I have an obsession with the term "MVP" in product design. In design, MVP, or the Minimal Viable Product, refers to the smallest thing that you can create to achieve the greatest value. MVPs are often talked about in the early days of a start-up, where money is tight, and efficiency is key. But I think of MVPs in everything that I do: at every stage of a company, at every step of product design, and even in many aspects of my "real" life. In fact, I've been thinking in terms of MVPs as long as I can remember, even as a child - I just didn't know there was a name for it until more recently.
One day in high school, at the end of another Freshman Physics class, Mr. Liao called me over to his desk. After all of the other students left the room, he looked me in the eyes, and stared through his rectangular glasses, before finally speaking up. "You know Amiad," he said, "I've never had a student who has missed more days of class than you." Uh-oh, I thought. Dr. Liao continued. " Normally, we would have this conversation with you, the principal and your parents." Dr. Liao paused, and then handed me my graded test faced down, "But I've never had a student who has missed more days of class, and still be doing better than most of the other kids in the class, before." I flipped over the test to find a red-inked "A" on the top of the front page. "If these test grades change," Dr. Liao warned, "we'll be having a different conversation." He hand gestured me out of the classroom, and I walked down to math class with a bit of a pep in my step.
I share this story, not to brag. I don't mean to paint the picture that I was some naturally brilliant child who didn't have to try in school - because that was certainly not the case. But, what was the case, is I often felt like I knew exactly what I needed to do to succeed, and I would just do that - and never more. In high school, that meant not going to class unless doing so would actually help me do better on tests (I usually found that if I just showed one 1-2 days before the test, I could pay hyper-attention, ask a bunch of questions, and usually do just fine). In college and in medical school, when some classes became optional - forget about it - I could learn faster (x2 speed on recorded lectures) and more efficiently (YouTube) on my own. Certainly, much of this highlights a larger issue with the traditional educational system and how success is measured. I was never was rewarded for doing efficient school work. In fact, I felt I had to hide it from most of my teachers, and even fellow classmates, as if I was doing something wrong. But the drive to work efficiently so that I could have the internal reward of being done, motivated me more than any external praise or test grade ever could. In fact, "Why work harder than you have to?" would become somewhat of a life motto for me (a motto that is interestingly, somewhat controversial - more on that later). My motto bled into other areas of my life too. I found that if I brushed my teeth in the shower, I could be more efficient in self-hygiene - achieving 100% cleanliness, including hair, body, and teeth, all at once, rather than needing to take another step after the shower to reach the same outcome.
I first heard the term "MVP" when I was in medical school, working with a digital health startup. In a huge clicking moment, I realized that my entire life, I haven't been thinking and working like some rogue student like I had been made to think, I've been thinking like a designer. The MVP for me, is not just some stage of product development or deliverable. The MVP for me is an ever-going process for every facet of my work, where every decision that I make has to answer "yes" to the question "is this the smallest thing that we can do to have the largest impact?".
MVP thinking also clearly answers "no" to the question "should you work harder than you have to?" It is interesting that this answer seems to be somewhat controversial. MVP thinking guides us to do exactly what is necessary to achieve the biggest impact, and not any more - that would be a sign of non-efficient work. The remote-work revolution has made many companies, who traditionally operated in a 9-5 model, have to move to more MVP thinking type models. Sitting at a desk has stopped being the norm of how workers are evaluated for their grit. With no way to directly oversee when an employee is working (stop keeping slack open on your phone to make it look like you are at your desk when you are not!), companies have no choice but to evaluate grit by the quality of one's work or their overall attitude about it.
In health design, I find this "MVP thinking" critically important, especially in the user-research stages. Often, I find companies throwing technology at healthcare because it seems intuitively better, even if in-practice, it is not the right solution to move the needle forward. I see this a lot in the games for health consulting that I do, where companies are eager to dazzle their digital health products with the flashiness of games, or game technology. This often looks like a steroid shot of high fidelity graphics on top of already dull content, or a leaderboard or reward-based engagement system on top of a system that just isn't all that compelling to use. Sometimes, a company may invest a lot of money into creating a digital game-like product, when really just applying the same game principals to the existing non-digital workflow or product would get them just as far, while saving a lot of time and money. These are all examples of throwing technology at a problem without actually thinking through if it is beneficial to the user. (For more on good game design principles in digital health, keep an eye on this blog).
Getting anyone in healthcare, from physician to patient, to change a behavior is a tall order, and so MVP thinking is critical for adapting small but meaningful behavior changes. Ask yourself "what is the smallest interruption of a current workflow, or patient lifestyle, that we can introduce to create the largest behavior change?" Go too big, too fast, and you risk turning off the user all together. I see this a lot in the field of remote patient monitoring, where many companies are passionate about providing innovative tools (smartphones, cameras, wearables) that captures vast amounts of physiologic data points and vital signs that can be sent to a physician for review. What though, a doctor is supposed to do with all of that data, and better yet, when they are going to have the time look at it is not addressed. MVP thinking would catch that these companies have created a tool that does not actually solve the problems of their target users. They've gone too big, and missed the impact.
In product design, I use MVP thinking every day when I work with the development team to identify, plan, and schedule new features and bug fixes. I am constantly weighing the timeliness and importance of each user-need, and using that insight to continually shift around product development priorities. The result of this process is a living document that takes into account user-needs, feature values or critical bugs, scope of work, and budget to arrive at the correct priorities. In this way, I do not think of an MVP as some minute product made up of bare-bones features, but instead the product as a whole is made up of hundreds of never ending MVP decisions. The result is a truly lean product - something that at any given time exists to create the most value that is only possible in that given time.
But MVP thinking goes far beyond user research and design. Just like I use MVP thinking to prioritize product features, I use it to prioritize my time. In high school, I did this by knowing when I needed to show up to class, or how long I needed to study for a test to obtain the necessary information. Today, I do this in every facet of my work - from design, to business development, to sales, etc. An hour spent on one activity, is not the same as an hour spent on another - so choose the activities, and the order that you choose to do them in, that give you the most bang for your buck. Be meticulous about your schedule. If scheduling a meeting - don't book an hour if 45 minutes will do. If you aren't focused, don't spend 2 hours now doing the work that a focused you can do in 1. If you think in terms of MVPs, you, your company, and your life, will be better for it. You'll be efficient. You'll be the lean worker.
About The Author:
Amiad Fredman is a health designer, content creator, and speaker for digital health and games for health companies. He specializes in the medical design of digital health products, digital therapeutics, and games for health or serious games, and does consulting in this space to help translate important concepts of both health and design to create the most effective and engaging health solutions. He is the co-founder and Chief Product Officer of Aegis Digital Health, where he is revolutionizing the remote patient monitoring space for patients living with diabetes and the doctors that care for them. He is passionate about creating conversation around good health design and games for health, and is an opinion leader on the interent, where he hosts his own games for health YouTube channel, Digital Doc Games, and health design blog.
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