The User Experience team in Product Development is tasked with being the advocate for you, Blackboard users. So how do we do that? We ask questions, we watch you use Blackboard software, we read your enhancement requests, we read your bugs reported, we listen to your ideas, we try to replicate what you do in your Blackboard system. With every project we tackle, we aim to increase the amount of user research that serves to influence the design of what is delivered in the product. Here are the types of things we’ve done with you this year:

  • Live and Virtual User Testing: we ask you to complete specific tasks in the system, and record your response, your commentary, your ability to succeed, the amount of time it takes you to succeed.
  • Live and Virtual User Observation Activities: we ask you to use a few features specifically and we watch as you explore the features using your own experience as your only guide. We record how you explore, what you find, what you do not find, your questions, comments, ideas, successes and failures of the system to meet your needs.
  • Interviews: we ask what it’s like as a “Day in the Life of…” a senior in high-school, a tenured faculty member, a system administrator, and more. 

This year we added a new inquiry during the user tests and observations called a desirability matrix, a tool not unique to Blackboard. It’s a simple tool that consists of 50 adjectives, some positive, some negative, and some which could be used either positively or negatively. At the end of a user activity, we ask the participant to select only 5 words that they feel best describe what they just experienced in the product, and we ask for a further explanation of each selection. This gives us excellent insight into the true experience of a user, no matter the success rate of the tasks we are investigating.

I have found the results from the desirability matrix give me such immediate insight into what you really think of the product, and wanted to share with you both an example of some recent research on various features, as well as my takeaways from those results. We’ve taken the results of some recent studies of possible future features and organized them into a word cloud. The more frequent a word is mentioned, the larger it becomes in the cloud.


At first glance, there are some incredibly positive words that really stand out: these features are Organized, Valuable, Time-Saving and Usable! That’s excellent! But in the spirit of openness, my first thought was: I’m glad this is not ready for product launch, because we have more work to do.

This is the beauty of user research being deeply ingrained in product development. We know that we have more work to do and because you are willing to spend time with us doing these user activities, we have the information we need to take action. What are we doing with these results? We are digging in deep. Which tasks were overwhelming? Which areas are busy? What features were confusing? We will use that information to make adjustments – simplify! simplify! simplify! – and then verify with additional user activities that those adjustments are on target.

Blackboard Learn is a mission-critical application used by millions world-wide; while we may not be able to meet the needs of every user and every user’s preference, I do believe that by continuing to increase the amount of time we spend with you, we can make it something that you enjoy using, or even better, we can make it something that you don’t think about using because it is seamlessly a part of your day-to-day. As always, I implore you to join the Blackboard Idea Exchange to help make a difference – we need your participation!

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