In this episode of Innovation Answered, we wanted to know, “How does AARP use innovation to empower people as they age?” To get best practices, InnoLead’s Molli DeRosa sat down with Rick Robinson, Vice President of Product and Startup Engagement at AARP.
- Read or listen to find out how Revera Senior Living uses co-creation to tackle the challenges of aging.
This episode is sponsored by Cooper Perkins, the engineering practice that converts inventive ideas into innovative products. Check out their article on page six of our most recent issue of Pointers, InnoLead’s thought leadership PDF. In the article, you’ll learn more about how Cooper Perkins engineers navigate technology and product development. You can find their contribution and more an innovationleader.com/pointers.
Molli DeRosa: Hey there, you’re listening to Innovation Answered, the podcast for corporate innovators. I’m Molli DeRosa from InnoLead.
In this episode, we’ll be exploring innovation at AARP. Formerly the American Association of Retired Persons, AARP is a nonprofit nonpartisan interest group that strives to empower people as they age. Some of the organization’s activities include lobbying for issues affecting older adults, running retiree centric charities, and providing discounts for association members. AARP has 38 million members and in 2018, the organization brought in $1.6 billion in annual revenue, making it one of the biggest nonprofits in the US by that marker.
We sat down with Rick Robinson, Vice President of Product Development at AARP Innovation Labs to find out more.
AARP’s research arm also runs Project Catalyst. This project puts consumers over the age of 50 at the center of innovation. Members of this team tackle pain points using a human centered design approach, working directly with customers to test new ideas and products. In 2015, AARP opened the Hatchery in Washington D.C. This incubator develops AARP’s innovation projects and collaborates with outside innovators to test and scale new ideas. Rick has been a key collaborator on many of these projects with this team, working closely with startups and accelerators to bring new products to the 50-plus market. We’ll be back with Rick after this short break.
Kaitlin Milliken: Hey, Kaitlin Milliken here, Producer of Innovation Answered. Our team just released the latest installment of our Pointers thought leadership PDF. In this issue, InnoLead’s strategic partners submitted tools that you can use to improve your innovation efforts. This includes interactive Excel documents that assess your team’s culture, worksheets to help you build a learning plan, and matrices that can shape your strategy. You can download the PDF at innovationleader.com/pointers.
Molli DeRosa: And we’re back with Rick Robinson. During the conversation, Rick shared his experience working with innovation catalysts at AARP, project managers on the team who identify unmet needs in the 50-plus community and create solutions. He also offered some advice to innovators about how to properly use data when creating solutions.
So Rick, tell me a little bit about your career path. How did you get involved with innovation at AARP?
Rick Robinson: Well, it’s been a bit of a long haul, I guess you could say. I started out my career as a journalist, but it was sort of foretelling, I guess, because my first role was editor of a weekly newspaper, which required me to kind of do a little of everything. It was a bit like a startup. So I had to learn and do everything from writing the stories, editing the stories, and taking the pictures, and so on and so forth. And that’s sort of taught me early on about how to multitask, how to produce a product that had multiple tenants, and juggle them all simultaneously.
So I moved from there on to a magazine, the early 90s about the online world before the web, if you can believe that. And shortly after that, I went to AOL where I spent almost 10 years doing a variety of things often in relatively short stints of a couple of three years on different leading edge areas like AOL local. I helped found something called Digital City. Then AOL mobile which was kind of wireless on your phone 1.0 back in ’99. In 2010, running all the AOL community products, which is essentially what social media would be called today.
Since then I’ve been with startups as well as large companies from Sprint to National Geographic to Politico, as well as founding my own company called Urgently, which is on-demand roadside assistance. And my roles have been primarily product leadership plus content development.
