November 4, 2021

MVP and the importance of User-Centered Design

A poor user experience can spell disaster, even for the most innovative product. Further, the quality of the UX design can mean the difference between failure and success. Case in point: personal finance apps Wesabe & Mint. When these two products went head-to-head in the late 2000s, their offerings were very similar in both functionality and the value they provided for users. But there was one key difference between these apps: the product design.

As UX Booth explains, “While Mint had simply licensed the technology to aggregate the financial info, Wesabe laboriously attempted to do this in-house. Mint was able to focus their resources on what ended up mattering the most: user experience so good people told their friends.”

In the end, Wesabe shuttered in 2010. In a blog post, co-founder Marc Hedlund conceded that Mint offered a better user experience. Going forward, he said that his failure taught him “[To] focus on what really matters: making users happy with your product as quickly as you can and help them as much as you can after that. If you do those better than anyone else out there, you’ll win.”

And if a good user experience stacks the engagement odds in your favor, the converse is true. A poor user experience can cause customers to abandon your website or app, lead to poor reviews and brand image, lower search engine rankings, and, ultimately, sink your business.

Good UX design is foundational to customer happiness, but you can’t create it without the kind of understanding that comes from solid research. All things being equal, failing to prioritize the user when it comes to designing your MVP could cause you to lose out to a competitor who delivers a better experience. Failing to test and prototype your designs with real people in your target market means that you risk suffering the same fate as Wesabe.

As Michael Rabjohns, UX Practice Leader (US) at 3Pillar Global, says, “Employing a research-driven design process greatly increases the likelihood of success. Even if the product’s feature set is right on target, a poor user experience could still torpedo its chance of success.”

This article will examine the fundamentals of user experience (UX) and design thinking and how these concepts can help you design an MVP that speaks to your users’ needs and motivations.

What Exactly Is “UX?”

People often think that UX is only about usability. And while that is part of it, there’s much more to it. describes the importance of fostering empathy with your customers, which will inform your UX design in turn: “User experience (UX) focuses on having a deep understanding of users, what they need, what they value, their abilities, and also their limitations. . . . UX best practices promote improving the quality of the user’s interaction with and perceptions of your product and any related services.”

There are seven primary areas to think about that can influence the user experience for better or worse:

Usability: The interaction design foundation defines usability as “a measure of how well a specific user in a specific context can use a product/design to achieve a defined goal effectively, efficiently, and satisfactorily.” Think of the difference between an MP3 Player and an iPod, for example. It’s clear which product is more intuitive and efficient at playing music. When designing for usability, always consider unintended consequences; for example, child-proof medicine caps may present an obstacle to people with arthritis.

Usefulness: This is a subjective quality that relates directly to what your users are trying to accomplish or why they would “hire” your product. If someone needs to do their taxes, then TurboTax is far more useful than a videogame. On the other hand, if someone is trying to relax after a long day, a videogame is the more useful choice.

Desirability: This quality is conveyed through the overall aesthetics and UI. Consider the differences between a Motorola flip phone and the first-gen iPhone or a clunky, frame-heavy Web interface from 1998 vs. a sleek modern design.

Findability: Is the content easy to find? In the case of digital products, this refers to things like navigation components, menus, explanatory micro copy, etc. Counterintuitive design that forces people to spend time searching for crucial components creates a frustrating experience. The early Google competitor Alta Vista had a clunky interface and offered a navigation that wasn’t intuitive. Google’s clean design and easy-to-find search bar helped it emerge as the clear winner in the search engine wars.

Accessibility: Is the product accessible to people with certain limitations? The Interactive Design Foundation points out, “When you design for accessibility, you will often find that you create products that are easier for everyone to use, not just those with disabilities.” The OXO Good Grips peeler is a great example of accessible design in practice. Originally created with the challenges of arthritis sufferers in mind, the product makes it easier for anyone and everyone to peel vegetables.

