At Blackboard, we’re embracing design as a way of defining our product strategy. A focus on students means a focus on “consumer” style products: products that are beautiful and drop-dead simple to use, and products that provide emotional value, not just utilitarian value. I want to share with you some of the results of this process, and call out some of the capabilities we’ve included in our new products that help students throughout their academic journey and help instructors guide their students towards success.

Experience scaffolds

When we design our products, we think about value. Value is intertwined in experiences, not in features, and that means that our design work is aimed at the interactions between students and teachers throughout their academic journey. The tricky part of an experience is that it’s unique. Your learning experience and mine may happen in the same place, but they will be shaped by our knowledge, our world-view, and our outlook. So designing for experiences means focusing on scaffolds, structures that help people have their own experiences.

These scaffolds are present throughout our products, and act as subtle containers. One example is the activity stream.


When a student or a teacher logs into Blackboard Learn, they’ll find themselves on the stream – a container for updates and alerts. We’ve separated the stream into sections like Today, Recent, Important, and Upcoming. Students in a hurry can glance at Today, reminding them about looming due dates, new messages, or discussion posts. They can scroll down to the upcoming section to prepare for future tests or to better plan their week.

Another example of an experience scaffold is the course outline.

Course Outline

Course planning isn’t a linear process, and even though teachers spend hours structuring their materials, course plans change. The course outline acts as a quick and flexible container for content, one where teachers can always change their mind. Teachers can drag content into the course outline, drag and drop the content to reorder it, add it to folders, and control the visibility of any given content item. They can even schedule content to appear or disappear on a certain date. The course outline becomes alive, something that can easily respond to the changing rhythms of a class.


We treat the Blackboard Collaborate stage as an experience scaffold, too. Experiential learning requires engagement from all participants, and the stage becomes a place for content and opinions to come together. Anyone with sharing permissions can display content, upload files, or sketch on a shared whiteboard.

If we thought about products as a group of features, we would end up with more rigid structures and more mandated or constrained interactions. Instead, we consider them as prompts for experiences; as a result, we can have a lighter hand and provide more flexibility for the people that use our products.


Physical products become familiar. We gain a rote, almost tacit feel for our car, or chair, and even our home or workplace. We’re striving for the same feeling of familiarity in our products, so that students and teachers can just slide into the product as if they’ve known it for a long time. We leverage a number of design strategies to create this familiarity.

First, our products use an approachable visual language. We’ve used an open and friendly typeface and large areas of whitespace to create a lighter feeling, one that doesn’t feel oppressive. Our color palette is bright and vivid, but we use it sparingly, so when color is used, it clearly indicates direction and points to something that can be easily attended to.


Iconography is simple and clean, used to both articulate meaning about content, and also to create visual page hierarchy and add clarity.


In all, the design language – which we’ve called New School – is intended to create a cohesive layer of comfort to our products.

In addition to this considered visual language, we also use an approachable written language. Wherever possible, we’ve limited or eliminated the use of technical and educational jargon, and introduced casual, and sometimes colloquial, language. We engage in a casual conversation with students, so that they feel safe within the boundaries of our products.


Our visual language includes a subtle sense of humor, too. We selectively include illustrations in the product to add subtle moments of sunshine, and to help underscore that learning – and software – can, and should, be pleasurable. These illustrations are used in the context of the product itself to indicate stages of the academic journey, and are also used for exception cases like error messages or alerts.


Animation contributes to this playful quality. When the product moves, it comes to life – it feels like a companion, not like an inanimate, aloof object. Sometimes these animations are subtle; occasionally, we’ve made them purposefully vivid and obvious.

Integrated, cross-device capabilities

Traditionally, products are designed, architected, sold, and used independent of one-another. But learning isn’t siloed into a single modality or form. A student moves seamlessly from mobile to web, a teacher creates and changes course work on the fly, a student looks at content and participates in a real-time video session. Our product boundaries should blur, so that we can foster great teaching and learning irrespective of our internal organizational structures.

