Discussing the MVP culture – a fallible fiction

In principle, the MVP culture isn’t a bad thing. In a highly energised, almost frenetic start-up market, the underlying need for MVPs (minimum viable products) is one of necessity. It’s essentially a way to scrap undercooked ideas before they’re able to drain resources, an initiation from the pits of abstract concepts and crazed theorising into the golden light of market approval.

But while an MVP may be spared a tumble from the proverbial Spartan cliff, it can still be a first step taken too soon, or too impetuously.

In many respects, perfectionism has no place in the digital market. This is what the MVP culture remedies; it squashes the ideal of the perfect product. Instead, products and services are adequately rounded off and packaged once a threshold has been achieved, so as to either move onto the next project or approve further development.

Developers face less pressure to constantly revise features prior to release, and CEOs are able to gauge the viability of their offering at an earlier stage. The detriment of perfectionism, in so far that it prioritises a future point, is addressed. After all, developers and decision makers cannot be the judges of readiness – only the consumer can.

The issue with the MVP culture, however, is exactly what it first sought to solve – the unending stream of new products introduced onto the market each year. Viable is subjective, and initial consumer enthusiasm is easier to cultivate than sustained interest and eventual product realisation.

The qualifier of viability should not be accomplished function (i.e. it successfully serves its intended purpose) but billable viability. Whether a consumer will pay is the determinate factor, though this creates the temptation to sell products too early or before they’re really realised.

Examples can be seen on platforms such as Kickstarter and Etsy, or any number of ‘maker’ platforms that offer a digital start-up space for developers and entrepreneurs – to find, collaborate and break apart like feathers in a cement mixer. A bit of colour, flair and a promotional video can be enough to achieve viability – because when selling the bare essentials of an experience, a light sketch is sufficient to create appetite. Vision for the final product is deliberately reduced to its simplest, most digestible form.

This has encouraged a race to the bottom. We’ve streamlined to the point of over simplicity, viewing the product not as the endpoint, but as a first step.

If the boulder is round, it’ll do, so long as it can be pushed.

The video game industry has suffered under this ethos. While the likes of Kickstarter helped to usher in an ‘early access’ scene, which relied on games’ (or at least their IPs) typically evangelised fanbases to support (and yes, pay for) a game from concept through to development, developers soon found themselves selling skeletons of completed products. The gap between vision and realisation was too wide to traverse.

After a few high-profile disappointments, wariness and scepticism grew to surround the early-access culture, and consumers now demand to see more before they’ll invest. The flood of MVPs, in other words, has obscured the meaning of viable and drowned out the more earnest attempts to develop consumer-satisfying products.

The MVP culture isn’t inherently bad, but it favours short-term gains and is analogous to ideas tossed unsparingly at a wall. Even those that stick aren’t necessarily good for the consumer, and consumer trust is an easily depletable resource.