3 Lessons Learned running MVP Design Hacks

If you’ve been  following me for awhile, you know that I’m always searching for shortcuts, best practices and design techniques to help startup teams accelerate their early product design. In Fall 2014, I piloted an online, team-based coaching program called MVP Design Hacks. Based on the results of participating teams, the pilot was a success.

We’ve just completed the Winter 2015 session coaching 7 teams through the MVP Design Hacks program. They all made rapid progress validating and shaping their product ideas with early customers. Case studies soon to follow.

As the saying goes – if you want to really learn something, try teaching it to someone else. Here’s what I’ve learned so far by running this experimental online-only coaching program with startup teams around the world.

Innovation is a team sport; the best results come from cross-functional teams

When I began to pilot MVP Design Hacks, I targeted startup teams working toward a shared goal.  As news about the program spread, I was approached by individuals who wanted to do the program on their own, to gain the knowledge and experience.

My first instinct was to say NO to individuals – and only work with teams. But I decided to experiment a bit, and allow a few vetted individuals into the program.

As I imagined, the best results BY FAR were achieved by cross-functional teams of 2-8 people. Individuals who’ve taken the program learned a lot, and made good progress – but it was a difficult, often lonely slog.

Innovation is a team sport. If your idea is good enough to develop, find people who can  help you develop it and co-own the results.

With the right infrastructure, habits & materials, online coaching can deliver high-quality results


As the co-founder of a busy design studio, I’ve completed dozens of projects with clients all over the world. We exchange documents and email, hold meetings in Skype, Hangouts or GotoMeeting, and design, build and test prototypes and playable software. Sometime we meet in person  – but it’s optional.

With today’s tools and resources, people no longer need to be co-located for learning and coaching to take place. However: to optimize online learning, you need extra clarity and structure to keep things on track – more so than when you’re physically co-located. Here’s the “minimal viable structure” that I evolved after incubating and running this program several times.

  • A series of focused-yet-flexible Design Sprints give each week a focus and purpose.
  • During each Sprint, the teams work their way through 1-3 template-based activities (pace depends on team’s other commitments)
  • The conceptual learning is done offline – each activity template is explained with a 5-minute video and short PDF for the team to absorb on their own time
  • Online Sprint meetings are short, interactive, and focused on clarifying what each team will accomplish that week
  • The program is customized to the development stage of each team
  • Weekly Kickoff and Debrief meetings promote co-learning between teams and keep everyone on track and moving fast

There’s a growing need worldwide for customer discovery with game design smarts

interviewWhen I first started out in design, I was full of ideas – and I loved to collaborate with other smart people, and together bring the best ideas to life. Now that I’m more experienced, I spend time upfront targeting passionate early customers – and creating an effective, evolving iteration loop between customer feedback and product design.

I learned these techniques working with great game designers – but these lessons are universal, and build on the Lean Startup ethos and approach. Based on what I’m seeing, there’s a growing hunger worldwide for better, faster customer discovery with game design smarts – which has nothing to do with points & badges – and everything to do with feedback, iteration and rapid prototyping.

The teams who’ve completed MVP Design Hacks came from Malaysia, Australia, Great Britain, South Africa, Colombia, Israel, and India – as well as the USA. Their projects included Web services, mobile health apps, enterprise data migration tools, educational games, and home entertainment hardware.  They all made rapid progress, and found out FOR REAL if their idea has legs.