When it comes to software development, be it app, website or other digital innovation, MVPs and prototypes are two terms that frequently come up - and are frequently confusing.
So, what’s the difference and when does each option fit? Here, we compare MVP vs Prototype options and when each aspect of the product can be implemented - and if it's necessary.
What is an MVP?
Short for Minimum Viable Product, an MVP is the ‘bare-bones’ version of your product. It has all the necessary features that initial customers expect. That being said, it’s far from the ‘final’ product.
Who uses an MVP?
While it’s easy to dream big and design something with as many advanced features as possible, there’s a reason the most successful products start off simple: you have to walk before you can run.
MVPs serve to ensure a good product-to-market fit. In other words, by releasing the core features, you can ensure your service meets a need and has an audience that uses it. Then, you can release additional features in line with customer feedback and desires.
What happens if you skip the MVP step? Well, you invest more heavily into an advanced product without knowing how your audience will react, if it really meets their needs and if all the features have been a productive use of resources.
If you use it these days, then there’s a good chance it once existed as an MVP. Here are just a few of the biggest examples:
Facebook. Today’s social media giant originally existed as a raw, simplistic service for posting messages. It doesn’t seem like much, but this gave users what they wanted and the service grew from there: a classic MVP.
Airbnb. While it’s a global giant today, Airbnb was originally a simple website to rent the loft of the app’s very creators. Yet that’s all it takes to release a product at the start. If you want to learn more about starting such a project, we’ve covered that too.
Spotify. While it’s hardly the first music service, Spotify made its mark with an elegant MVP that cut right to the market’s core demands freemium pricing and smooth music streaming (especially in the earlier days of the internet, before fiber optic broadband was commonplace). The private beta saw great success, encouraging the company to sign up additional artists and even go mobile - all thanks to a core MVP!
What is a Prototype?
A prototype is an incomplete and unfinished version of a product and often focused around a number of specific features or aspects that require assessment. This means it is smaller than an MVP. It often focuses on the design and general usability, rather than complete functional perfection. In larger projects, a prototype can represent a singular part of the wider whole.
Who uses prototypes?
Prototypes are used for testing. By building a prototype, you’re not dedicated to complete resources, such as with an MVP, but you are still building a functional component. This can then be used to test the product’s design, report any bugs or discover previously unseen flaws.
Doing so allows teams to head back to development much earlier in the process, saving time and money.
On the other hand, skipping the prototype stage can be harmless for well tested and established means - but it means any new innovations might not actually work as intended. As they say, a stitch in time saves nine, which is why prototyping is often appreciated.
...isn’t that a PoC?
A quick side note: since we’re talking about MVP vs Prototype options here, you might naturally be asking about Proof of Concepts (PoC) and why they’re not included in this discussion?
Simply put, a PoC focuses on a singular component or feature. It is done to test that something is even possible or to gain feedback from investors/stakeholders. It verifies core, singular issues at the heart of larger features, but can’t be released like an MVP or fully developed like a prototype.
We didn’t include it because we’re focusing on MVPs and Prototypes, which are used in committed development projects. A PoC could easily be required in the run-up to either option.
The very nature of prototypes means that they never get released, so it’s hard to find examples everyone is familiar with.
Dragonfly (Google). When Google wanted to move into the Chinese market, they needed to meet state censorship regulations. Thus, “Dragonfly” was a search engine prototype designed to test if it was possible. Ultimately, it wasn’t successful, which is part of the point of prototyping - to reach decisions without investing in a full MVP.
PayPal. Here’s a good example of internal prototyping to keep up with innovation. PayPal has been around for a long time but often prototypes with UI, UX, and new internal apps. While it doesn’t show on the outside, this continued focus proves that it’s a vital part of the business model and success.
MVP vs Prototype: what’s the difference?
So, now the ultimate question: just how do you choose an MVP vs Prototype solution? Here are some key questions to ask yourself.
Do you know what you want to produce, confident it will work and want to release a core, stable version? That’s an MVP
Do you want to prove that a certain subset of components or designs can work for internal approval or assessment? That’s a Prototype.
Are you unsure of a certain element or aspect and want to test this ahead of the larger project? That’s also a prototype.
Do you want to start selling your product and being active on the market? That’s an MVP - never a prototype!
Can you do both? Yes - in more ambitious cases, this is also quite possible. Let’s say you’ve got a unique idea for a website, streaming service or property rental app… all of these are well-known things that can readily be built to an MVP. Yet, your unique idea - that spark that makes it a little different and is currently unknown - might need to be prototyped ahead of this development.
Both minimum viable products (MVPs) and prototypes are important steps along with successful product development. While an MVP ensures your product is released with all core features and suited for your intended users, prototypes help make sure the most important or technically challenging aspects work well before such a release. So, it’s less MVS vs Prototype and more about choosing the right stages for your respective service.