Elevating user experience

Bill Murphy

Bill Murphy is the CTO of Blackstone, where he leads the Blackstone innovations and infrastructure team.

Bill Murphy of Blackstone describes why user experience is an underappreciated critical success factor.

Interview conducted by Vinod Baya and Bo Parker

PwC: Bill, can you please tell us about your role and responsibilities at Blackstone?

BM: I came to Blackstone about two years ago to lead the technology team after leading product and technology at Capital IQ for 11 years. My strategy has been to take a product-like approach and architect a transformation that positions our team to be proactive and to focus on creating long-term efficiencies for our professionals who are doing everything from private equity, real estate investing, and hedge fund solutions, to our credit business. We’re the largest alternative asset manager in the world, which brings unique opportunities to use technology effectively.

As you can expect, we face some information challenges and workflow challenges to keep our professionals as productive as they can be. Our overall goal comes down to creating transparency inside of Blackstone as well as with our investors in ways that haven’t been typical in the alternative asset management world.

PwC: How do you tackle these challenges?

BM: We do that in how we design the user experience to handle information. The only way to truly design the right experience is to be in the middle of the business, understand all the problems, and then you can work to create the right solutions. I equate the process to be like one of those magic eye paintings, where you stare at a painting and then suddenly the picture comes into focus. You don’t necessarily know what the solution is going to look like, but if you concentrate and focus on it, a clear picture usually arises.

That’s my view of building systems for our industry. You need to put the right information or a lot of information in front of the right people in a way that makes it easy for them to consume it and come up with the new opportunities, the new products, and the new creative ways to invest—to see something that others haven’t seen yet.

In terms of use cases for value add, we aim to take away as much stress as possible from the easy stuff, by automating the routine and mundane actions, and give users more time to focus on the higher-end pieces of what they need to do.

PwC: How does this view impact the future of the applications you are investing in?

BM: My view is that in enterprise IT, applications are going to win every time. The infrastructure stuff is just a means to an end. As soon as a great SaaS [software-as-a-service] application emerges in a space, it is extremely disruptive and drives out the legacy solutions eventually. So, we’re investing in apps that meet our needs and make us more efficient, and we’re integrating them together to unify the user experience as much as possible.

Also, we build mainly web applications, and our strategy has been to build them in a very touch-friendly way, so they would be very usable on a phone or a tablet. We are doing responsive design, building web applications in ways that render very well to phones and tablets.

PwC: Enterprise applications have a long history. What characteristics are you focused on for the future? Have design principles evolved over time?

BM: Absolutely. We see a trend that the apps people use at home generally are much more usable than the enterprise applications they have at work.

The user experience is the key underappreciated enterprise critical success factor. We have been kind of maniacally focused on making that user experience world class in our web apps. It is really about what can one do to provide information in an easy-to-digest fashion and take action on that information in as little time as possible, because every minute of our professionals’ time is valuable.

The technologies that succeed are the ones that figure out how to tailor the experience without the user knowing about it.

Another aspect of making the user experience fantastic is personalizing it to the user type. I think the technologies that fail are the ones that put the onus of personalization on the individual user. The technologies that succeed are the ones that figure out how to tailor the experience without the user knowing about it.

I also think that users are more and more unwilling to spend the time to learn your system. Therefore, you really need to strive to create the experience they want to have without working at it.

PwC: So in some sense what you’re saying is that instead of the user adapting to the app, the app adapts to the user?

BM: Right. It adapts to the user by being so well designed that it just feels right and doesn’t cause a major disruption from their existing work processes, unless it eliminates the work, of course.

PwC: Where are you seeing new opportunities to deploy apps?

BM: Think about Wayne Gretzky. He was the best hockey player ever, because he didn’t skate to where the puck was; he skated to where the puck was going to be. One significant opportunity I see is to build applications that anticipate two steps ahead where the user will be and provide support accordingly—almost like augmenting users with the best possible personal assistant who is with them all the time. Google Now is an example of that in the consumer space and a good proxy for the trend in apps that we are all going to be benefiting from in the next 10 years.

If we can use technology to do that in the enterprise, we will have achieved a lot of productivity gains.

PwC: You said the user experience is the most underappreciated critical success factor. How do you get your teams to focus on the user experience?

BM: If you think about all the great innovations, they’re typically from people who can understand their problem set so deeply that they can then reimagine and think differently and not accept the status quo. So a good design principle is to focus on the problems at hand, understand them in excruciating detail, and extrapolate them out to the right solutions using the latest in technology.

A good design principle is to focus on the problems at hand, understand them in excruciating detail, and extrapolate them out to the right solutions using the latest in technology.

The bridge between the business and an excellent solution is best provided by technologists from the product development team who are completely engrossed in the business, so they can help make those decisions and not rely on just asking somebody.

I liken my designers to journalists, where the most important part of their job is to come up with the right questions so they can draw out the important problems of our user base. Once we understand the problems, we’re pretty confident we can solve them. I think most of the subpar solutions in the world come from poorly designed problem sets.

PwC: Do you use any formal methodology?

BM: Our methodology is to communicate early and often and be with our users every step of the way, so we can design the solution that results in the best user experience. Because there are so many different methodologies, we try to cherry-pick them through the life cycle. For instance, we pick the right methods from agile to help us be iterative, the right methods from waterfall to manage the project based on the resource constraints, and the lessons from the other methodologies. I don’t think there is one right methodology. It’s about adapting a collection of methods to your culture and the tools at hand to create the right experience. Basically, use a common sense approach all along the way.

We have an open forum design process, where everybody gets in a room to talk about the problems and then the proposed solutions. My strategy has been to seed a best-idea-wins culture. There’s not a lot of hierarchy, and dictatorial behaviors are really frowned upon.

Users are more and more unwilling to spend the time to learn your system.

Also, all the technology trends aside, effective change management for the users is core to our methodology. An effective product that’s delightful enough for users to make them want to change and a change management process to make that change without pain are the two critical success factors to getting any ROI [return on investment] out of these new technologies.

PwC: Given what you have told us, what is the right operating model for IT in the future?

BM: I think the right model of the future will be inspired by product-focused commercial teams. Much of the internal IT operating model today is reactive. Ask any business user, what should we do today? The answer usually is, well just fix my report, or just fix this, or just fix that. And you just die of 1,000 paper cuts.

At the end of the day, the reactive operating model is the biggest thing that internal technology teams suffer from versus product-focused commercial enterprises. The product-focused commercial teams have much more incentive to focus on the long term and to treat their solutions as a living, breathing thing.

In contrast, internal IT teams view their solutions as projects—not products. That leads to bad short-term-focused decisions and a lack of long-term investment. My goal here really has been to orientate us as a product-focused organization to make the long-term investments. Sometimes that’s painful on the prioritization side. But when you do it, the benefits really start to add up once you get the momentum going.