter their address to the app. The app, in turn, would contact the nearest cab driver and send them to the person’s location.

Because their MVP was hyper-focused on only the core idea, the founders were able to gather valuable feedback.

They eventually iterated and added more features, turning Uber into the app we know today.

Like with Uber, single-feature MVPs make great foundations from which you build your app.

Concierge MVP

A Concierge MVP is run entirely by humans. This is useful if you want to test advanced app features but don’t want to commit time and resources to develop them completely.

For example, let’s say you’re testing a dating app. Instead of developing the matching algorithm behind it in your MVP, recommendations are made manually by a human in the background.

Probably one of the more famous apps that started as a concierge MVP is Airbnb.

one of the more famous apps that started as a concierge MVP is Airbnb

Source: Logan Merrick

When the founders of Airbnb wanted to test their app idea, they used their own house as a sample listing.

They then put together a website to see if anyone would be interested. They ended up getting three paying customers this way, thus validating their idea.

Of course, today’s Airbnb app runs automatically with machine learning and AI in the background.

But none of that would’ve been possible if it hadn’t started with a manual hack to test their idea.

The biggest advantage of concierge MVP is cost and speed. As the Airbnb example showed, it took only minimal expense to set up their sample website.

However, be prepared to exert more effort on the backend.

You also need to ensure that the human component of the concierge MVP is competent enough to deliver a level of service comparable to what you envision in the final app.

Wizard of Oz MVP

The Wizard of OZ MVP is similar to a Concierge MVP in that a human is behind an app’s supposedly automatic features. But, in this case, the user doesn’t know about it.

A classic example of this MVP is the early website for the online shoe store Zappos.

Zappos MVP

Source: RabIT

From the user’s perspective, the Zappos website worked like any other e-commerce site. They buy a shoe online, and it will be delivered to them a few days later.

But users didn’t know that the site had no automation or inventory system. Everything is done manually in the background by founder Nick Swinmurn.

First, he took photos of shoes from a local store and placed them on his website.

Then, whenever someone would order it, Nick would physically go to the store, buy the shoe, and ship it to the customer.

The bootstrapped operation of the MVP allowed Nick to validate his app idea without having to develop an app from scratch. And if you use the Wizard of Oz MVP, you could too.

Piecemeal MVP

A piecemeal MVP uses existing tools, services, and products to build an app for testing instead of creating it from scratch.

The most obvious benefit of doing it is speed. You can create a rather advanced MVP with all the bells and whistles without spending too much time on it.

And depending on the tools you use, it can also be cost-effective.

Groupon is undoubtedly one of the best examples of a piecemeal MVP.

Groupon Piecemeal MVP Minimum Viable product

Source: Techuz

The initial site was built using a basic version of WordPress.

Then, when people bought a deal off their makeshift site, they would use FileMaker to create a PDF, which would then be sent automatically to users via an Apple Mail script.

It was a cobbled-up MVP, for sure, but it did offer more automation than a concierge or wizard of Oz MVP.

But the important thing is that it worked in validating the idea at a low cost and rapid pace.

Planning to build an MVP?

The reality is that developing an MVP is challenging—sometimes more so than the final app!

The biggest obstacle is balancing value and development time. It’s also difficult to prioritize the features to add, more so than people think.

If you need more help and guidance, you can read about the MVP app development process to give you an idea of the workflow involved.

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Written by

Ante Baus

Senior Team Lead

Ante is a true expert. Another graduate from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing, he’s been a DECODEr from the very beginning. Ante is an experienced software engineer with an admirably wide knowledge of tech. But his superpower lies in iOS development, having gained valuable experience on projects in the fintech and telco industries. Ante is a man of many hobbies, but his top three are fishing, hunting, and again, fishing. He is also the state champ in curling, and represents Croatia on the national team. Impressive, right?

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