When Users Complain: Blackboard

There is a great article over at Inside Higher Ed. describing what happens when a company without evidence of a usability process finally asks its users for feedback.

At an open “listening session” with top executives of Blackboard here Wednesday at the company’s annual conference, college officials expressed frustration with many of the system’s fundamental characteristics. At times, the meeting seemed to turn into a communal gripe session, with complaints ranging from the system’s discussion forum application, to the improved — but still lacking — user support, to the training materials for faculty members. Participants’ concerns were often greeted with nods of agreement and outright applause from their peers as they spoke of their frustrations with the system.

“Every time we have a migration [to an updated version of Blackboard], we have new features to figure out. You should be providing us workable faculty materials with your product,” one commenter said amidst applause by those in the audience. “You put the burden on ourselves … and then create the documentation and then train. That’s why so many of us struggle to move forward to the next [version]. We are Blackboard on our campuses, and for us to be advocates, you have to give us the tools to be successful — training.” She emphasized that she would rather see more of a focus on fundamentals like training than updated versions of the software.

As a long time user of Blackboard (at two universities) I can speak about it in HF terms. One of the biggest usability problems with the system comes from mode errors.

  • There are multiple modes, each with their own set of sometimes overlapping (sometimes not) features.
  • You can perform 60% of a complex, time-consuming task in one mode, only to realize that it cannot be completed in that mode and you have to start over in another.
  • I can see how users would blame themselves, thinking “I KNEW I had to be in build mode to do that. I just didn’t remember to change from teach mode.”

Here is an example screen. The left screen shows “build” mode, with the sidebar options open. Once the user realizes the task can’t be completed in build mode and must be done in “teach” mode, he or she clicks “teach” and the left screen appears. (Screens are overlapped for this example only).


Notice the similarity of the pages. No longer can you add a file because you are ‘teaching.’ Adding content to your course is not considered teaching. Last, the sidebar collapses when a mode is changed. Because the icons are not helpful, this means navigation in the new mode requires the extra click on the sidebar to open it back up before starting the task anew.

I could go on, but the amount of time and analysis I have put into Blackboard over the last six years would require a consulting fee from them. 🙂

(post image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8078381@N03/3279725831/)

6 thoughts on “When Users Complain: Blackboard”

  1. A couple of things.

    1) This isn’t the first listening session they’ve ever had so you’re “finally” comment is a bit off. Last years was much more heated and the year before was a disaster!
    2) You have to look at the legacy WebCT system (which is what you’re using) from a role perspective. You’re enrolled as a Designer and Instructor which is why you have access to the Build and Teach tab. For some users the instructor isn’t always the designer and vice-versa.

  2. Having played with Blackboard 9 for some time I think they have finally gotten it. I suggest going to their support website and getting a preview account. I also note that at this year’s conference there were both student and faculty focus groups.

  3. It’s always good to see a company accepting and responding to user feedback. User focus groups are, of course, just an indicator – actual user testing will provide the data needed to make informed adjustments to a product.

    @James: You illustrate a great example of a disconnect between the WebCT design and its users, i.e. “You have to look… from a role perspective”. Evidently, the users expectations of possible actions are not being met by the disjointed “roles” imposed by the design — this implies a need to revisit the design with an eye towards bringing it better into line with the common usage scenarios. Don’t blame the user!

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