Early Solution Design and Testing (Part Two)

In the last post, I explained some initial thoughts on designing and testing early solutions with your target customer. As mentioned, I see the initial solution design as a continuation of early customer engagement. Once you have conducted enough customer interviews to define the problem and consider potential solutions confidently, you can begin early-stage product design and testing. Next, let us focus on specific practices and tools you can apply to your minimal viable solution efforts.

The Process

As a starting point, you should define the essential customer experience that your product needs to create to assess if the offering solves the problem in the way the customer values. From initial customer engagement, you should have a shared understanding of the problem, current solutions tested, and outcomes expected. Then, armed with this shared understanding, you need to identify the minimum product features required to provide the customer with the desired outcomes and benefits.


During this first part of the process, you have the opportunity to review your current assumptions about what outcomes the customer expects or desires from an effective solution. Articulate customer outcomes clearly and quantify them whenever possible. Along with the outcome review, you should also articulate any specific product benefits associated with the customer’s needs. Customer outcomes and product benefits are closely associated, and your assessment should reflect this relationship.


Once you have defined customer outcomes and associated product benefits, you can then prioritize them according to their needs. From your customer discovery activities and research on current market offerings, you will understand how the customer values specific outcomes. Additionally, you should identify existing solutions and where there are potential gaps in the marketplace. One approach to help with this prioritization is the importance satisfaction matrix. Here, you rank the importance of the outcome and the level of satisfaction that the customer has with current, existing solutions. If the outcome for the customer is significant and the level of satisfaction with existing products is relatively low, you should look to prioritize this need area.


Once you have prioritized the customer outcomes and associated product benefits, you can identify what product features need to be designed and tested. At this point, you determine what your new product has to do functionally to produce a specific outcome and benefit. With a minimum viable products or solutions (MVP/MVS) approach, you can identify the least amount of features required to demonstrate value to the customer. For the entrepreneur, this can be pretty challenging. It takes quite a bit of self-discipline to limit the features to be tested. Typically, by now, founders are motivated to get a product out into the marketplace, so it is easy to expand the offering, sometimes called feature creep.


Once you have identified the features to design and test, you decide on the best approach to illustrating your product’s ability to solve the customer’s problem. Early MVP/MVS versions can take many forms, such as sketches, graphic depictions or diagrams for physical products, web launch pages, screen mockups, and click-through samples for digital or software solutions. Later MVP iterations take more functional forms such as scaled models, simple hand-made or 3D printed constructions, or working prototypes.


One of the primary purposes of your MVP/MVS is to validate whether you are providing the customer with an effective solution to their problem. In other words, it is crucial to demonstrate to the customer what value your solution can offer to them. As always, emphasize to founders that they should always provide value to the customer in every interaction. Offering value is significant to demonstrate how the customer will benefit from your solution.


As you consider how to provide value at this stage, the “fidelity” of your MVP/MVS is critical. In this context, the fidelity of your MVP/MVS refers to the degree that the customer can experience the real solution. To what degree does the test product solve some element of the customer’s problem? Do they experience real value, even to a small degree? A low fidelity MVP/MVS provides a glimpse into the venture concept, the look without the feel. A critical missing element is an interaction with the product and some meaningful, minimal outcome.

Finally, you determine what measurements or metrics you will use to validate the learning in these early MVP/MVS iterations.  Again, asking customers to complete a short survey after reviewing and using the MVP is an excellent start.

The Steps

One of the challenges in designing your minimal viable product or solution is to decide which product features to focus on in early iterations. Here are suggested steps you can take to hone in on the best MVP approaches for your early product testing.


Step 1.Review/Refine Target Customer Assumptions. As a starting point, you should review results from your early customer discovery interviews. Are there any revisions regarding your understanding of the customer jobs/tasks, pain points, or desired value (gains)? What assumptions are still viable? Which ones require any pivots?


Step 2.Evaluate and Prioritize Desired Solution Benefits. Consider using importance and satisfaction scales to identify underserved or unmet customer needs (defined as high importance/low satisfaction). You should list benefits (based on customer interviews and specific desired “gains” and rate each benefit in terms of importance and current satisfaction.


Step 3.Compare Your Solution to Competitor Offerings. Based on the importance and satisfaction ratings generated in Step 2, you prioritize benefits, those that fall into the high importance, low satisfaction zone. Then, compare competitors’ product offerings for each prioritized benefit area. Here, you are looking for where your solution may be offering unique benefits to the customer, something that they cannot derive from competitor products.


Step 4.Identify Essential Solution Features. After step three, you should have a good sense of which benefits are critical value creators for your target customer. Additionally, you will know how to best position your product as compared to competing solutions. You will want to focus on the critical benefits that are not provided or underserved by your competitors. For these benefits, you should identify product top features for each proposed benefit. Consider each product feature regarding the importance of your capacity to provide the customer with the desired benefit. Additionally, project how much the development of the feature will cost in terms of development time and funds. You are looking for the features that provide the most customer value for the least development cost.


Step 5.Select MVP/MVS Approach for Early Tests. Select high value/low development features for possible testing with customers. Then, you can consider which MVP/MVS approach (see MVP/MVS Approaches figure) will demonstrate the look and feel of the solution to your customer. As always, you are looking to show the value of your solution to the customer, so select the approach with the highest fidelity you can build quickly and at a reasonable cost.

Early Iterations

After making these vital design decisions, you can begin to build the early versions of your solution. Depending on the selected MVP/MVS approach, it is crucial to keep in mind that each iteration has a specific purpose. You should pare down each version to the essential features required to test the solution for the customer. Early versions focus on the customers’ primary concern and show that the product can solve that core issue. In early solution iterations, eliminate any “nice-to-have” or non-essential features. As you receive customer feedback, you can add additional features to future solution tests. This focus is critical in the early product design stage. It reduces product development cycle time, eliminates distractions that might confound your testing results, and enables you to validate whether you have the right problem-solution for your customer before moving to the next iteration.

Next Up

I will provide descriptions and examples of specific MVP/MVS approaches to help you choose the best method to test the value of your solutions with customers in future posts.

For more on this subject and other entrepreneurship topics, get a copy of Patterns of Entrepreneurship Management, 6th Edition.

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