Starting a new business can be bewildering in a range of different ways, not least in terms of terminology. Take ‘prototype’ and ‘minimum viable product (MVP), for example. What’s the difference between these two terms? Do you need both, or can you operate with one or the other?
Delving a little deeper into the meaning of the words can help: we learn that ‘prototype’, according to the OED, means ‘the first or primary type’, whereas a ‘minimum viable product’ is, more straightforwardly, the most minimal form of the final product.
As such, we can see that one route into understanding the difference between the two is to consider them in the context of the product development lifecycle. Prototypes and MVPs come at slightly different stages of that cycle – which means, in turn, that each have slightly different contexts and objectives and that yes – you do need to make use of both – while also understanding the relationship between them.
Prototypes: lightbulb moments
Returning, then, to that definition. If a prototype is understood as the first ever iteration of a product – whether that product is a piece of hardware or a software application – then it can also be understood as a feasibility test, a means of trying out a hypothesis.
As such, prototypes come very, very early in the product development process. They are means of trying out different approaches to solving a problem, ways for designers and developers to experiment. Prototypes are frequently developed in a ‘quick and dirty’ way – which isn’t to say that they should cut corners – but is to say that they shouldn’t get bogged down into broader questions of cost and manufacture process. Instead, they should retain a razor-sharp focus on the problem to be solved – the gap in the market that has been identified, if you like.
If this all sounds a little flexible and fuzzy round the edges – that’s because it is. Depending on the product design and development methodologies being followed within your organisation, and the market you are operating in, you may actually produce a number of different prototypes before refining the final version. ‘Appearance models’, for example, are very low-cost prototypes that demonstrate how a product will look and feel, but contain no functionality. Proof of concept prototypes are functional, and are intended to test and refine the functionality of the product, while presentation prototypes are the final iteration, complete with both form and function. Such prototypes may be demonstrated to potential investors or partners, or demoed at trade shows and other events. It’s that ‘first or primary type’ definition that you need to remember.
MVPs: market context
Once your prototype has been refined and finalised, it’s the turn of the minimal viable product. Here, the aim isn’t to work out how you can design and develop a suitable, workable product, but rather how you can produce one that can be brought to market. It’s the very first version of your product that will actually be sold – albeit to early adopters. And this is the crucial difference between prototypes and MVPs – while prototypes will never be seen outside your organisation about from investors and other one-off stakeholders, MVPs will be bought and deployed by real users. MVPs, then, are used to test out aspects like production and manufacture process and cost, real-world functionality and usability.
And this is why you need both prototypes and MVPs when developing a new piece of hardware or a software application. Prototypes enable you to test concepts and ideas – MVPs enable you to test features and functionality in real use cases. Prototypes enable you to establish how to solve a problem once, MVPs enable you to establish how you can continue solving that problem with an ongoing solution. Prototypes give your business a workable product; MVPs give it a sustainable one.