For example, a student checking their grades on their phone or on the web will recognize the product language as belonging to the same family, and can achieve their goals in either medium in almost an identical manner. A student joining an online collaborate session on their phone will be able to interact with classmates participating on the web. During a mobile collaboration session, a student or instructor can view and share content from their course outline, so a conversation occurs in the context of a course. The product distinctions between Blackboard Learn, Bb Student, and Blackboard Collaborate are irrelevant to students, and so those distinctions are purposefully blurred by our design approach.


Perhaps the most important part of our design philosophy is embracing the idea of less. Each additional feature in the product detracts from all of the things described above, and makes the product harder to use, harder to understand, and counterintuitively, less powerful. Most large software companies like Blackboard have become successful by “winning on features” – doing one thing more than the competition. But teaching and learning isn’t about doing more things; it’s about fostering a positive, empathetic experience. That experience, as characterized above, suffers when overloaded. Less is, as one of my design heroes Dieter Rams famously said, more; Blackboard is shifting to embrace this philosophy.

The product ecosystem

I like to talk about the strategies I’ve described here, but it’s more exciting to see the product in more detail. Here are some of the most common scenarios encountered by students and teachers, and how our great new products help them accomplish their goals.

Setting up a class

Course Outline
An instructor can easily structure their class before the semester starts. The Course Outline contains all of the content for a course, including reading materials, tests, assignments, links to outside resources, discussion forums, and more. The instructor can drag content directly into the outline, rearrange it, and indicate when the content should appear to students.

Course Outline

Exploring a class

When a class is open, a student can enter the course on the web, or via Bb Student on their mobile device. The structure of the course is presented in an easy to use mobile format, and a student can explore the same course outline, dive into a folder, and then open a piece of content. The Bb Student app supports grades, due dates, and more of the capabilities a student needs to succeed in their course.

We’ve also included the ability to complete a test and an assignment on the mobile device. Many students don’t have a laptop, and have only a low or mid tier Android phone; they are used to leveraging this device for all activities, including those that seem more “advanced” than would have been appropriate on a mobile device in the past. Increasingly, our design and development process focuses on producing student-focused capabilities first on the phone.

Participating in an online class

During an online class, students can participate on the web, or can choose to participate from within BbStudent. They can share content from their phone, or leverage content within the course outline itself. And, they can participate in real-time chat with their peers, or with the instructors.


Participating in a discussion forum


One of the main forms of communication in an online learning environment is writing, and discussion forums are often used to foster collaboration and to assess comprehension. Instructors can elect to make a discussion count for credit, and students can easily track participation from their peers. In a long discussion thread, it’s easy to highlight an individual participant and see all of their contributions isolated from the group.



Assessment gives instructors a chance to support students, helping them course correct based on lack of knowledge or process. The gradebook serves as a centralized container for all assessment, and instructors can easily switch between a standard grid of grades and a more detailed list. They can post grades, add comments, and can easily grade student-by-student, viewing submissions and responding to content directly. They can also add comments for specific students, who will then see those comments in the context of both their assignment and their grade.

Help and Support


When students aren’t performing, we offer nudges to steer them in the right direction. Within their stream, a struggling student may see an alert that indicates they are on a path towards failure. Students see suggestions for how to improve, such as reaching out to another student or an instructor for mentorship and individualized help. Teachers and advisers will be able to view student activity in detail, showing how engaged students are with the course, and giving them the ability to reach out to at-risk students to offer help.

Our Product Design Strategy and Ecosystem

I’ve described some of the ways we think about design, and how design strategy impacts the direction and execution of our products. Our focus on students is grounded in the idea of empathy, and while I’ve written a lot about that in the past (here’s a shameless plug for my latest book!), it bears repeating. Empathy is about feeling what other people feel, and putting yourself in their shoes to see the world through their eyes. The traditional way of building software focused on requirements, driven by a competitive view of the market, and responded to perceived needs with additional features and functions. Our new way of developing products focuses on people first: on spending lots of time with them in order to build an almost intuitive sense for their emotional journey. We design with that journey and those emotions in mind, and as a result, we can product great products that people love.

If you want to learn more about our process, you can explore our New School design site, describing our process and language in more detail; feel free to get in touch if you have more questions about strategic design at Blackboard.

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  • Manshu Udoxy

    Amazing and very good Strategy…