Put Your Product Assumptions to the Test!

November 4, 2011

In the latter half of my last post I began to pull from Eric Ries’ book, The Lean Startup, discussing how minimal viable products (MVPs) are minimalist implementations that allow you to start the process of learning as quickly as possible, with the least amount of effort expended. There are times where what you learn may take you by surprise, as Ries recounts in his book.

At one point in his career, Eric Ries was a cofounder and chief technology officer at IMVU, an online social entertainment destination where members use 3D avatars to meet new people, chat, create and play games. IMVU’s first MVP shipped with avatars in virtual environments, but they were stationary.

Of course, customer feedback was that they wanted the ability to move their avatars around…

Since it was too time-consuming and costly to create 3D avatars that walked around smoothly – and before they committed significant resources to making this happen – IMVU created another MVP and used what they considered a hack. They allowed customers to click where they wanted their avatar to go, and the avatar would “teleport” there instantly.

At that point in time, IMVU couldn’t even afford to add graphics or sound effects for the teleport feature, let alone enabling avatars to walk. Even so, no one felt good about shipping the MVP with a teleport feature. “We felt lame shipping this feature,” Ries recalls, “but it was all we could afford.”

The folks at IMVU never even asked customers about the avatar teleport feature because they were too embarrassed, even when they started to receive positive customer feedback from the MVP. What was the customer reaction, once they were asked to name the top three things that they liked the best?

You guessed it! The avatar teleportation feature was consistently among the top three. Even more surprisingly, they often described it as “more advanced than The Sims” (Electronic Arts’ game). Customers liked the teleport feature because it allowed them to get where they wanted to go as fast as possible.

The “hack” beat anything that IMVU could have done with avatars walking around – and they differentiated themselves in the process. If IMVU had implemented the ability to move avatars around using the lens of The Sims feature, at best IMVU would have invested a considerable amount of time and money to achieve parity with The Sims and they never would have discovered the “teleport” feature. Necessity can be the mother of invention.

In the final analysis, customers don’t always react as you might expect and they certainly don’t care how much time it takes to build something. As Ries says in The Lean Startup, “They care only if it serves their needs.” And as this story illustrates, an assumption about what meets a customer’s need is simply conjecture until you test it. With that in mind, Ries advises: “MVPs require the courage to put one’s assumptions to the test.”