Prototypes, proofs of concept, walking skeletons and MVPs, oh my!

If you’ve worked in software product development for more than, ooh, 30 minutes, you’ll have come across most or all of these concepts:

  • Proof of concept
  • Walking skeleton
  • Prototype
  • Minimum viable product (MVP)

I’ve seen some of these terms used interchangeably. Different people in the product development process can use them to mean different things, which can cause big problems.

For example, if you agree as a team to work on a prototype of an app, what does that mean? What benefits are you getting from doing this that you don’t get from building a proof of concept instead? Is there any difference? Or are the terms interchangeable and vague?

More recently, with the popularity of lean, and in particular Eric Ries’ book The Lean Startup, almost anyone building a new product will talk about MVPs. But there seem to be as many definitions of MVP as there are product managers and CEOs. I’m somewhat reluctant to even talk about this topic, because it’s the source of some contention and anguish.

I’ve got into the habit of reflexively asking ‘What do you mean by that?’ whenever anyone uses one of these terms, purely because I’ve been burned in the past by big misunderstandings.

So, over the next few days, let’s look at each of these terms and see if we can untangle them a little.

I want to be clear: I’m doing this for my benefit as much as anyone else’s. But I’d love to hear about your own take on it. So, as usual, please hit reply and send over your thoughts and hot takes as they come to you.

All the best,

– Jim

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