The consumer doesn’t think about your content separate from the product and the container it’s carried in. They just think of the end experience. So what’s become known as customer experience or a variety of other terms, I kind of learned organically. So I’ve kind of packaged that into all of the roles I’ve had thinking about what is the ultimate consumer experience and building the various tenants that equal that. So I had this opportunity to come to AARP a little over a year ago when they were looking to expand the innovation lab and start doing product development, as well as doing product development with startups. And the opportunity sounded very exciting and interesting, and the mission was one I believed in. So I came and had been here, like I said for just over a year.
Molli DeRosa: Could you explain further AARP’s mission?
Rick Robinson: People are living and working longer and longer than ever. So it’s more important than it has been in any prior years for something like an AARP to be able to provide the services and products and opportunities for people 50-plus. So we in the lab are focusing primarily on member needs, but also potential members. People 50-plus and people under 50 focusing on unmet needs and and problems people are facing and very quickly going after a solution to these problems or unmet needs. And we have a process that we go through that’s essentially a design thinking process where we, we took a look at what we think is the problem or where we feel like that’s an unmet need and we’ve run it through a variety of traps from the very beginning of ideation through MVC and MVP, and then trying to pilot an actual product in the marketplace, driving traffic against it, and seeing if there’s actual traction.
And if there is, we talk about, “Is this something that gets spun inward inside of AARP and offered to members? Or is it something maybe get spun outward and run on a go?” There’s a variety of paths that we can take there. And we do this by developing products internally with our own staff, as well as in partnership with startups.
And I could talk also about startups and how we work with them later — essentially, co-creating, if you will. So we have a variety of means of bringing startups into our program and working with them to come up with, as I mentioned before, solutions to problems or new products all together, and then we share in the benefits of those.
Molli DeRosa: Could you explain what you do in your role specifically?
Rick Robinson: So I have a small team of catalysts, we call them catalysts — kind of like product managers, but it’s broader than that. Our team focuses on looking at areas, particularly in areas of health, self, and wealth and trying to find, as I mentioned before, kind of unmet needs or pain points that have not been addressed, or have been attempted to have been addressed before and just didn’t successfully achieve a goal. And we try to identify those, members of the team will track those issues.
And it typically ends up being one person per product. Sometimes we have a couple on a product, and then they take things from the very early stages, and then put them in front of consumers very early on, and just have conversations with consumers. And we can do this digitally, online as well as in person and try it out — make sure that there’s a there there. And if there is a process to put together a very early stage prototype, if you will, that we can again take back to consumers. And if there’s positive feedback there, it goes on to the next stage. We also obviously do reiteration, filter feedback back into the potential product. And once we get past an MVC — is what we call it a minimum viable concept — and we feel like there’s a positive path for that, we tend to then move into a digital prototype. And we can use our internal dev team, small but we do have a small dev team, or some of the catalysts can do it themselves, using tools that are available today, can build prototypes that we again put out in front of consumers, as well as the rest of the team and sometimes people inside of AARP and to look for feedback, look for reasons not to move forward.
We’re always trying to challenge ourselves and make sure that we’re on the right path. And I should point out that all of this that I’m describing should happen within a few months. This is not a long cycle. So after we continue with this iterative testing, and then we get to an MVP, minimum viable product, for lack of a better term. This is effectively something that is — usually if it’s a digital product, there’s code written — something that could be put in front of people, and they can use it. Very minimal. Or if it’s a hard good, it’s something that’s tactile, but it may not be…there’s no fit and finish to it. And if we feel like you know, we’ve gotten traction there with terms of feedback, then we start to move into a pilot mode and a pilot is the product is put out into the marketplace. And we drive some traffic to it and we try to determine within a very short amount of time, is this something that’s got traction? Just like you would with a startup. Is this something that people are actually paying for? What kind of uses are we getting? We both use it for learning as well as validation. And then in the matter of, you know, depending on what the product is, few months, we want to make sure that we come to a conclusion. And along the way, we kill a lot of ideas.
I say to my folks that we need to be ready to kill your darlings. You know, people can get wrapped around ideas and not want to let them go. But one of the disciplines of any good product person is the ability to to realize, “This is not a thing. I got to kill it.” And we kill a lot of things even right up to the end, after it’s been piloted. We may go to what we call an internal growth board and determine there’s just not really a business case there. So the goal is at the end is to have products that are driving revenue. It’s not just about providing a good service. It’s also providing revenue back into the association.
