Jared Spool: Welcome everyone to another episode of the Spoolcast. And today, we have Mike Lee, who comes to us from AARP, a grand old institution in the D.C. area. Mike's going to be speaking at our Web App Master's Tour about his experiences at AARP, and what it's been like to be there. And glad we have a chance to sort of, talk about that today. Mike, how are you doing?
Mike Lee: Doing great. Enjoying some warmth here in the nation's capital for a change.
Jared: Oh, well there you're lucky. Because up here in New England, we've got 20 feet tall snowbanks surrounding our office. It looks like the Alps here.
So, I'm very excited that we are going to get a chance to talk about AARP. Because AARP seems like this amazing story to me. What you guys have been doing there. Because this is this organization, it's been around since the 50's right?
Jared: And so, it's real easy for an organization like that to be very old school, old mind, not, "what is this Internet thing, I don't get these little fancy iPaddies." And here it is, you guys are actually doing some really neat stuff in the online world. You were showing me an iPhone, and iPad app the other day.
Jared: How do you begin to get an organization that's that old, to start thinking about new technology? I mean, that's been your focus for a while, here, right?
Mike: Yeah. Been at AARP seven years, and probably arrived sort of clearly during the era sort of where we were doing sort of standard Web destination sites and doing Web pages since the dawn of the Web. That's the mental model that's persisted around the building well. We're going to make a page and we'll put it on the Web, and the big innovation was maybe people would download a PDF and do something with it.
The old world started in the 50's, maybe back then it wasn't described thusly, but we had the first mover advantage. This idea that there's a whole bunch of teachers in California that needed health benefits, and our founder, bless her, Ethel Percy Andrus, was a high school principal in that state.
And said well, "Hey, if we band people together, we can get better rates on health care coverage", and then that turned into other things in the 60's, and it grew in the pre-digital era, through mainly paper publications, and direct mail, as the modes that were available in those decades.
And then like everyone else we got into the Web. So we're really sort of in the transition from a paper-based member-engagement world, this Web was in the middle ground for a few years of, well what is this, and we need to consolidate all our Websites and get the user experience centralized, which, you know, that's a never-ending job.
I don't think that there's a better application for the word disruptive than the arrival of the iPad, and that's supported by the ramp-up in the years with the iPhone. So, I sort of give credit to that event as the whack on the side of the head to the organization.
That there are a lot of pieces of thinking about digital, and we've got to do this, and we've got to do that, and we were in the process of centralizing a lot of the editorial work around digital, and the digital deployment capabilities into what is our business unit, Digital Strategy, which is a good thing, to kind of reduce duplicated activity and to get economies.
But, nothing made it more vivid than the arrival of the iPad and just to have, in less than a year, our board of directors in the C suite all holding these things, and saying, wow, everything should be simple. Everything should load really quickly, and so, it's this device that makes the imperative for very fluid user experience, real, from top down.
Jared: I get that. I was at one of my client's a few weeks ago and you could tell the executives from everybody else, because the executives all come to meetings with their iPads, and everybody else comes with either notebooks or a laptop. But the iPads were definitely the sign of executives. They're using this thing now.
Mike: Yeah, and I kind of raved about it when it came out, and then my boss got one, my boss already got one the day it was released, and credit to him, he kind of what we called ... it's for modeling the behavior, right, well, he's sort of carrying this thing around, and it is the perfect executive tool, we were relaunching our site. It would have been April last year. And people in management are just in meetings all the time, and yet, he has to keep touch on operational realities and what's up and what's down on the site. And the iPad was perfect for that.
You could be in a meeting and glance down at this thing that isn't this laptop screen that's jutting up, and casually float through the site and check stuff out. He'd hold it up during meetings and use it as a little almost digital flip chart to prove points. And this is not an insignificant thing to have leadership so quickly, as you probably have mentioned it before. But Google calls it dogfooding. So, people are using this tool of the future now, and it is changing how they think about information consumption at least.
Jared: So, what's that been like, sort of being in this place. Do you find that you have to argue for good experience now, or has the argument changed in terms of ... it's like, well wait a second. This isn't as easy as you think, or. What is the conversation now like, and how is it different than what it was, say, five years ago.
