The Role of Functionality vs. Design When Creating an MVP

Striking the right balance between features and aesthetics when creating your MVP is key. Discover how to prioritize functionality while delivering a user-friendly design that appeals to early adopters.

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by Matias Emiliano Alvarez Duran


You're at the precipice of a thrilling journey - creating a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). If you're here, you're probably armed with the key things you need to know before building your MVP. And that list? The critical importance of scoping.

You see, the MVP development process isn't just about getting a product out; it's a fine dance of aligning functionality - the heartbeat of your MVP, with design - its soul. At the scoping stage, these two elements take center stage. They shape the decisions, direct the trade-offs, and lay the blueprint for a product that's both minimal and viable.

But beware, the path is strewn with the seductive allure of feature creep!

In this article we'll delve into the functionality and design decisions you're likely to face and how you can navigate these to create a successful MVP that delivers on your vision.

Table of contents

That sketch sitting in your library? It’s time to share it with the world. From idea to launch, we can design, architect and code your MVP vision into reality in 3 months or less.

Functionality vs. design: what’s the difference?

For us, as developers, functionality and design often seem synonymous. You might hear us say something like, "We're designing even when we're not working on visuals, so as a developer, functionality and design are pretty much intertwined and it's very difficult to part them."

Yet, for clients or product owners, we understand this blurring of lines may not be very helpful when it comes to making decisions about your MVP.

So, let's draw a distinction: functionality is the 'what'—the actions your product can perform, the problems it can solve. Design, on the other hand, is the 'how'—the way users interact with your product, the interface that delivers the functionality to them.

These two elements must work in harmony in an MVP. A balanced synergy between functionality and design is crucial for effectively delivering value to users and validating the product idea. While functionality determines what your MVP can do, design ensures that it does so in a way that resonates with your target audience.

What are the functional requirements of an MVP?

When it comes to the functionality of your MVP, understanding what it doesn't need is as important as understanding what it does.

Unfortunately, there are no hard-and-fast rules here because these decisions will be dependent on a whole host of factors such as market demands, the specific feature being tested, time constraints and budget constraints, among many others.

The key in any case is to keep your eye on your specific goal. As NaNLABS Co-Founder, Matias, puts it, "Instead of being feature-centric, it's crucial to be problem-centric. By that we mean focusing on the user problem you're trying to solve and provide a single, viable solution to validate your hypothesis. The key functionalities or features should align with this core purpose of the product; nothing more, nothing less.” 

"Whenever our clients are facing feature challenges, we deploy the 80/20 rule. Only build the things that 80% of your users need." - Matias, Co-Founder at NaNLABS

Though it's okay to dream of a feature-rich final product, your MVP shouldn't be weighed down by all these aspirations. There are two ways we often work with our clients to deliver on their vision without it costing the earth.

Utilizing ready-made and third-party components

When working with B2B SaaS start-up, Fluint, we were under tight time restrictions but they were keen to incorporate a collaboration feature into their MVP, so we recommended an efficient integration with third-party software, Cord. This allowed Fluint to keep the focus on the core of their MVP, while still benefiting from a rich collaboration experience with comments and annotation functionalities. 

In another instance, we worked with a relationship management expert who was operating on a tight budget. In this case, we suggested leveraging cloud hosting as a cost-effective solution for maintaining their MVP - allowing them to get their product off the ground without breaking the bank.

Designing for scalability

To a certain extent, additional features can be factored into the scalability of the product - open-ended product code, well-organized libraries and modular builds. That is, as long as you're not making too many assumptions about your users. Leave doors open where there are doorstops available, but don't assume you know which doors need to be propped open without real user experiences. 

Despite the nuanced requirements of an MVP, there are some features we recommend to many of our clients. These include tools for visibility of future plans and that allow users to suggest features, both of which facilitate testing and improvement - a core aspect of any MVP.

If you’re unsure how to go about making these decisions, employing the experienced assistance of MVP development services will help to ensure you’ve covered the foundational features your product needs.

How do design choices influence your MVP?

Design is another vital aspect of an MVP, and it is often considered through two interconnected lenses: UX (User Experience) and UI (User Interface).

UX design pertains to the overall experience a user has while interacting with a product. It encompasses the logical flow of the application, the information displayed, and the features available at each stage. UI design, on the other hand, focuses on the visual aspects of a product – the colors, images, fonts, and overall aesthetic appeal.

Consider an example of a ride-hailing app. The core functionality, or the 'what,' would be to allow users to book a ride from point A to point B. The UX design would involve simplifying the process of booking a ride – perhaps with a straightforward interface that lets users input their location and destination quickly. The UI design might involve a clean, minimalistic design with prominent call-to-action buttons and easy-to-read fonts.

Another example could be an MVP for an online grocery store. The functionality would be allowing users to browse products, add them to a cart, and check out. The UX might involve categorizing products logically, providing filters for easy search, and streamlining the checkout process. The UI could use vibrant colors to highlight fresh produce and large, clear images of products.

