The 7 Habits of Highly Successful MVP Teams

IMG_51201photo credits: “The Joys of Showing Rough Work” at USC Game Lab

Happy New Year! 2014 is off to a great start. Our design studio Shufflebrain develops smart games and services that make the world a better place – and we’re  blessed to live in a time when opportunities to fulfill that mission abound. We’re kicking off the year with some exciting new projects in education and health-tech, and also developing some original IP  (details coming soon – stay tuned)

As you know, my design practice is focused on building  systems that drive sustained engagement and leverage community. Over the past few years,  I’ve had the pleasure of working with dozens of startups designing coop games, social apps, lifestyle services,and digital marketplaces –  in diverse industries including healthcare, education, fashion, e-Sports and crowd-funding.  Much of this work involved hunkering down and crafting an MVP (minimum viable product)

After going through a number of MVP launches,  I’m starting to see  patterns about what works – and what doesn’t – when your goal is get a strong MVP out the door. In the spirit of lessons learned, here are 7 Habits of Highly Successful MVP teams.

Habit #1: They collect validated knowledge about players’ unmet needs, pain points and secret desires

This is  customer development through a game design lens: you need to build something people want and need – AND create a compelling, useable experience that keeps people playing.  You’re not designing for everyone – you’re designing for specific people and use cases. Successful MVP teams IDENTIFY their target players, LISTEN and LEARN proactively, CREATE sketches/prototypes that capture the essence of the product idea, and TEST their ideas on target players so they can continue iterating.

Finding the right target players is crucial – and it’s an iterative process. One startup client with a big, disruptive idea did some excellent, in-depth customer development research and prototyping early-on — and got results that supported the basic value prop and use case (yay!) but  also refuted  core assumptions about target audience (challenging).  We used those results to tweak the product idea,  then stripped the app down to a simple MVP which could launch quickly and generate real data about who wants and needs the product. Although this was hard and sometimes painful work, it dramatically increased their chances of building something people want and need.

Habit #2: They identify and leverage a  Microvertical of early enthusiasts

Every successful innovative product has an early group of enthusiasts who discover it and make it their own. Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, Minecraft, League of Legends, World of Warcraft, and most successful online games all found an early, enthusiastic group of participants who helped to kickstart the system towards growth.

Think of this group as your Microvertical – the first wave of people who LOVE and NEED your product, and will evangelize it out of sheer enthusiasm. Who are these people? What do they have in common? How can you product delight them? How does it improve their lives? The sooner you find and start connecting with your Microvertical,  the sooner you’ll be on your path towards building something people really want and need.

Teams that stumble often go broad FIRST, and skip over delighting their Microvertical. We worked on an innovative, high-profile ARG  for EA that was designed for a casual, mass-market audience — and guess what? The enthusiastic (and technically adept) early adopters got in there first, chewed through the content ahead of schedule, revealed secrets inappropriately, posted scathing reviews, and sunk the game. We re-learned this lesson painfully with a recent client who built a fantastic, innovative educational gaming system – but couldn’t find that crucial early enthusiast market, went broad to lackluster sales, and subsequently folded.

Successful MVP teams search for these people and OWN their Microvertical as a stepping stone towards mass market growth. Pinterest, for example, found their Microvertical when they reached out to design bloggers and held meetups at local boutiques where people avidly discussed their creative projects. This early community of design bloggers and their fans gave Pinterest enough content and traffic to kickstart their growth.

If you don’t capture and delight your Microvertical, you may not get the chance to HAVE a mass market to worry about.

Habit #3: They understand and piggyback on people’s existing daily habits

If you’re a fan of B.J. Fogg’s Tiny Habits or Nir Eyal’s Hooked, you know that it’s MUCH easier to piggyback on an existing habit than create a new one. If you understand the  daily habits of your target players, you can increase your chances of success by designing your experience to extend and enhance those habits.  Existing habits are something you can look for and learn about during  Customer Development interviews and early user testing.

For example, one startup with a “daily commuter” Microvertical designed their stripped-down MVP around a habit they uncovered during user interviews: checking weather and traffic before heading to work. Another startup with a  “digital Mom” demographic designed their mobile app around their players’ habit of checking for messages and calendar reminders while out running errands and shuttling kids.

Habit #4: They playtest their experience with real customers early and often

Play-testing your idea in sketch/prototype form is how you validate assumptions and  test your product hypothesis. The Lean Startup movement popularized the idea of iterative playtesting, and has spawned great ideas for getting “Lean Feedback” like fake landing pages and adwords campaigns.  In game development, iterative playtesting with real players is business-as-usual – it’s how great games get built. I first experienced this hands-on doing early product development with the original Rock Band and Sims teams – right from the start, we were showing early prototypes to potential customers who were eager to test the game, and that playtesting continued throoughout the product through MVP, Beta and Launch.

The business value of playtesting with real customers goes beyond innovative new products – it’s just good design practice. One client  spent 4 months designing and developing a new international shipping UX – only to find that customers found the UX confusing because thought about the process in an entirely different way. Showing early sketches and mockups to real customers would have saved that company weeks of UX and engineering work.

Habit #5: They create and maintain a Player Advisory Group for ongoing feedback

As a product creator, one of the most powerful resources you can develop is a network of pre-qualified players who can give you early feedback on new features & systems – like this one. Recruiting and vetting players takes time and effort upfront – so once you’ve identified people who can give you good feedback, it’s smart to  keep that relationship alive and reap the benefits of play-testing throughout your product lifecycle.

There’s no one right way to build and manage this group – I’ve seen it done as a loose coalition across fan sites, a collection of mailing lists, a private FB group, and a professionally-managed User Testing Panel.  What’s important is that you populate the group with players who represent the people you’re targeting, and create a structure that makes it easy for you to get quick feedback on features, systems & UX designs. This is a great way to make sure “the voice of the player” is represented during major design decisions.

Habit #6: They bring their core systems to life before polishing visuals

The best product teams I’ve worked with understand how to bring systems to life with minimal production values.  When I see an entrepreneur focus on polishing visuals before working out and tuning their basic activities and systems, my confidence in their success plummets. Smart MVP teams know how to create “just enough” visuals to test and tune their experience. They do this by finding and leveraging early enthusiasts who can see beyond the visuals and engage with the basic experience over time. For example, when we were bringing Rock Band to life, we brought in real-life musicians to play with early prototypes in a dorm-room-like setting — and even though the visuals were raw, the experience over time started to take shape in those sessions.Keeping the visuals simple and raw helped us focus on the underlying play experience and iterate quickly. The more polished the visuals, the harder they are to change – both eomotionally and technically.

You don’t want to ship with an UGLY product – but don’t let polished visuals seduce you into thinking you’re further along than you are.

Habit #7: Enable enthusiasts to go deep, develop expertise, and build status

Most successful games develop a following of hardcore players who want to feel like they’re part of the development cycle. These players don’t represent the mass audience for that game – they’re the enthusiasts,  experts,  university students, miltary wives, wanna-be devs. The gaming Microvertical.

Among YOUR Microvertical, there will likely be some enthusiastic players who want to go deep – to master your systems, offer their product ideas,  test out new features, peek behind the scenes, earn status and become know in the community. Smart MVP Teams find a way to say YES to these people and co-opt their energy and enthusiasm.  You can start simple by providing feedback forums and engaging with people right from the start. As you product evolves past the MVP stage, you can add expert-specific features and systems (when appropriate) to cater to your enthusiasts, leverage their knowledge, and keep them engaged in your product.

What do you think? Does this reasonate with your experience? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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