Credibility: This speaks to whether or not your brand (and product) evoke a feeling of trust. For example, poor, amateurish design diminishes trust. The professionalism of the design is a reflection of the professionalism of whatever service you provide. For example, a charity with a cluttered website that’s riddled with spelling mistakes and unprofessional photos wouldn’t evoke the trust they need to elicit much-needed donations.

Value: Does the product deliver the value it promises to the user? Is the problem it solves worth the cost of purchase?

No matter how much you think all of this through, the proof is in the pudding. In other words, even if you think you’ve nailed all of the facets of a good user experience, you won’t know for sure until you prototype and test your design hypotheses with real people in your target market.

Scott Varho, SVP Product Development at 3Pillar Global, contextualizes UX best practices in light of the late Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s Jobs To Be Done (JTBD) theory:

“The customer is ‘hiring’ your product to do a job. They can do that job in other ways. Good user experience in product development is about figuring out how users get at the value your product promises to deliver. What information should be on the screen without cluttering it? What should be easy to get at? What are the other tools the user is using? Engineers will make sure everything has a button. A human-centered user experience product development specialist will
ensure the buttons make sense to users, prevent costly mistakes, and greatly enhance your product’s likelihood to achieve the business outcomes that made you invest to build it.”

But understanding the principles underlying good UX design is one thing. If you want to be able to put it into practice, it’s important to be familiar with Design Thinking.

The Role of Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a user-centric framework for implementing the principles of good UX design. According to the Interaction Design Foundation, “Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test.”

Further, the foundation asserts that design thinking is “most useful to tackle problems that are ill-defined or unknown.” Hence, design thinking is a perfect approach for prototyping and testing hypotheses about your MVP’s design. There are five main stages of design thinking:

Empathize: Through research, seek to understand your users’ needs, pain points, and frustrations.

Define: Create a problem statement that clearly articulates the problem(s) you’ll be solving.

Ideate: Formulate ideas and hypotheses as to how your MVP design will help solve these problems you’ve identified.

Prototype: This stage involves creating scaled-down versions of the MVP (or specific, discrete parts of the MVP focusing on specific features or functions).

Test: Test your prototypes and gather quantitative and qualitative feedback from members of your target market who align with the research-based personas you’ve created. In the spirit of inclusion, try to account for those who may be challenged in some way.

Apply: After testing, prototypes can be iterated upon based on data and learning gleaned from the user research. This iterative process will help hone the MVP design and optimize the user experience.

The Agile Connection

Iteration is the bridge between Agile methodology and design thinking. Agile projects are by their very nature iterative in that they allow for—and encourage—a cyclical return to stages of product development based on learnings and feedback

According to the Agile Alliance, “Agile projects . . . intentionally allow for “repeating” software development activities, and for potentially “revisiting” the same work products.” Not only that but “Prototyping is necessarily an iterative strategy.”

This iterative approach to UX design testing and learning should be embraced from the outset of any project, especially your MVP. As Toptal correctly points out, “Teams assuming that attention to user experience is something that can be minimized, excluded, or done after releasing the product are taking the wrong approach.” Bringing design thinking principles and UX best practices into your Agile MVP methodology early on means that UX won’t be an afterthought.


As Toptal notes, “UX is part of a continuous improvement process, always seeking to better understand users and select and design the features and products that best match their needs, solve their pain points, and bring them meaningful innovation.”

This aligns with our thinking at 3Pillar Global, as we believe in minimizing time to value and excelling at change. To that end, incorporating design thinking into Agile methodology is an ideal way to test and iterate on your MVP design assumptions.

To learn more about 3Pillar Global’s services and how we can help you create a minimum viable product to test and validate your assumptions with real customers, contact an expert today.

Special thanks to these members of FORCE, 3Pillar’s expert network, for their contributions to this article.

FORCE is 3Pillar Global’s Thought Leadership Team comprised of technologists and industry experts offering their knowledge on important trends and topics in digital product development.