In both examples, the design works in harmony with the functionality to deliver a seamless experience to the user. It not only aids the functionality but enhances the overall user perception of the product.

Which is more important, functionality or design?

The old adage "form follows function," coined by Louis H. Sullivan, is particularly relevant here. Functionality (the "what") should come first, followed by design (the "how"). However, it is important to understand that the two are interdependent and should be considered together at every stage.

Information architecture, which maps out the components of the tool or app and how the user will interact with that information, sits at this intersection between the two. It answers the key question “where can I find what I’m looking for?” impacting both the functionality and the design.

What's more important—functionality or design—primarily depends on the specific goals and hypothesis of your MVP.

Take our real estate client as an example. We conducted three iterations of their responsive web app. In the first, the focus was on testing the product idea, the "what", and so functionality was our main focus. However, after their MVP gathered feedback we created a second iteration which aimed to test a new hypothesis, that buying vacation rental homes is half rational and half emotional - the "how" - and so design took prevalence.

Ultimately, there is no one answer to the question of which is more important, functionality or design. It all comes down to the goal of the MVP and the hypothesis being tested. What's crucial is that both the functionality and the design are minimal and viable for your specific MVP.

Optimizing your scope for functionality and design

Ensuring your first product version remains both minimal and viable is no small feat. As you embark on the journey of planning and scoping your MVP, you'll probably grapple with the temptation of incorporating every conceivable functionality. The outcome of which is a product that becomes too intricate, overwhelming its users and diluting the purpose of the MVP: to solve the user’s primary pain point.

It's not just about having features; it's about having the right features presented in the right way. So, how do you make sure you strike this delicate balance? Let's dive into some guiding principles and questions to help you optimize your scope for both functionality and design.

  1. Essentiality: Does this feature align with the goals of your MVP and address your users' problems? 

  2. Assumptions: Are you making assumptions about your audience based on your personal experiences? Without user feedback, it’s impossible to know for sure if your solution caters to a wider market.

  3. Journey: Does your scope draft have a logical user journey? Can any steps be eliminated without compromising user experience, or be replaced with third-party solutions?

  4. Target Audience: Are you designing for early adopters? MVPs target risk-takers who make up about 20% of the market and are invested in shaping your product's future. They don’t expect perfection.

  5. Table Stakes: Are you concerned with covering all enterprise requirements in your MVP? Focus on the features that solve pain points and attract users, even if it doesn't meet all procurement requirements initially.

  6. Time Frame: Can your MVP be developed within 3 months or less? A prolonged development period without user feedback may result in an MVP that never progresses beyond its initial stage - and we've seen it far too many times. That's why at NaNLABS we'll help you go from scope to MVP in 90 days or less.

Functionality vs. design: a roundup

When it comes to creating an MVP, the key is to keep things simple and focused. First and foremost, think about the essential function of your tool or app - what's the primary problem it needs to address? Once you've got that clear, it's time to consider the design. What's the most straightforward, user-friendly way to bring that function to life?

Remember, the heart of your MVP is the user problem you're addressing and the hypothesis you're testing. Let that guide your decisions.

And that's where we come in at NaNLABS. We're not just about coding and designing - we're about striking the right balance between design and functionality that suits your specific needs. We're in the business of asking questions, and plenty of them. We aim to fully understand your product, your business model, and your end users and by doing so, we ensure your MVP is tailored to hit the mark and achieve your goals.

That sketch sitting in your library? It’s time to share it with the world. From idea to launch, we can design, architect and code your MVP vision into reality in 3 months or less.

FAQs about creating a minimum viable product

  • What are the key principles of an MVP?

    The key principles of an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) are to create a product with the minimum set of features needed to test a hypothesis, gather user feedback, and learn about the market. It should be a simplified version of the final product, focused on solving a specific problem for a target audience.

  • What is the first step to create an MVP?

    The first step to create an MVP is to identify the core problem you're trying to solve for your target audience. Then, define the simplest and most direct solution to address this problem, and build a product around this solution with the minimum set of features required to test its viability.

  • What is an example of a minimum viable product?

    An example of an MVP could be a simple ride-hailing app that connects drivers with passengers. Initially, it might only have basic features like requesting a ride, confirming a driver, and processing payment. Over time, additional features like ride tracking, driver ratings, and in-app messaging could be added based on user feedback and market needs.

  • How important is design in an MVP?

    Design is important in an MVP as it affects the overall user experience and perception of the product. However, it should be kept simple and focused on making the product functional, usable, and accessible to users. The design should support the core functionality and not distract or detract from it.

  • How many features should an MVP have?

    An MVP should have only the essential features necessary to solve the core problem it addresses and test the initial hypothesis. It should be kept as simple as possible to minimize development time and cost, and to quickly gather user feedback. The number of features will vary depending on the specific product and market needs, among other factors.

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