What's the difference between a prototype and an MVP?

Phase Validate
Photo credit: CloudApp

In a previous article, I introduced the term validate, and what it means to validate your idea. I also touched on two key ways to validate your idea which are through the use of a prototype and an MVP. In this article, we’re going to talk about how they differ and when to use them.

What is a prototype?

A prototype is a static or interactive mockup of an app designed to look and feel like the real thing. They’re much quicker to make, and although they don’t include all the expected features, they allow you to spot mistakes before you build the real thing.

A prototype can be as simple as sketches on paper (low fidelity) or as interactive as a clickable, digital model that works on your phone (high fidelity). It can illustrate one key screen, a complex flow, or all the key features of an app. And it can be created with or without code.

The goal of a prototype is to represent and demonstrate an app's fundamental design and function without being fully functional. As such, it’s typically used in conjunction with user interviews to get feedback from real users.

A user’s reactions and responses while using a prototype will help validate if your app is on the right track; from either an idea or a design standpoint.

For example, Airbnb might've made a prototype of what the process would look like to book a stay on their platform and used it in user interviews to elicit a reaction from potential users.

What is an MVP?

A minimum viable product (aka MVP) is the simplest or scaled-back version of your app that's released publicly to gain feedback from your first set of users. It focuses solely on the core features that offer value but is devoid of all the bells and whistles.

It’s similar to a prototype except it’s fully functional with minimal features and released to a private group of beta users or the public. As such, it’s helpful for gaining feedback on your app but with additional insight into usage which can't be observed with just a prototype in a user interview.

A number of well known apps of today actually started out their journeys as an MVP. It was only after hitting the market did they undergo significant changes, made successful pivots, and ended up where they are today.

For example, Airbnb initially offered a platform where you could book an air mattress, but solely to the people visiting San Francisco for a design conference.

What's the difference between a prototype and an MVP?

Prototypes are sometimes confused with MVPs. While they both help validate your app idea, the purpose they serve and how they are approached are fundamentally different.

  • Functionality: Prototypes aren't made to be fully functional with complete features. MVPs are typically fully functional and contain complete features though minimal.
  • Complexity: Prototypes can be as simple as sketches on paper or as complex as a clickable, digital model on your phone. MVPs are fully built whether as a web or mobile app or by leveraging 3rd party platforms to deliver the main value of the app.
  • Usage: Prototypes are used in user interviews. MVPs can be used in user interviews but are primarily released publicly or to a private set of users.
  • Purpose: Prototypes can be used to validate the problem and the design of the solution. MVPs help validate the solution with additional insight into usage.
  • Timeline: Prototypes are typically quicker to create. MVPs take more time to create depending on the strategy.
  • Visibility: Prototypes are private. MVPs are mostly public.

How do you know when to create a prototype vs an MVP?

The biggest trap that even I've been guilty of is creating the wrong thing at the wrong time. And wasting time can be the most frustrating thing when making an app. Knowing when to create a prototype vs an MVP comes down to two key questions:

1. Have you already validated that the problem you're trying to solve exists?

If the answer to this question is no you should first consider conducting user interviews, and creating a prototype to use in those interviews if a visual aid is beneficial for your idea. Before you create anything, you need to determine if this is a problem people have and if your solution is what they've been waiting for.

2. Have you already gotten feedback on the design of your solution?

If the answer to this question is no then you might want to consider creating a clickable prototype using a prototyping tool like InVision Cloud and the design mockups you have in order to conduct a round of usability interviews. A usability interview is similar to a user interview except the goal is to determine if users find your app easy to navigate and use.

If your answer to both questions is yes, then you're ready to create an MVP.

Creating an MVP that doesn't break the bank or take forever to build is another conversation but we’ll dig into that in a later article.

Prototypes and MVPs can be confusing to navigate.

If this is your first app, you might find prototypes and MVPs confusing to navigate. It's important to take a moment to consider their purpose and where you're at in the process of making your app before deciding which one to move forward with.