What would you choose – a product with a few lovable attributes or a product made as quickly and cheaply as possible? That question sounds ridiculous, but that's the false choice we create for ourselves with the dogma that surrounds Minimum Viable Products (MVPs). There's a better path forward. Instead of MVPs let's consider building MLPs – Minimum Lovable Products as inspired by Brian de Haaff's 2016 book, Lovability.
MVP vs. MLP
In reality it's not one against the other. It's a matter of choosing the right mindset for finding product-market fit. At the bottom, we're still building a new business and trying to do so as efficiently as possible. The "Minimum" part of the equation is unchanged in both MVP and MLPs, so this obviously isn't about building more features. Efficiency is just as important, but so is coming to terms with the fact that consumers are more demanding than ever before.
I see MLPs as a reaction to the way that markets have shifted. Whether you're building a B2B or a B2C product, your customers and users are more demanding than ever. In enterprise software, we've seen a complete transformation and productization. Everyone cares a lot more about their experience, how products look, feel and perform.
MLPs factor in the time and energy required to build lovable features or attributes into a product to get customers early, build momentum while never losing sight of building something simple and keeping the budget tight. In fact, what turns an MVP into an MLP may have nothing to do with building features. Taking a broader perspective on the user experience is essential, and that's a thought exercise you should start from day one. Lovability can stem from an elegant feature, an onboarding flow that generates near-instant value, or a thoughtful support experience. There's no one-size-fits-all approach, like we said – it's a mindset.
Building a Minimal & Lovable Product
At Flexum we've consciously tried to adopt the mindset required for building true MLPs and while there's no formula for success, there are guideposts that help you get there.
1. Set the bar at lovability
This is simple, but it's actually counterintuitive. Instead of setting the bar at a minimal solution to an important customer product, aim a bit higher. Ask yourself what you can do with little to no effort to make the experience stand out. What would encourage your first users to share your product with a peer? Can you deliver value in less clicks? Can you tell your product or personal story in a more memorable way? Can you aim for a near-instant response to customer questions? It doesn't have to be technical, it just has to be lovable.
2. Put design first
Great design is just about the highest leverage opportunity you have when creating a lovable product. UI/UX matters to customers more than ever, and no matter what you build, there's some number of design hours that will go into the project. So why not do it right? Why not make your product experience remarkable?
At Flexum we start every customer engagement with a free design spike to make sure we understand the problem and can start adding value before we even have a signed contract. That's how we think of lovability in our business. Can we add value, even if there's a risk we're ultimately wasting our time? We asked ourselves that question and the answer is a resounding yes! We're trying to demonstrate that a 10% extra effort can yield a 10x return, particularly so early on in a product's lifecycle.
"Over-investing in design has paid huge dividends in the long run on every project we've ever done. We can get into a flow state with our customers, encourage all stakeholders to contribute, and get deep alignment early. It's easier to see around corners, avoid unforced errors and build healthy confidence. It doesn't matter how early you are, design is a powerful, unifying force."
— Anton Chuiko, Chief UI/UX Designer and co-founder of Flexum
3. Test your ideas
No matter how cool your product or solution may look on paper, you need to test your ideas with customers and you need to do it the right way. There are so many ways to approach market research and customer interviews that we can't unpack them all here, but we've seen a lot of success with community-based approaches. A great example is Blooksy, a platform that helps aspiring authors create manuscripts through templates and prompts, as well as the product's built-in artificial intelligence assistant, Aven.
When our team started working on Blooksy MLP, the founder Anthony Joiner was actively building community using social media channels. He shared information about the product, showed off UI mockups, and talked about new features. He warmed up the audience and received the first feedback before the release. So when we already had Blooksy MLP, and Anthony wrote about it in his Facebook group, he immediately got the first ten users ready to use the service for a subscription.
"So very early on, I had that $200 MRR because these people I had been communicating with from the beginning. They were sort of anxious to see Blooksy, but they cheered me on because they understood it would be an innovation. From my posts on social media, the community saw all the tools in Blooksy so that they could compare it with Scrivener and all the other tools on the market, and Blooksy was going to be different and better even."
— Anthony "AJ" Joiner, CEO of Blooksy
You can get good feedback from the first days of working on the project, and if you adopt a lovable mindset, you'll treat those users right and hopefully earn some level of commitment and buy-in. You can read more about the Blooksy case in our article "Blooksy: How a Partnership with Flexum Created an AI-Enhanced SaaS App for Authors".
4. Focus on the essentials
When creating an MLP, don't forget about the "M" the goal is to create a minimum lovable product. Focus on the fastest and most efficient path to that goal because the stark reality is that you'll likely have plenty of pivots along the way. Don't get caught in the scope creep trap of creating more and more features, tweaking designs, and hoping for the tide to shift. The ultimate test of lovability is not the number of features you ship or even the elegance of the experience. It comes down to solving a real problem for customers, and the bigger the pain point you're solving, the more likely your product is to be lovable.
"When planning work on the MVP, we always create a detailed timeline with a list of all the features we want to implement and the amount of time we need to invest in them. We also frequently synchronize with the project founder since the partnership on startup projects is significant. The team must be on the same page so that each side has the right expectations and we reinforce each other, not hinder."
— Alina Ryabtseva, Project Manager at Flexum
Staying on point with your minimum lovable product starts with a clear product hypothesis. What problem are you solving? Who are you solving it for? What is unique about your proposed solution? What will make your solution lovable? Very few founders write down the answers to those seemingly simple questions because they're tough to answer with conviction early on. The challenge is to make a commitment anyway, keep the scope tight, and test your hypothesis as efficiently as possible. You don't need the correct answers, but there has to be a clear framing for what you hope to achieve with your MLP and what you need to see to make a decision to double down on your idea or pivot.
A product agency that's used to working on MLPs can help you plot the path to testing your ideas as efficiently as possible and will ask you some tough questions along the way. Be ready for that because at the MLP stage, it's about seeking the truth about the problem you're looking to solve.
MVPs and MLPs are not opposites. They are similar paths to the outcome that every entrepreneur wants, product-market-fit. The difference is that with an MLP, the mindset is much more realistic about the increasingly competitive nature of the market. There are so many products out there and so much noise competing for your customers' attention that you have to raise the bar.
Thinking about what will make for a lovable product early will serve you well and won't necessarily cost you more. If you're considering building something new, we're happy to chat, share our perspective, and talk through the MVP vs. MLP mindset. Book a time to connect with our founders, Myron and Anton.