Mike: Yeah, and again, the sort of leadership of the company had seen maybe not so much rooted in the digital conversation, the need to sort of think holistically about, so our members are 50 plus, but that's 50 years old to 105 years old, or whatever the oldest one is. While we have some time, and they all like paper. The older segments, the ones we're kind of prospecting from 45 to 50 to 55, that kind of range, have Smart Phones. They have broadband to the home. They like their DVRs. And they're just like everyone else, they can buy stuff at Best Buy now, all this advanced stuff.
So the organization kind of took a hard look at ... in the commerce world, you think of it as price transparency. The Internet kind of opens up everything, and it's very easy to just find out what the best deal is, so why do you need someone in the middle telling you "here's what we think is the best deal." You can go find out yourself on Google or whatever search engine.
Now that kind of thinking spilled over into the value proposition of what we do, and we are thinking hard about what in now this digital era, where not only a member can sit at a desktop and go search from Google, it's now the power of the Web in your pocket. And the thing that knows exactly who you are and where you are, and can take us into an era where information kind of comes to you.
So the organization in the five year ago time frame, definitely, we're working hard to be, and then to kind of say this openly, is just less paternalistic, so in the middleman kind of world, it's, well, people, they are like well yeah, we get that, here's AARP telling us what's good for me as a member and as a person who wants to have a better life as I get older.
But you know what, I have opinions too, and I have ways to find out what I think is going to be good for me, and so I think there was a recognition that the organization has to work hard not at only providing information, quality information, and quantities of it, and has it become relevant. Has it become tailored to an individual's need? You're not going to do that printing more pieces of paper, probably.
Jared: So, what is the internal structure? Do you have a dedicated team of user experience folks? Or, are they sort of embedded in the different projects, or is everybody sort of has user experience as just a piece of their job. How is this evolving within the organization?
Mike: It's been a privilege for me to see and take some part in that change over the last seven years. But it was very distributed when I got here, and through a lot of organizational change and just learning. It is now institutionalized, even in the last couple of years.
There's been a coalescing of user experience practice in the digital unit, kind of the realization that look, we will give the responsibility to what used to be called the Web Operations Unit, but now that we do email newsletters and mobile and other things, it's just digital. And digital as distinct from print, which is still very important, because we are the people who like that.
So, the digital world, and arguably, digital lags behind print, people who've done print note what it takes to engage a user, and knows their audience really well, and what photos work and what headlines work, but the Web has been much less mature, and so that platform in the last few years, we've got those roles now.
We've got first an IA, and then there's now two of them. We do usability testing, and then benchmarking, so there's ten usability test sessions a year, and then we even now ... that there's kind of a solid information architecture, or user experience.
Practice in place with all the attendant things that you can imagine, capturing of patterns, and all the deliverables and work product that you need to manage and produce. That then has made it easier to engage with vendors, who of course tend to be ahead of us, in various user experience practices and so, it's now part of everyday work.
Jared: And so, the shift, people start talking about user experience now, closer to the beginning of projects instead of this sort of added on, "Oh my gosh, we have to make this usable" flurry at the end that a lot of our organizations see?
Mike: Every subject matter expert has their view of what user experience is, but it just doesn't tend to be rooted, perhaps, in the digital medium. And then in recent years, people got a greater understanding of the Web.
We'd bring in subject matter experts into the one-way mirror, usability tests and focus groups and things like that, so they got to see first-hand. So some of that did stick in the groups, and so I think there was, as part of that shift, the subject matter experts and the program groups, followed along with that shift.
And so, user experience is not just, well, you know, their ideal of what it is. There's a reality of how a human being engages with information in the digital realm that is just out there. It's not something that the digital team knows, intuitively, and nor would the subject matter expertise group have that. You have to go out and look for that. You have to go out and get dirty and see it, probe for it. Right?
Jared: Right. I've heard recently a quote, which was that the New York Times could give every one of their subscribers three free Kindle 3Gs for what it costs to print the paper version of their newspaper, and I'm guessing that the same is actually true for you guys, that there's this huge cost to your print side of your business, still.
Mike: Yeah, funny you should bring that up. There was a number of big changes in the industry, and so, firstly, we print the highest circulation paper magazine on the planet.
