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What's the Difference Between a Proof of Concept, Prototype, and MVP?

In the world of software development, you'll hear these three terms thrown around during almost every project. Proof of concept, prototype, and minimum viable product. 

Because all three describe a version of your future product but at different stages of completion, it’s easy to get confused as to what exactly each one entails. Let’s take a closer look now at the differences between them to help you decide which development model, or a combination thereof, you should pick for your project.

Proof of Concept (POC)

A proof of concept serves to answer the question whether an idea can be realized or not—it’s a bare-bones viability test of your core assumption. A POC is therefore the first attempt to materialize the operational feasibility of your project.

A POC covers only a part of our future product—usually some crucial element thereof. To test a complex idea thoroughly, you can have many POCs that address each of the core functionalities.

A proof of concept essentially “proves” that a certain assumption is correct and can be implemented in real life using available technologies. In this model of product development, we’re leaving out the frills: performance, usability, features, and every other customer-facing element are simply not taken into consideration in a POC.

Example:

Say you have an idea that could revolutionize mobile payments using a specific technology. A POC would test if, for example, a Bluetooth connection could be securely established between a mobile phone and a point-of-sale platform to facilitate hassle-free and fast payments. In other words, a POC checks whether establishing such a connection via Bluetooth is technologically possible.

When trying to break into a heavily competitive app pool, you might need a POC not to test whether an idea is feasible—the competition has already proven that it is—but to check if the unique feature you want to offer your user base can actually be delivered.

Why Build a Proof of Concept?

A POC is a great way to capture stakeholders and investors for your idea in a relatively short amount of time and with little resources. It is highly recommended for startups who seek to secure funding for further product development.

Entrepreneurs who pursue innovative solutions will also find POCs essential to validating their ideas and assumptions.

Donwload free product spec

Prototype

A prototype can be described as a model of product development focused on answering the “how” questions:

  • How will an application look?
  • How will it be made?
  • How will the users interact with it?

A prototype answers these questions through wireframes, user flows, and mockups. Prototypes help founders and stakeholders who invested in a project see a more detailed version of a product compared to the bare-bones one provided by a POC.

Developing a prototype is a collective effort, which relies heavily on team communication—engineers, designers, and stakeholders should all participate when building a prototype. The founder needs to convey the product idea in a way that facilitates the introduction of all crucial elements into the prototype—when the product goes into development, it’ll be easier to accurately reflect the original assumption.

Crafting a prototype also helps founders refine the idea behind their product. The more visual the prototype, the easier it is to introduce important changes and dismiss redundant elements. Detailed stakeholder feedback also comes in handy at this stage of development.

A prototype can have many forms:

  • Hand-drawn
  • Interactive (low-fidelity)
  • Interactive (high-fidelity)

Choosing the form appropriate for your project essentially boils down to what exactly you’d like to test and showcase. Each form of a prototype offers a different level of graphical resemblance to the final product. Some forms may also include some rudimentary functionalities.

Interactive prototypes can be created using popular tools such as Figma or Invision.

Example:

Here’s an example of a high-fidelity prototype of a mobile app built using Figma. Even though the prototype breathes interactivity, not even a line of code was involved in making it.

An example of a high-fidelity prototype of a mobile app built using Figma.

 

High-fidelity interactive prototypes let you test the user experience without spending on developers to write the code. Source: Figma

The above prototype can be shipped to stakeholders and a small pool of customers for potential feedback. It’s also useful in gauging potential market demand.

Why Build a Prototype?

The main purpose of a prototype is to gather important feedback that will help you locate any friction points before you move to the more cost-intensive part of product development. Another purpose of building a prototype is to facilitate future development by defining user flows and designs early on.

Prototypes are the perfect tool for finding out whether your users will be able to easily understand the core features of the product and its navigation patterns.

High-fidelity interactive prototypes can be used for initial customer demand probing and therefore pave the way for MVP development. Assessing market demand before making a significant financial investment is one of the most important ingredients in building a startup:

Top reasons why startups fail.

The percentage of startups that failed due to the lack of market need is staggering. Source: CB Insights

Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

A minimum viable product is a release fitted with only the core functionalities—just enough for the product to function properly and enter the market for user evaluation.

While MVPs are shipped with a minimum set of features, you should never let a product that compromises on quality in any way go to market—you want your MVP to be a completely functional piece of software that lacks bugs and doesn’t crash.

Precisely because an MVP doesn’t have the full set of features planned for the final product, the time-to-market (TTM) is greatly reduced, letting you release a product quickly and with low implementation costs.

With an MVP available for early market release, you can gauge the real-life demand and acquire information as to the potential profitability before commissioning further development work.

Testing demand with an MVP is a proven method of alleviating the risk of substantial financial losses in case there is no user demand for the product. If there is demand, however, an MVP lets you start generating revenue and finance further product development.

As your target audience begins using your product, you can also start collecting insights about the strong and weak sides of the product. The direction of future development will be based on user feedback.

An MVP also facilitates building and expanding the user base as well as measuring product/market fit. You can use your audience’s unique set of preferences and behaviors to further tweak the product.

Example:

Airbnb is one of the most often cited MVPs that later turned into a billion-dollar app. In 2008, the company, back then going by the name AirBed&Breakfast, started as a simple booking website:

One of the first versions of the AirBnB MVP.

Airbnb started as a rudimentary website built to validate the market and idea. Source: TechCrunch

The website was enough to collect necessary insight for further development and expansion.

Why Build an MVP?

It’s important to remember that while useful, an MVP does not always come recommended. There are, however, specific scenarios where building an MVP has tangible business value.

You definitely need an MVP when you’re offering something new to your customers, for example, a known functionality wrapped in an entirely new user interface—testing the waters first will help you check whether that innovative approach has a chance of taking off.

Another possible scenario where an MVP works well is an app or platform that packs an unfamiliar functionality. You wouldn’t want to go full-throttle on developing something that later won’t fly.

On the flip side, you can pass up on an MVP when what you’re building is already on the market—simply look to your competition to figure out what’s worth pursuing and then go after it. A POC, in this case, will be enough if you want to give your users an enhanced version of what’s offered by the competition.

An MVP also has the added benefit of being a finalized, albeit incomplete, product, which means the addition of new features can be iterated based on prior results and the available budget.

So Which One Do You Need to Build a Successful Product?

It all depends on what you want to build and what you need to validate before commencing the work.

Innovative products usually have to go full circle, from a POC to a prototype to an MVP. This step-by-step approach lets you check a product idea thoroughly before committing significant funds to a full-fledged development process.

Simpler business ideas, such as Airbnb (booking), for example, can be realized by jumping directly into building an MVP and further refining and expanding the product. This strategy, however, carries a relatively high risk of failure. To minimize the risk, an interactive prototype of a product can be built prior to developing an MVP—send it out for demand estimation and customer evaluation in order to make an informed decision about your next steps.

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