UX and “Minimal Viable Design”

One of the interesting trends I am seeing in tech is the idea around “Minimal Viable Product.” This concept is all about Return on Investment: What the product that can be offered to consumers that provides the highest return on investment with the lowest risk? This approach is all about minimizing “exposure” to investors… it’s not the “lowest common denominator”, but it’s close.

The problem I have with the MVP model is it is often TOO cautious… lots of companies use this as an excuse to not innovate, and they end up producing a product that is too safe, too “soft”, and as vanilla as you can get.

That being said, I still think that there is value in looking at this concept from the perspective of a UX practitioner… in that the core of the Minimal Viable Product is about aligning with expectations and not producing something that is too far “out there” to be accepted by consumers.

One of the first design projects I worked on was around Internet radio… it was  designing an interface for a hardware device that users could use to listen to downloaded news and shows from the web. This was before the iPod, before podcasts… and it was a really cool concept that unfortunately was ahead of its time. People did not have high-speed connections, and so it too WAY too long to download the content to load to these devices. The tech was not there… so it failed.

Anyone thinking about a “minimal viable product” today has to keep the current state of expectations and tech in mind. So, what should UX people think about when it comes to producing a “minimal viable design”” Here’s a few things to consider:

Existing “standards”

There is no “design community” out there that mandates what user interfaces are “best” – users are exposed to countless different apps every day, with different design conventions in every app they touch. But at the same time, there are “standards” that exist – we just don’t have formal agreement. These standards are based on what people see as they use tech. They are the baseline of expectations – where should the navigation be? How many items should be available to select from? This is not something we should set – it is something we should expect and understand based on usage and engagement with technology.

Any “Minimal Viable Design” should align with what users expect to see from apps – where options should be presented, what options are appropriate. If you do not align to that expectation, then your app will fail… because it doesn’t align with that base expectation.

Less is (far) more

More an more people are interacting with technology in the mobile context. Mobile has two meanings – there is mobile which is defined as “mobile devices” and mobile as defined as “on the go.” Too often, we focus on the first and not the second. Content is key = that is, the lack of (extraneous) content. Any “MVD” should strip away the excess and execute simple and effectively.

Getting things done (quickly)

The day of having one app that does a thousand things is dead and buried – users have changed how they use apps and technology. Apps are enablers, supporting users in very focused discrete ways. Apps let them be more efficient and productive wherever they are – apps let users get things done. Any app that doesn’t support a core need will have to provide a value -add that enables people to do things better and faster – and that is not easy to target without using user research to identify an untapped need.

Avoid the “shock of the new”

In a competitive landscape, designers fight to differentiate themselves from other as who provide similar functionality and service. Many designers and companies think they need to do something “crazy” to make them stand out. MISTAKE. When you go to far “out there” you end up increasing the “learning curve” for new users, and many user (who are expecting all apps to work a certain way) shut down and check out when ay cognitive load is forced upon them. Additionally, the “shock of the new” will become a detractor, making people not only tune out, but also criticize the app for “not working.”

Be new, be different, be unique… but be mindful that there is a bearing cost to being too new and too different.

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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