This entry was written by Blackboard User Experience Architect Rob Fay (right in photo), a member of Blackboard’s Product Development group.

Slate_user_testingOf all the courses I took in undergraduate and graduate school, only one of my classes used Blackboard software for limited course management functions.  The instructor for that course chose to post her syllabus online; she posted the weekly assignments and readings to the space, and she encouraged the use of the discussion board.  That instructor didn’t enable many features the system had to offer, but her effort was a start.  And as a student, I didn’t know the full breadth of what Blackboard software had to offer anyway.

Nonetheless, I was excited that that instructor decided to use Blackboard software for her course management needs.  Why?

Well, after all, the class focused on human-computer interaction methodologies.  Why teach a course on system interface design and not leverage educational technologies?

Interestingly, we had a group assignment to apply traditional user-centered design methods and research to critique a chosen Web-based system.  One group decided to critique the Blackboard system we were using.

Fast forward a few years.

Now I work with the User Experience ("UX") team in Blackboard’s Product Development group.  It is my team’s responsibility to critique Blackboard products and to make them easier and more enjoyable to use.  "User Experience" is a somewhat nebulous concept, but our team follows Peter Morville’s "User Experience Honeycomb" model (Morville, 2004) by striving to make our products accessible, credible, desirable, findable, usable, useful, and valuable.

To achieve such high standards, we must get you – Blackboard users – involved in the design process.  So, how do we do it?  And how can you help?

There are a variety of mechanisms whereby you are able to give us feedback about bugs and requests for new features, but how about participating in the actual design process?

Of the various tools in the user experience practitioner’s toolkit, I want to highlight a few of the tasks our team conducts: user tests, card sorts, personas and prototypes.

User Tests

Blackboard is fortunate to have a tremendous amount of contact with our client schools, institutions and organizations, but we don’t always have the opportunity to meet with many of the faculty members and students who use our products every day.

Some of you may have seen us performing user testing during BbWorld this past year.  The UX team has also attended regional meetings, such as the Midwest Blackboard Users Group (SLATE), to conduct user testing.  We’ve also been fortunate enough to test faculty and students using remote testing.  The focus of many of these tests is to get feedback and answer questions such as:

  • Can I easily locate desired information on this page?
  • Can I successfully perform my intended task?
  • Does the system behave they way I expect it to behave when I do "X"?

The UX team looks to perform tests early in the design process to validate design decisions but also to make necessary changes that would otherwise keep users from being successful.  We also look to conduct tests of products already available so we can understand pain points that we want to correct in future releases.

Card Sorts

A card sort is a method to understand how people categorize and label information.  I may have my own way to organize information for a Web site, but with enough participation, it becomes readily apparent what something should be called and what group it should belong to.  We’ve conducted a handful of card sorts this year, and all have provided excellent data to guide our design decisions.  We even had one online card sort with over 150 participants, most of whom were students!  Hooray!


Many Blackboard employees previously worked in the teaching and learning communities we service: K-12, higher education, and commercial, government and international customers.  Although we think we know our customers pretty well, we cannot make design decisions without having an explicit summary representation of the product’s (or a specific feature’s) intended users.

Personas are a popular way for design teams to describe real-world users of the system.  Since major league baseball has just begun a new season, think of personas as baseball trading cards.  A baseball trading card includes the player’s picture, vital statistics and some background information.  A well-constructed persona will provide true value by painting an accurate representation of different user types.  This way no one on the development team can say "I think our users would want this" without substantiation.  Instead, a good persona is created to validate the goal of any design.

We think we’ve done a good job identifying our users, but we understand that every person is unique and their use of Blackboard’s products varies.  Therefore, we are always striving to rework and revise our personas. 


One of the things I like best about working at Blackboard is how efficiently our Product Development teams work together.  One way this comes together nicely is with prototypes.  When our Product Development team determines and defines what it will build, our User Interface team works to put together high-fidelity prototypes.  These prototypes serve three purposes:

  1. They show early representations of what the final design might look like.  This gives the team a focal point to understand the good, the bad and the ugly.  We don’t always get it right the first time, but an early prototype allows us to make changes.
  2. We use prototypes for user testing.  We may not have a real system to test, but we can provide users with a representative example to get their feedback on the ideas we have about product design and behavior.
  3. Our prototypes can often be turned right over to engineers so they can turn our design decisions into reality.

What You Can Do

We want you to be influential.  You can make a difference by helping us achieve our goal of creating products that are accessible, credible, desirable, findable, usable, useful and valuable.  If you have any interest in participating in future usability tests, we’d like to hear from you.  And if you are a faculty member or student, we really want to hear from you.

To find out more about participating in Blackboard’s User-Centered Design process, please read more about becoming a part of the Blackboard Idea Exchange (BIE) or contact us directly at

Related Posts

Share This Article

Twitter Facebook LinkedIn Pinterest Email