Product Innovation with Rick Robinson, VP Product AARP Innovation Labs

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Stephen CognettaStephen CognettaLast updated

Rick Robinson is the VP of Product Development for AARP’s Innovation Labs. He began his career as a journalist and moved into digital journalism then product creation in the mid ‘90s. In this Path to PM post, Rick and I discuss breaking into product management and how he ended up working in an innovation lab at AARP.

How has the product management role evolved for you over time?

I began my career as a print journalist, editing a small weekly newspaper right out of school, and moved into digital journalism in the mid ‘90s as a founder of AOL's Digital City. With digital news being a budding space, and resources always limited, I found myself doing content, product, and development all at the same time. Before long, I was being called a “product manager," sort of before there were even official online product manager roles.

Product management in the digital sphere has since become a formal discipline. But while the industry and role have become established, in my perspective, it’s simply evolved to where I started...where we organically organized product creation in an agile way in order to accomplish a lot with a little, quickly.

At the Lab we follow a more ‘self-organizing’ method, allowing team members to choose a product concept and coordinate with one another on the best path forward. We follow a human-centered design philosophy but also try not to let structure dictate every twist and turn.

Do you have any unconventional beliefs about product management?

Some product managers rely a little too much on data, in my opinion, but I believe you can be misled by doing so. I'd say this even applies to interviews with potential customers—doing too many can be counterproductive. In my experience, it’s better to develop based on your own intuition and experience and get feedback as you go. I prefer to start building before relying and poring over too much data, and then iterate as the product develops.

What’s been your biggest mistake as a product manager?

In 2003 while at AOL we developed something called Match Chat. The product dropped members into a chatroom (based on their interests in their profiles) when they logged on to the service. We thought it would be an interesting experience, but instead users were not too happy with what ensued, as you can imagine.

If I could do it over again, I would give people the option to pick who to chat with and a little bit more of a heads up before dropping them into that experience with strangers.

Still, what I discovered on my own and I still believe today... some of the most successful products often start off as a little creepy or scary or even invasive or, in some other way, cognitively disruptive. Look at location services, online presence, and you'll see the trend. So I think it's worthwhile to explore boundaries.

What do you look for in product management candidates?

Experience is always a plus. But there are three most critical factors, personality-wise, in a successful product manager. Curiosity, positivity, intelligence. The rest can be taught.

What brought you to AARP?  

I was alerted by a friend to the role of VP of product development and innovation, which sounded interesting, of course. I've been in product and content for all of my career, but over time I've realized that what I truly love is hacking things and the creative innovation aspect of product management.

But also, my mother had developed dementia in the past few years. That struck a personal note for me, and AARP has been putting a lot of muscle behind solutions to issues of aging, including dementia.

So it was two-fold for me. The type of work I love, and my personal connection to the social mission of AARP.

What has been unique about working in the technology space for older adults?

People think that once someone hits say, 65, they become a different person. That's just not true. People up to 85 or 95 have some of the same desires and needs that a 20-year-old has. We just need to design products with their different perspectives in mind.

Older adult needs and abilities may be different than what you find in the younger general public, but their desires are the same including – relationships, travel, mobility, connecting with others, etc.

Really, we’re seeking products that are "cross-generational." We believe if we build products that are effective for (or connect) a 65-year old and a 15-year old, that’s success. An example of one of our products is Confetti, a crowd-sourced photo-book product.

Who is a product manager that you admire?

David Gang, a former executive vice president of product at AOL because he turned us from a marketing-led to a product-led company. This meant that the product org became the decision-making force within the company. It was a very successful approach.

Of course, many people in the company weren't completely happy with this, but it took a lot of courage and determination to push through the criticism.

Jim Riesenbach was another, and he had a very different approach. Jim gave people responsibility and let them run with it. That was a thrill and a great learning experience early in my career.

What’s your favorite product and why?

You probably would never guess this answer. Slydial. Slydial (now, seemingly more of a marketing tool) allows users to call someone without ringing their phone. It goes straight to voicemail. It's sort of like voice messaging. I like Slydial because it's kind of a hack, it's disruptive, and it's effective.

What's interesting about Slydial is that it serves a need you didn't know you had, and also taps into a human weakness (the desire to deliver a voice message without a conversation).

Are there books or websites you recommend for product managers?

Check out the ongoing series by the publisher A Book Apart for reads on a variety of things related to the design of products.

ProductPlan is a great website, and I know you've interviewed Jim Semick on Exponent's blog before.

Also check out the This is Product Management podcast and Smashing Magazine.

To learn more about Rick, you can visit his LinkedIn.

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