Defining your MVP with mixed methods user research

By
Jack Holmes
May 9, 2024
Defining your MVP with mixed methods user research

Defining a minimal viable product (MVP) is a critical step for teams building digital products. Popularized by Eric Ries’ 2011 bestseller, The Lean Startup, he describes the MVP as a version of a new product that allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.

But, learnings from the MVP will only be as good as the insight that went into defining it. 

Learning about customers shouldn’t start once the MVP is live; it should begin much earlier. As an independent UX researcher and designer with over a decade of experience, I see companies make this common mistake all the time.

Defining the MVP is a huge learning opportunity in itself and should be led by research. If the first piece of research you do is after the product is live, you’ve missed the potential for gathering significant insight and risk having built the wrong product. In a large corporation this could mean the end of the product, in a startup it could mean the end of the company. Insights from the live MVP should build on existing learnings around commercial context, customer behaviours, and pain points learned through the process of defining the MVP.

A mixed-methods research approach is the most effective strategy for generating insights to support the MVP's definition. Utilising both qualitative and quantitative methods enables breadth and depth of insight. Multiple sources of data enhance reliability and reduce the bias from any particular methodology. Taking a mixed-methods approach also provides flexibility, enabling the research to adapt to emerging insights and changing commercial contexts.

Out of all the research methods at your disposal, which should you use for defining your MVP? In this guide, I’ll break down three research methods that support the vast majority of MVP definition projects and explain how they work together:

That said, the beauty of a mixed-methods research approach is its flexibility — these are by no means the only research methods to consider when defining an MVP. Check out our full list of research templates for some inspiration.

Understanding commercial context and internal stakeholders

In a perfect world, all internal stakeholders would agree on why the MVP is being built. Typically however, especially in larger organisations, this isn’t the case. Some may think they are testing the ability to increase revenue, others that it will test opportunities for efficiencies. Some will want it to reduce risk, and others will likely want a mix of everything.

Without a clear articulation of the commercial rationale for the MVP being developed, it’s very difficult to plan and conduct effective research with customers. 

One-on-one stakeholder interviews are one of the most effective methods for determining the true commercial rationale for building an MVP. Interviewing each stakeholder one-on-one gives the time and space to explore in-depth how the MVP will support the organisation's objectives.  

Interviewing stakeholders also fosters buy-in for the initiative, especially when it includes stakeholders who are not usually involved in the early stages of product development. Interviewing people makes them feel listened to and included, increasing the likelihood of them supporting the product in the future and creating opportunities for collaboration.

Example questions to include in stakeholder interviews:

  1. Why is developing the MVP valuable?
  2. What existing knowledge do you have in the problem space?
  3. How should the success of the MVP be measured?
  4. Who else should be involved in defining the MVP?

Real-world case study

I was working in a financial services company on a project to digitalise documents that had traditionally been printed and posted to customers. The project was called “paperless,” and this name led most people on the project team — including me — to assume the objective was to reduce paper and postage costs.

As I conducted stakeholder interviews, cost reduction was a common theme of the project's objectives. It wasn’t until I interviewed the Finance Business Partner that I started to understand exactly what costs we were trying to reduce. It turned out that the majority of the cost is not in printing and posting the documents but in the manual human-led process of producing them. She described the project's success as having an automated process for extracting data out of the financial system and into a document for customers to consume.

The cost of printing and posting was minimal compared to the cost of document production. This learning changed the direction of the entire project, and of course, one of the research recommendations was to rename the project!

Get started planning your next stakeholder interview with the Great Question template. If you'd prefer a more quantitative approach, why not try a stakeholder survey?

Identifying customer needs and pain points

The process of identifying customer needs and pain points aims to build an empathetic understanding of the problem space being explored. The goal is to identify problems the MVP can solve without getting distracted by potential solutions.

Aim to understand the problem, not evaluate solutions. That’s what the MVP is for.

In the early stages of MVP definition, customer discovery interviews are a powerful method to explore the problem space whilst being technology and solution-agnostic. Understanding people's behaviours, attitudes, and experiences enables the identification of opportunities that will later become features or functionality of the MVP. 

Example questions to include in customer discovery interviews:

  1. Before you started <insert topic of interview>, what were you hoping to achieve in the end?
  2. Tell me about the last time that you <topic of interview>.
  3. What do you find difficult or frustrating about <topic of interview>?
  4. If you were designing a new solution to <topic of interview>, how would you make it work?

Real-world case study

I was working for a B2B cloud-based enterprise asset management (EAM) company that wanted to expand into a new market. My goal was to learn how the people managing assets in this new market actually do that day-to-day and how the current product would need to change to support the new market.

One of the biggest discoveries was that the vast majority of assets in the new market were underground. Therefore a cloud solution wouldn’t work because a cloud connection isn’t possible. That’s the kind of insight you don’t want to be learning after you’ve built an MVP. Thousands of dollars were saved by doing just one customer interview.

Get started identifying customer needs and pain points with Great Question’s customer discovery interview template.

Prioritising features

Once the commercial context and customer needs have been identified, ideation processes will generate many potential ideas for the MVP's features and functions. Defining what should be included can be a heated discussion that often ends up being one person's opinion vs. another. Without customer insight, it can be difficult to move forward.

Customer insight is a critical input to prioritise the feature list and define the MVP.

A feature desirability survey is a quick and easy method for prioritising features based on customers' views. The quantitative research method makes it easy to represent the views of a large audience with relative ease. Utilising a uniform question set to represent each feature makes it easy to compare the value of different features directly. 

Example questions to include in a feature desirability survey:

  1. How important is the ability to <insert feature> when <insert topic>?
  2. What is the most important feature for a <insert product> to do?
  3. What other features are important for a <insert product>?

The results of a feature desirability survey enable direct comparison between features. For instance, knowing that 80% of customers consider feature 1 important but only 30% of customers consider feature 2 important enables effective decision-making. It’s important to be conscious of the biases involved with directly asking what customers think is important. Hence the importance of this method being part of a mixed-method research approach. 

Real-world case study

I was working with a utility network that was building an app to help its engineers plan and manage their work. Navigating to job sites was a big pain point and a highly valuable feature of the new app. However, when the responses to the feature desirability survey came back, turn-by-turn directions were one of the lowest-scoring features. What had gone wrong? Why had this feature gone from being a must-have in the interviews, to one of the lowest-scoring features in the survey? 

With such contrasting research results, I concluded something was off and needed to conduct a few more interviews to investigate the navigation problem. It turned out the high-value problem to solve was helping engineers locate the job within the job site. The plants these engineers work on are enormous — the size of multiple football fields. Getting to the site was easy, but finding where the job was on the site was a time-consuming challenge.

If we hadn’t done the prioritization survey, we’d have blindly built the turn-by-turn navigation and not till we launched the MVP would we have learned we’d built a product that attempted to solve a problem that never existed. 

Get started prioritising features with Great Question’s feature desirability survey.

The bottom line 

The process of defining an MVP includes significant opportunities to learn about customers, the problem space, and the commercial context. Combining user research methods builds an empathetic understanding and ensures decisions made early on in the product lifecycle are evidence-based through customer and stakeholder insight.

Jack Holmes is an independent UX researcher and designer from Bristol, UK. For 10 years he's supported the biggest corporations and tiniest startups to understand people and build better products. He's chaired several UXPA International conferences and enjoys sharing insights and stories at events around the world.

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