Molli DeRosa: You were explaining the whole idea of having to kill your darlings. How do you determine what can continue to be worked on and what needs to be discarded?
Rick Robinson: One way we determine whether we’re going to move forward with a product or not, as I noted, kill your darlings. It’s primarily how consumers or our test group is responding to it. If they’re just not showing enough traction based on internal metrics, we’re going to make a determination that we’re not going to move forward. Or, of course, you can iterate and try to tweak and pivot your idea. And we do that along the way. There’s a lot of tacking along the way, but at some point within several months, we should have a good sense whether something has a life or not now.
Sometimes rather than pivoting, and this has happened with one product realized, when we built what is a pretty good platform, we have an interesting way to run people through a funnel from one end to the other in a very engaging way, but it’s just not the right subject matter. So we can use that platform code, set it aside, and pull it back out when we have another product that needs a similar sort of pathway, if you will. So we don’t throw everything away.
So it’s really whether there’s consumer demand. Or in the case of that we have built platforms that are more B2B, if there is not a demand on the side of businesses either, we will kill things.
Molli DeRosa: Why do you think innovation in the older adult space matters?
Rick Robinson: One is something some people don’t really realize that there’s roughly $9 trillion of overall contribution of dollars into the economy from the 50-plus market. That’s a giant amount of money. And what that really means is, this is a huge market opportunity that I’ve been with startups, as I mentioned, for a lot of years. A lot have been focused on, frankly, a very younger target market. A lot of social applications. And while those are great, focusing more on this audience would be a really smart thing to do for startups, because I like that it’s very, it’s ripe. There’s a lot of activity. There’s a lot of money there. And there’s a lot of demand. And part of the reason there’s demand is, in my opinion, a lot of companies up until recently have tried to market products to 50-plus, as though they’re marketing products to people who are 50-plus.
So what I mean by that is, they seem to get in their minds, “Well, you know that that’s someone who’s retired sitting on a bench, watching the waves crash on the shore, and their life is effectively coasting.” And that is not what…that’s not reality. The reality is the majority of people 50-plus, are very active and are working. And also, frankly, don’t want to be marketed or positioned with products that remind them that they are 50-plus or that they’re older. That’s the opposite of what you want to do. So a lot of companies have, in my opinion, made that mistake for a lot of years. So I think that’s a big opportunity, when you start to think about the number of people moving into their 50s, and 60s, and 70s who are remaining active, who frankly are of a generation — Boomers and Gen X — who have a different approach to growing older. They think of it differently. There’s more vanity, to be blunt. They want to be more active.
And if you think about those things, these are behaviors, attitudes, states of mind that are frankly different, and in my mind contrary, to how products and services are currently being positioned. So it’s a big opportunity to both meet the market that’s there and take a little bit of that $9 trillion. Those two things together are really enough in my opinion, to focus on that category.
Molli DeRosa: What challenges do end users have the projects you work on face that innovation can help with?
Rick Robinson: Everything from, let’s say, I’ll take hearing for example. So this is something that isn’t necessarily targeted at people or 50-plus, because a lot of people have hearing deficiencies or hearing issues, but you know, people 50-over, their access to, if they have hearing loss are, very high quality but rather expensive hearing aids, which, most of the time, insurance doesn’t cover. So this is something that, therefore, is not available to a lot of people. And I think the numbers are something like 50 something million people in the US have significant hearing loss. So this is a really big issue because it also contributes to depression and social isolation and a lot of other issues.
So, what I’m getting at is, you have this major issue. You don’t have a lot of access to solutions. So that provides an opportunity for smart startups to come in and provide — and because of policy reasons, they can’t necessarily call them hearing aids — but to come in with hearables that maybe do other things, including enhancing hearing, but fulfill a need that is there at a much lower cost perhaps. And I think that is, as an example of where innovation can take a look at, “There’s a problem. The current solution is pretty expensive. How do we disrupt this with an alternative?” And that’s just, you know, one space. So there’s a lot of those kinds of examples.
