Survive and advance. It's the mantra of the NCAA basketball tournament.

As the madness of March takes hold, it turns some schools into Cinderella stories (Syracuse - who would have predicted it!) while knocking out traditional powerhouses in one fell buzzer beater. Of course, the most compelling aspect of the tournament for fans is the bracket - the 64-team stairstep climb toward a championship.

And, believe it or not, the same approach used to place teams in the bracket can be applied to the tech world in determining a minimum viable product (MVP). Call it the bracketology approach to product and business design.

Seeding and balancing

In basketball, a selection committee is tasked with putting together the field of 64 teams and determining the matchups based on seeding. In product development, the product team (or individual product owner) is the de facto selection committee for determining which features will vie for the "championship" or the product's version one.

Of course, once the selection committee sets the bracket, the winner is out of their hands. It has to play out on the court.

Similarly, once a product team or founder creates the list of possible features, things have to play out on the court of public (or user) opinion. The objective process of user testing your selected features time and time again is what's going to narrow your possibilities down from a sweet sixteen, to an elite eight, to a final four, and hopefully to an MVP.

Before reaching an MVP though, you have to start with a solid bracket of features. This requires some audience research and gaining clarity on who the end user is and what they truly need.

Too often founders will start by rapid testing their own ideas without validating that they are truly solving a need or fixing a pain point within the market. The ideas that seem too good to fail often do because they overlook what they're up against - namely what the public actually wants.

Make predictions, then eliminate

Based on initial market and segment research, fill the bracket with your team's best known predictions, or assumptions about the product. These can be assumptions about the product concept (features and functions), how users will interact with it, the business and pricing model, the target audience and how you will acquire them - enough assumptions to start building a prototype to get in front of users.

The field will begin to narrow as these predictions go head to head against one another and in testing with users. The purpose of moving through this bracketology approach is to determine a hierarchy of design needs, identify the most essential, core features, and ultimately get to market quicker.

Brackets are also great unifiers - ask anyone who has participated in a friendly office wager. Prototyping and testing your assumptions and ideas has the same effect of bringing your team together.

Developers, UX designers, marketers and partners all bring different perspectives to the selection process if you include them early on, and they'll have skin in the game as they watch their contributions enter the gauntlet of your MVP bracket.

One shining moment

As the matchups in your product "tournament" play out in prototyping and user testing, clear favorites will emerge. As you approach your champion MVP, keep in mind it's called a minimum viable product for a reason. You're not putting your ideas and assumptions through the ringer to come up with the final version of your product.

You're simply looking for the clearest validation of your research and testing that requires the least amount of time actually spent developing. The goal is to end up with a shining, and lean, MVP, not one bloated with too many features users don't care about.

Your MVP is never going to be fully-formed and perfect, nor is it supposed to be. The next round of testing, in which you take your MVP and continue to refine it, is akin to competing as March Madness champions again - you will a whole new set of challengers to your strongest idea.

In the race to launch, there are just as many unexpected winners as there are unexpected losers. Don't hold too strong and fast to any single prediction or idea. Let the testing decide the ultimate champions, then cut the net and cue "One Shining Moment."

Published on: Mar 30, 2016
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