Mike: It goes to 20 plus million households. We're a US based organization, so I'm sure there's probably other big magazines and similar operations, but, I think, bar none, we're the largest mailer of paper magazines.
To the point where we're bringing in barge loads of paper off the Mississippi, and not only printing, you know, run seven out of eight weeks of the bimonthly mailing cycle, they're just, do these magazines, the main magazine is in 100 regional editions for ad customization, and three different demographic segments. So that's in 300 versions, handled by some massive factory somewhere and mailed into people's mailboxes.
So, that is very real. We're a billion dollar social enterprise. So, we're not on Wall Street, we're not selling widgets and have, kind of, a profit bottom line. What our bottom line is, making older people's lives better. And one of the things had been this magazine, which is still very much the flagship, thank goodness we have a lot of members who like to kick back with a magazine and read their stuff, but, yes, it's breathtakingly expensive.
A quarter of the billion dollar budget goes to paper, postage, and printing. And then I heard the number, I think it's close to over 300 million pieces of direct mail through our mail facility in LA. Is sort of churned every year to kind of keep this whole thing going, and get your renewal cards out and whatnot.
So, that is kind of this machine that's running at a large scale, similar to your New York Times and other publications. And fortunately, we're not, sort of, out in the open market, trying to get a magazine out on newsstands.
You become a member, and there's an array of benefits, one of which is this magazine, so the value proposition is broader, but yeah, there is that reality of the cost of shipping out this magazine, and as one of the largest customers of the postal service, you know. And we all kind of see, it's not like we're going to open up more printing plants and print more magazines. It's, in the face of the tablet, that's definitely made more vivid the need to shift from paper to digital.
Jared: That's a massive organizational change, right? To get that many editions out every other month, you've got a lot of internal resources. I mean, it's not just the paper and the printing. It's the people building up each of those different customized regional versions and selling those ads, and tracking their results, and making sure the mailing lists are intact. And all of these things, which are going to have to shift in really interesting and probably undefined ways as you move into this more electronic space, I would think.
Mike: Yeah, and fortunately, of course, they measure the engagement with the publications practically in real time, I think it's monthly. But obviously we know and we look very carefully at what the ROI is on the paper side, and I think the inertia that is behind this machine is kind of at least two faceted. One is a good piece, it's to say, well, it's working and we're pretty sure that this mode of doing the paper piece is going to be useful and engaging and accepted for, if you look out to a five to 10 year time frame.
But, for example, our numbers tell us there are about five million members with smart phones. And that number is only going to grow. Our mobile traffic, which is still in the single digit percentages, is showing its 70 percent IOS devices and 20 percent Android devices.
So that number, if you sort of add all those up, if it's five million now out of nearly 40 million members, that number, as it grows, will start to be really interesting and impactful when you start to get into the teens and the 20 percent share of, wow, here's this group that prefers digital and they want the green, sort of, membership, they want to opt out of paper. We're not seeing a big rush to that yet, but, I think it's only inevitable. And we're seeing that that's an opportunity.
So, as great as a paper magazine is, and it doesn't need a battery and it doesn't crash, and ultra high resolution, and you can bookmark it really easily. Has page numbers, which the Kindle just only recently added, right?
Digital engagement, and if you see it in a device, it is extremely compelling, because the person can engage with the organization from wherever they are. And if we do our job correctly, it's offering the tools that they need, wherever they may be standing,
Jared: Internally, how are you guys sort of dealing with this shift? Is there, like, a skunk works team that's off thinking about what that experience might be like three years from now, or five years from now? Is it something that people are just sort of reacting to? How have you been shifting and dealing with that?
Mike: So, there is a few of us who are now meeting, and have been meeting for the last year, year and a half, they kind of track these kinds of things. And in the integrated communications unit, which is the print, and we have a big broadcast group, as well as a digital studio here at our headquarters, and produces shows that'll go out into syndication on radio and TV, and then web, have been looking at this for a number of years, and so it was formalized over a year ago, what we call kind of a distributed digital presence strategy.
And that's nothing more lofty than to say, "Wow, we're seeing the trends of members hanging out at other places in the digital realm, we need to go where they are." The big ones with Facebook, you're kind of sitting here in the comfort, inside the Beltway, and realizing, "Well, we're doing all we're doing by traditional modes to engage our members, but yet, wow, here's this thing out there that crossed 500 million members, now it's 550, and 600 million, globally, but they have a lot of seniors."