Molli DeRosa: Can you describe some of the innovation approaches used at AARP?
Rick Robinson: We generally take a human-centered design approach, meaning basically, we take the consumer, we put them in the center, and everything we do derives from the consumer need, and it is primarily as the consumer, even if it’s a B2B product that we’re thinking about. It’s typically in that case it would even still be B2B2C. So we try to put the consumer at the very center of everything we do.
And then we work through the process that I mentioned before, which is very empathetic, very interactive with consumers, meaning it’s not just you know, we’re not just doing surveys. We’re observing them. We’re talking to them. We’re putting things in their hands to try. And it’s, it’s very hands-on and interactive. And the consumer has a lot of contribution to the product that we’re working on.
And I kind of can’t really show you on the podcast, but if you were to go to ALCOVEvr.com, you might see some pictures that are examples of this. We built a product called ALCOVE which is a virtual reality environment for cross generational audiences, where you can do a number of things inside of this environment, including talk to your grandmother if she had the headset on and you had a headset on and you could see one another even though you’re thousands of miles away.
This product was something that we were bringing people in, we were putting the Oculus headsets on them. And we were getting real time feedback and putting that right back into the product.
Molli DeRosa: What advice can you give to other innovators who may be listening to this right now?
Rick Robinson: Generally speaking to innovators, I would say, try not to rely too much on data. In fact, in some cases, reject the data, meaning overlook it for now, and go with your intuition. Then take that to the consumer and try to validate it. I think too many product innovators and product developers will start with data, and then also end the data. And unfortunately, in my experience, that’s not at all the best way to build products, nor to innovate. It’s great to use data to inform you and to give you something at the other end, help validate. But I think it is better to take a look with your own eyes and ears at consumers and what they’re facing, what problems they’re having, and interpret them yourselves, and then use your own intuition for what you think a good solution to that particular problem is.
I would also say, see the 50-plus market as a really fertile territory, for innovation for startups out there who are wondering, maybe they’re in very early stage and they don’t quite know what their product is, but they’ve got a good team and they’ve got a kernel of an idea, I would say, think about the 50-plus market.
And it’s just an area as I mentioned before, that is that is ripe for in many different categories, disruption in products that they currently use, that maybe they’re not super happy about using but it’s the only ones that are available. So I think there’s a pent up demand for innovation in different categories among 50-plus. So, I would say those two areas are good pieces of advice for people trying to innovate in the space.
Molli DeRosa: So there’s a time and place for data. But intuition and consumer validation are equally as important when developing solutions that allow you to better serve end users.
As of May 2020, the team is looking to refocus their innovation efforts. While the group initially built many of its products and offerings from scratch with an in-house team, instead, innovation at the organization has placed a greater emphasis on the startup ecosystem. Andy Miller, Senior Vice President of Innovation and Product Development at AARP, explains.
Andy Miller: What we’re going to do is continue to double down on the investment side within the startup world. And we are going to grow our relationship with accelerators, and we’re going to find the best startups.
We’re going to invest in them right up front. So every startup that works with us, I should say almost every startup, I want to give myself a little wiggle room, will get a $25,000 investment right up front from us. Day one.
Molli DeRosa: You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered, the podcast for corporate innovators. This episode was written and edited by me, Molli DeRosa. Editorial guidance was provided by Kaitlin Milliken, a special thanks to Rick Robinson for sitting down with us. If you liked this episode, be sure to subscribe to Innovation Answered wherever you get your podcasts. And for more episodes of our show, and bonus web only content visit innovation leader.com/podcast. New episodes will be on the way soon. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.
Special thanks to Cooper Perkins for sponsoring this episode. Visit cooperperkins.com to learn more about creating innovative products for partners across industries.