“Sweet looking theme, a vast improvement over the current Bb Learn Theme, the revision in look and feel makes it a lot smoother to use.” — overheard during usability testing

Early reactions to the new system theme in Service Pack 8 have been overwhelmingly positive. Users that have seen it love its clean and modern look. UI changes in the new System Theme, “Blackboard Learn 2012” offer a change in the look and feel, but the functionality of the system remains exactly the same. So, what does that change to the look and feel mean to the people that support teaching and learning on campus?

Instructional Designers sometimes cringe when they see interface changes because it often means changing screenshots used throughout tutorials, tip sheets and other training materials. I lead a team of instructional designers at Blackboard, and like you, we spend a considerable amount of time ensuring that our training materials, help documentation, and video tutorials help people meet their teaching and learning objectives.

Before you dive in, we want you to understand that the new theme is optional. The original 9.1 default theme will still be available and Administrators can make the switch when the time is right. Existing customizations are unaffected. The new theme can be applied on a timeline of your own. Trying out the new theme is low-risk since it has no functional changes.

If your campus is excited about a new modern look for Blackboard Learn, read on to find out what we think the impact will be and our ideas for managing the transition to a new look and feel (hint: we don’t think it is as big an effort as it first appears).

What We Did and Why

We did not update our documentation or training materials to reflect the new theme. We kept the existing screen shots because the UI changes represent a change only in the look and feel, not in functionality of the system.

At Blackboard, we build documentation and training materials that are used by every institution but many institutions customize the look and feel of their Blackboard Learn system to match their school’s colors and icons. Even though users won’t see exactly what they’ve seen on their screen using their system, the functionality and explanations are the same and relevant for any institution.

Blackboard Instructional Designers believe that most users are able to connect the dots and accomplish tasks quickly even though what they see in the documentation does not exactly match what is on the screen. Our thinking was reinforced by what we learned in user testing the new theme.

What we Learned in User Research

We conducted user testing with a group of 28 people at BbWorld in the summer of 2011 to understand the impact of the new theme. Everyone participating in the testing was using the new theme for the first time.

  • When using both the familiar theme and the new theme, participants completed tasks at the same rate of success, and in about the same amount of time.
  • 82 percent of users tested said they preferred the new theme.

This showed us that the new theme did not create a barrier for existing users, and in fact, most users appreciated the modern look.

Word Cloud

words test participants used to describe the new theme

We made our decision to continue using the familiar theme in our existing materials because the reaction to the new theme was positive and users were able to easily complete tasks in the new theme with no added instruction.

A Plan that may Work for You

How you prepare your campus for a change to the theme is a decision that you must make based on the unique needs and expectations of your users. For many schools, we would suggest that you start small and not replace all of your existing materials if the only change is the new theme.

Build a simple tutorial or one-page document that introduces the new theme and highlights the changes.  You can also use ours! Show them your current theme and connect the two. For many users, that will be enough to overcome their initial trepidation that the entire application has changed. Let them know that the system has not changed; it’s just nicer to spend time in Blackboard Learn!

We’re excited to hear about documentation you have created to roll out your new theme. Please leave us a comment below or contact me directly at andy.jacobson@blackboard.com if you have notable success or difficulties in training while rolling out the new system theme.

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