Monitoring the online customer experience, by Mark Hurst.
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Interview: Rick Robinson, VP of Community Products, AOL

Wednesday, December 11, 2002
by Mark Hurst

I recently interviewed Rick Robinson, AOL's VP of Community Products. Customer experience takes on new significance when there are 35 million customers involved; Rick described how it works at AOL.

Q: What's your background?

Prior to coming to AOL in 1996, I was the editor-in-chief of BBS Magazine for three years - one of the first magazines to cover the online universe. I've been online since the late 1980s. Today I'm vice president of community products at AOL. I'm in charge of development, maintenance, and innovation around products like chat, message boards, polling, and all other interactive or community-related experiences.

Q: How does AOL focus on customer experience? Is there a customer experience team?

Customer experience is very much a part of what everyone does here, ingrained in almost all the decisions by almost all the people in the company. The cliche is that it has been "part of the DNA." What members want, what members need: everything at AOL now stems from that. More specific to the customer experience, we have an in-house studio of designers and UI experts, each of whom acts as a final gateway to the members.

Q: How do you focus on customer experience while creating AOL's community products?

We try to achieve a no-click, or one-click, payoff by giving members what we anticipate they're looking for, while minimizing the clicks they need to get it. The goal is often no clicks at all. For example, when you log on to the service, there's the AOL Welcome Screen. When you click off that screen, you have instant gratification with relevant content. One click, and there's your payoff.

The "no-click payoff" goes for interacting with other members as well. It makes no sense to me when I see any barriers between members who might want to find one another - members who are seeking other members like them or who share their interests. So I want to do the work for them. One step of many in that direction is our newest feature, called Match Chat. This allows members to locate, meet and talk to people with the same interests as them, as indicated in their online profile.

It may sound obvious or over-generalizing, but I believe humans like to interact with humans who have similar interests - although it's not necessarily a thought that people have: "I want to meet people who are just like me." It comes back to anticipating what drives people - not just what they tell focus groups - and staying one step ahead of that, presenting people with things they want, before they grok it in their own mind. So they see the feature and think, "Oh yeah, that's something that interests me."

Q: What if someone starts acting up in the chat rooms where you match people up?

In the very near future, we'll offer tools for members to broadly ignore other members. Right now it's pretty democratic. We want to empower the positive side, not pull down the negative side. We want to give the power to the members to filter out what they don't want, rather than always saying to the ranters, we have to kick you out. At the same time, community is very highly valued at AOL, and we will defend its integrity even if that means inviting people to leave a forum.

Q: What is management's take on all these changes?

For the past nine months, there has been a legitimate and honest movement among AOL employees to take our service back, in the name of our members - back from a zealousness toward advertising over member needs. Management is supportive of dramatic and positive changes in course, changes that were sparked by the employees.

I often try to raise awareness of what it was that made AOL great early on: presenting members with what they want, presenting it in a truly intuitive way that doesn't require them to stop and think what to click, or how to use something. People are understandably impatient, as am I, or sometimes lazy - ditto - and we aim to build with that in mind.

There's nothing to gain by presenting complicated interfaces to members. In fact, in some cases we're returning to simpler interfaces, occasionally to what it was in years past. It's also a crash education for some of the new employees who weren't there in the earlier years of AOL.

Q: How will AOL keep the finances healthy while improving the member experience? Doesn't that threaten some of the other sources of revenue, like advertising?

Quite simply, we're going nowhere fast unless we intelligently and simply provide members with the things they want. I believe that when we do that for our members, ad revenue will follow. That's how it worked in the past for us and will work again in greater measure.

And it's not just us - this has been shown to work in other companies. Make your members very happy, and you're going to have a loyal audience. Advertisers love to interact with those people. This is going to be our direction: keep the loyalty we have, attract more members, and turn them into members who love us. Advertisers will recognize that and follow.

To the contrary, look at what's happened at AOL recently. We focused too much on the advertisers, and on the bottom line, and see where it's gotten us. So I don't flinch a bit about developing 100% with members in mind. Wall Street rightly wants to see execution, but I'm not concerned at all. It's only going to have a positive effect on the bottom line.

