Forget MVP. Why MLP is our standard for app development

by: | Jan 23, 2020

We’re big fans of applying the Lean Startup approach to app development. We wrote about our appreciation of the lean movement a few years back in our post about lean app development. We also wrote about how apps should be like steak knives — and not multi-purpose Swiss Army knives — by doing one thing really well.

But when we’re defining the requirements for a first-generation app, we intentionally don’t use the Lean Startup term minimum viable product (MVP). That’s because building something “viable” isn’t enough. Instead, we subscribe to the idea of a “minimum lovable product,” or MLP. Here’s why.

Why ‘viable’ isn’t good enough for apps

The reason why we don’t use the term MVP isn’t the literal definition. It’s how some people apply it. Per Wikipedia: “A minimum viable product (MVP) is a version of a product with just enough features to satisfy early customers and provide feedback for future product development.”

The keyword here is “satisfy.” Some development teams take that to mean a first-generation product or app simply needs to do the bare minimum to satisfy their customer. The problem is that “satisfy” connotes a single experience. Any app that’s usable — and perhaps allows you to complete a task of some kind — could meet that requirement. A meh-tasting meal might “satisfy” your hunger in the moment. But a deliciously seasoned dish? That’s what will keep you coming back to a great restaurant — and motivate you to tell your friends about it and write a 5-star Yelp review.

And like a great restaurant, a truly successful app — one that delivers value to both users and business — needs something that will keep a company’s most valuable customers coming back. Again and again. And if you’re just satisfied with an app — and there isn’t something lovable about the experience — you’re probably not going to give it another shot. Which means a super-lean MVP app that just satisfies users on a basic level still might be one of the 25% of apps that only get used once after download. But a lovable one? That’s what will keep people coming back. And that’s what will turn customers into evangelists who tell their friends about the app and write great reviews in the app stores.

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So, what exactly makes an app lovable?

There are two key ingredients that can elevate an app from MVP to MLP.

Repeat utility: In product development circles, we often talk about how products need to solve a “problem.” Put in other terms, it needs to be useful. But not just useful once. It needs to have repeat utility — otherwise, it’ll be a novelty. We’ve all used those novelty apps — even my kids became bored after a day of using a fart app on Alexa.

One example of repeat utility from our portfolio is 3M’s Filtrete Smart app. This companion app for the Bluetooth connected Filtrete™ Smart Air Filter monitors airflow and filter usage in your home HVAC system — and then proactively notifies you when it’s time to replace the filter. Knowing it’s time to replace the filter is nice, but we think the feature that ultimately elevated our MLP to “lovable” status was the integration with e-commerce sites. It’s easy to re-order filters through the app when it’s time to replace them. Users loved that feature, too (as did 3M, which saw an increase in sales) — so much so, that after the MLP, we doubled down by integrating Amazon Dash Replenishment services. Now, users can choose to have the app automatically order replacement filters to arrive right when you need them.

Surprise and delight: The second key ingredient to an MLP is a little bit harder to define, but it’s the kind of thing you recognize when you experience it. We describe a “surprise and delight” feature to our clients as something that delivers upon a company’s brand promise and offers a meaningful and memorable experience. It’s something a little extra that goes above the mundane and keeps customers coming back for more.

The McCormick Flavor Maker app illustrates this. The primary use case (i.e. “repeat utility”) of the app is to suggest recipes for dishes people can prepare using the McCormick spices they have at home. To do that, the app helps people create a digital replica of their spice rack by scanning their McCormick spices. To create this inventory, the app can scan UPC codes on the back of McCormick spices.

We could have stopped right there with that feature (that’s what an MVP approach would have done). But we also allow people to scan spice bottles from the front by using machine learning and image recognition. Why? Because we’re human, not robots. When we look at our spice rack — or we are browsing spices in the store — we look at labels, not barcodes. And McCormick, which was founded in 1889, is known for its iconic red-capped spice bottle — certainly not for barcodes. Scanning the front of the bottle is more natural and delightful. And it reinforces the emotional connection people have with McCormick and how they’ve used the company’s spices to make delicious meals and share cooking experiences.

Repeat-utility and surprise-and-delight features like these can elevate an ordinary app into an experience that’s more extraordinary. And lovable.

MLP isn’t just about an app launch

There’s another reason we prefer to use the term minimum lovable product over minimum viable product. To us, it’s more than just a first version. We apply our “lovability” standard throughout an app’s lifecycle.

No question, getting an MVP to market quickly — and getting market feedback on that product — is important. (We are huge believers in regular app user testing before launch to help test just how useful and lovable an app may be.) But we’ve found that a lot of companies become so fixated on MVPs and launch, they’re not fully prepared for managing and improving an app over its lifecycle. We don’t believe you can have a strictly MVP mindset then figure out how to make an app lovable later. You need to build lovability into your app’s product roadmap, including in your version 1.

App User Testing Guide

With our agile development process, our team and clients learn things from the market and users at every step. And within every agile sprint, we consider just how lovable each and every new feature may be — always thinking in terms of each feature’s repeat utility, and considering if it indeed offers a sense of surprise and delight.

So, your app should be lean. It should be a steak knife because, as I wrote a few years back, “If your app tries to do too much — like the Swiss Army knife — you risk diluting that app experience and immediately losing customers.” But in fulfilling its very specific purpose, your app needs to be lovable. Because simply being viable isn’t good enough.

Need help defining your MLP?

We’ve been building lovable apps for Fortune 500 companies and leading brands since the dawn of the App Store. Contact us to set up a free phone consultation.