Isn't a 'Minimal Viable Product' Kinda Lame?

by Charlotte Jepps

Forgive me for being biased by the fact I'm currently wrestling with distilling what I think is a great idea down into a 'minimal viable' form, but I can't help but find this concept inherently frustrating...

Is it realistic that many online business concepts can truly be attractive to users when presented in a simplified form?

Whilst I think this is indeed true for some platforms and businesses, which need to 'train' their users before adding complexity (eg a social game), I think there is a risk for other sites that the 'lean startup' methodology drives them toward stunting themselves - to an extent that great ideas might be deemed unattractive and thus abandoned too early.

I understand that definitionally every site has a 'minimal viable' version (which lies on a sliding scale between something incredibly simple, and the full ‘vision’ for the site), but is the term still useful if 'minimally viable' and ‘full site’ are in the majority of cases the same?

As an example, let's consider retail. Zappos is a great business, which focusses on providing a pretty spectacular level of service to shoe shoppers. As the creator of such a site I might decide to apply 'lean' principles and create the minimal possible form to test my vision for my service capabilities with early users.

But how can one really expect to usefully test the level of interest in a site if you only partner with a couple of shoe retailers?

As a
user of Zappos, my minimal requirement is a sufficient level of selection – so the ‘minimal’ site really does require some pretty substantial up-front investment

Perhaps the possibility of creating a truly ‘minimally viable’ version of an online business depends on whether you’re testing something that people ‘know’ they need or not. If you’re providing a product or service that targets a clear gap in the market in the totally conventional (‘offline’) sense then you may simply be wasting time and should launch a full site, but if you’re testing dropbox you go for the MVP.

There are therefore a great majority of ecommerce ventures that should steer well clear. Who in their right mind would take advice or make online purchases from a skeleton site? How many times have you googled travel recommendations or tried to purchase products and immediately disregarded all the sites that have partial information or functionality. To a certain extent MVPs (like get around this by plugging in to your social network to attain early credibility, but with the proliferation of Facebook Connect I question how much longer users will really apply any weight to this feature.

In sum, I think sites need to think long and hard before overly trimming down their launch version - into something that fails to stimulate a following because it is too simple to be cool. Put yourself out there and take a risk, or the only thing you’ve validated is that you’re lame.