Q: AOL has a reputation for having "newbie" users. Do you develop AOL's products with a different mindset than you might for, say, a site with more advanced users?

First of all, it's way overstated, and always has been, that AOL's members are all newbies. You don't have 35 million members who are all newbies. It just doesn't work that way. Philosophically speaking, even hard-core developers can still appreciate ease-of-use and simplicity. They won't go into AOL, get where they want to go in a click, and think, "This stinks because it's too easy."

But I'll grant you that there's a perception out there that AOL is optimized for the newcomers. It's true that AOL has delivered many people to ISPs and such. To that end, you'll be seeing a number of newer products and enhancements that we'll deliver into the market, aimed at people who want many more features in their products.

Simplicity is nice, and it's certainly what everyone is after, but a certain segment wants to have many more controls in the software - in the mail program, and in other applications, perhaps. We're looking at providing, for those members who want it, more enhanced products over the next year.

Q: Let's take one particular feature, the discussion board. Some popular sites, like Slashdot, have more complex features, like rating other members. Will AOL add features like that?

We are currently looking at our message board product, in terms of adding enhancements, like the ability to rate other posts. Not to rate other members, per se, but certainly other posts. And there are other enhancements that will be coming in February 2003 to the message board system, one or two of which will fundamentally alter the way people currently interact in a threaded discussion.

Q: How will AOL release these changes?

It's easy to get into the mode of cyclical launches, like AOL releasing a client once a year, as it has in the past. I don't believe that's the best thing for members. We will react to what they want in an ongoing basis. We need to be much more iterative, more nimble. If something doesn't work one day, we'll take it down the next.

So no, there probably won't be one big release of message boards. There will be a significant release probably in the February timeframe, but after that, there are going to be a number of ongoing enhancements and modifications. That's the best way to do software. You never put it to bed.

Q: How does AOL listen to customers? Most sites don't have to listen to tens of millions of people.

We have a Member Services group, an 8,000-person team talking day and night to members about all kinds of things. We're the only service that has free, live 24-hour online help. Throughout AOL, there are help buttons, which allow members to e-mail us. We sift through and respond to all those volumes of e-mail.

There are all kinds of ways we get feedback. Believe it or not, I've had mail filtered down to me from Steve Case, e-mail from this member or that who had a complaint or suggestion. E-mail to Steve Case from members does get read, and it filters back. It's painful sometimes, but we're obligated to listen to and respond to all of this intake from members. It's at the core of what we do.

Q: How do you filter it all?

Member Services filters some of it, and puts it into a format for people like me and others to look at. We also do focus groups and user tests all the time. Then there are people such as myself at AOL who have come up through the service programming content to members, putting out words and pictures and software and watching in real-time, day and night, day after day, how people interact with it, how people use stuff as opposed to how they say they use it. These are nuances you only pick up with experience.

And we have a lot of people internally who have a long history of interacting with products and content and people online, where you foster an innate sense of what works and how to tweak things to make them better.

So, we apply all of those to our product development decisions. But we don't have only one systematic process of sifting through e-mails and breaking it all out into spreadsheets or something. It's much more holistic.

Q: Are there any other features coming up?

We're going to be putting even more emphasis on empowerment of members, not just to find other people, but to help them publish. We'll provide more ways for people to express themselves. From customizing an IM icon to publishing their rants to very simple publishing of words and pictures that's available to their friends, or the entire world.

There are many different forms of member-published comments. Some are ephemeral like chat, and others are more permanent, like blogging. Definitely one of the mainstays of AOL is giving people the ability to easily publish, and we'll continue to pioneer there.

We're also looking at perhaps leveraging members' PC idle time and at ways to work for our members while they are offline.

Q: AOL is getting into weblogs?

In a way, we've had them for a while. A few years ago, in our Digital City area, we called them "comment boards." Type your thoughts, click a button, and they're published sequentially on the page. It was essentially the same thing as blogging, only it was a group environment rather than one author publishing to many readers. So yes, we're looking at that type of environment for members to publish in.

Weblogs, over the last several years, have migrated to replace, in some cases, people's home pages. It's natural that the blog and the home page would combine. And when you remember that AOL has the largest collection of home pages in the world, it kinda gets interesting.

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