Do not build an MVP — Use Progressive Prototyping instead

Henk Kleynhans
3 min readSep 11, 2023

Simon Svankjaer Morel, a Product & UX Leader recently asked the following question in a Product Mangement group:

Given the clear “Yes!” Result of the poll, there are two ways forward:

  1. Let’s build that MVP!
  2. Wait a minute: let’s do Progressive Prototyping instead

Many, many companies have fallen into the “Let’s build it!” trap. One famous example is Plaxo. Prior to smartphones, everyone used Outlook to manage their Contacts list — and it was a pain. If someone changed jobs, they’d change email addresses and phone numbers and usually notify everyone manually with their new details. So Plaxo created an Outlook Plug-in that allowed you to update your own vCard and then sync it automatically with everyone else who was also running Plaxo.

When Plaxo first described their solution and surveyed people, the interest was absolutely overwhelming! This was a problem experienced by many people, very often! Based on this, and no doubt Sean Parker’s star status, Plaxo raised $3.8 million to build the plug-in and set out to launch in 6 months. Unfortunately, building cloud sync’ed plugins for Outlook was harder than first thought, and it took 18 months before Plaxo went live.

And then they quickly discovered that although people wanted it, they didn’t actually want to pay for it!

Their Riskiest Assumption was that “People will pay for Plaxo”. Yet, this is not the assumption they tested when they ran a survey! The made the leap from “People want this!” To “People will pay for this!”. This, of course, seems logical! But as many a scarred startup founder, designer, behavioural scientist or product manager will tell you:

what people say they will do and what they actually do are two different things

So what is the solution? First, define your Riskiest Assumption, and then design a prototype to test this. However, even with this I often see significant resources being spent on prototypes that are of unnecessarily high fidelity. Instead of designing the perfect prototype, do Progressive Prototyping instead!

In the case of Simon’s idea for a Product Manager community, it could look like this:

  • Survey: Facebook poll in an active community. This has the added benefit of receiving feedback from the community, and quite often exposing competitors you hadn’t heard of. If the result from the poll is positive, move on to:
  • Fake Door: Write a short note in the same Facebook community, but this time with a link to a webpage where people can find out more. (This can even be a 404 page…). If you get enough clicks:
  • Waiting List: Create a simple landing page with a bit of necessary information, and a field to collect email addresses.
  • Collect Credit Card details: So far, everyone has indicated their interest in one form or the other, but for most businesses, the crucial action required is payment! You could offer discounted pre-orders or special benefits, or run a Kickstarter campaign.

Each of the above prototypes is progressively more complex. And a small caveat: false negatives are still possible. It is possible for people to say ‘No’ to a survey, but then end up doing the exact thing they said they wouldn’t do. (I’d say ‘No’ to ClubHouse if surveyed, but it’s had >3,000,000 downloads so far…)

It’s also critically important to define upfront what success looks like. A 20% click-through rate on a Fake Door test could either be a total failure or a rampant success, depending on market size and what revenue per customer might be.

Ultimately, a Progressive Prototyping approach before building an MVP could save a significant amount of time while reducing risk exponentially.

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Henk Kleynhans

Built Wi-Fi networks in Africa, lobbied governments on spectrum reform, connected the Dalai Lama to Desmond Tutu. Head of Product (Insurance)