And so, we quickly worked with a technology vendor that has expertise in Facebook and deployed a managed web page out on Facebook. So now, we're out there, and they just a few weeks ago, formalized a social media team, which is now going to be in the digital unit, so we're moving quickly.
And then mobile was also a part of that, over a year ago, setting aside a little money to get out there with an iPhone app to start, because that's where the action was, and then also we ported our magazines over to iPad, just initially this sort of page flip kind of mode.
But it wasn't that we saw mobile, for example, as this move that was going to shake up the marketplace or anything of that sort, but as it turns out, some of the, I wouldn't even call it skunk works, operations, but credit to some of our bosses, they realized that the imperative to get out to mobile wasn't a keep up with the Joneses thing as much as, "Hey, we've got to get out an app, this was in 2010, because we'll learn from that."
And as it turns out, that's what happened. We've unsurfaced the 50 things that weren't ready for mobile, like, feeds needed work, and the APIs needed to be built out. You know, what about the licensing of our photos for mobile, and just 50 things that needed to be, sort of, brought into our readiness for mobile. So that, I think, in the one app we put out on the iPhone was catalytic for forming what is now, I guess, as of a month ago, a separate engineering development track just to support mobile, which is great.
Jared: Well, this sounds really very cool, I mean, you're uncovering these problems as you go and learning from them. And is that developing a sense of patience amongst your management team, or is that getting them even more excited to do more things? What's been, sort of, the change in energy level around this stuff?
Mike: Well, yeah, I think that dog fooding phenomena, and I've always kind of, this has been in my hope chest of things to have happen and I think it's come to pass is there's nothing more vivid than to carry a thing around that's a portal to the digital world. I mean, more than a Blackberry or a phone, but now this iPad is that.
So I think that that has given management a comfort, so they realize there's some imperative to keep pace with it. But as people engage with social media, it's a culmination of, I think, what was five years of progressive comfort with, you know, I think, five years ago there was the, "Oh my gosh, someone found the email address of the CEO" and sent him a complaint. What do we do with that? And everyone stop, and let's deal with that one email.
Into, now, it's normal course of business to sort of deal with the dynamism of the conversation, you know, out on the digital realm. And I think, with that, and particularly credit to our social media team, which has engaged virtually all of our 50 plus regional offices, or our state offices. You know, so this is Twitter, Facebook presence. That kind of sets the pulse by which other things need to happen.
I mean, we've had a media relations team that has to react to the news, legislation and breaking news and all that. So that practice has been there, but sort of, out of that grew this awareness of the pulse of social media, and then that, sort of then creates the imperative to make sure we're surfacing our organizational information to that pulse, to meet that pulse of conversation.
Jared: Well, I have to say, I'm looking forward to hearing about the projects that you've been working on, and the stories you have at the Masters Tour. We talked, I guess a week or so ago, and you were sharing with me some of the really cool efforts that are going on, that you're going to detail in your presentation. I'm looking forward to that.
Mike: Yeah, we're going to pick apart one of our apps, one that I think will be a vivid demonstration of how do you get good web app development done, sort of, in the swirl of all this other stuff I've just been talking about. And then, even more so, have it happen out of a couple groups where there's normally some dynamic tension, if you will, and over a two year period, getting this app out that's been used by several million people.
And then, yeah, I'll interleave some sidebars on some of the other stuff we've talked about.
Jared: Neat, neat. Well, Mike, thank you very much for taking this time, I'm very much looking forward to seeing you in Philadelphia, Seattle, and Minneapolis where you'll be for the UIE Web App Masters Tour. And thanks for talking to us today.
Mike: Great, great talking to you.
Jared: And I want to thank our audience for sitting and participating. Again, leave your comments at our UIE Brainsparks blog, which you can find at uie.com. And of course, we want to see you at the UIE Web App Masters Tour, if you do web app development, you definitely want to check this out, uietour.com, is where you'll find out all the information about that.
And that wraps up another episode here of the Spoolcast. Thank you for listening and most importantly, thank you very much for encouraging our behavior. Take care, talk to you soon.