Thoughts on technology, investing, marketing, and entrepreneurship.

Web usability key for online marketing success even in eLearning

I started doing some preparations today for the strategic marketing class I teach at Virginia Tech. The fall semester is almost here, so I figured it’s about time to make sure the online access and listserv were ready.

Sadly, I dread this small task because I have to interface with Blackboard. Despite (or maybe because of) Blackboard’s dominance in many universities, the software is completely unusable. Blackboard is quite possibly the worst web application I have used recently.

Why such strong pronouncements? Two main reasons. First, the design and layout look like they haven’t changed in ten years. Crappy icons (hey, ever hear of FamFamFam? how about hiring IconBuffet?) and cryptic menus rule the day with Blackboard.

A good test for usability is a web application should not require lengthly manuals or tutorials in order for a web savvy user to accomplish even the most basic tasks.

An example of this occurred this morning. When a new semester starts, a course is created by Blackboard. In order to actually have students use this new course, it needs to be made “available”. The courses are listed with a status after the title:

Why aren’t these status messages simply a link to activate? That would be simple, easy to implement, and quite intuitive. Instead I started hunting through various menus, before giving up and searching for help.

After searching for entirely too long, I found it takes 10 steps to activate a course. My solution could be implemented with one step – click on a link beside the course. This is quite unbelievable:

Remember that I HAVE to get this set up. Imagine if this scenario was occurring on a web application that did not have captive users. Let’s say I was testing out a new site with a free demo or trial. I guarantee you this experience would have made me leave and never come back.

I know you’ve heard it before, but the usability of your web application is critical. I can’t belabor this point enough especially if you’re trying to build a base of users for your product.

While this is one example of Blackboard’s poor user interface and overall usability, I’m constantly banging my head on my desk while I’m using this application. Any possible reasons why Blackboard may be this unusable? The most obvious is that they don’t have to – at least not now anyway.

A number of companies are working on doing this better, but I don’t think they have much of a chance in the short term. Blackboard does a good job of selling an integrated system to schools. By integrated I mean that Blackboard courses are automatically populated with the names and relevant data for all students in each class. Even for my class of 50+ students, I would not want to enter this data by hand. Imagine a full time professor with multiple freshman classes of 500 students each. See my point?

So the only way to really have a software solution that works in this environment is to sell to the universities, not the individual instructors (or even departments for that matter). A new entrant will need to be decently funded and patient. Unfortunately, Blackboard has a captive audience with no incentive to make significant improvements to their software. Hopefully, some company will see this long term opportunity.

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  1. Well I suppose all I can say is at least you have Blackboard :). We are changing to WebCT CE6.0 (which is now owned by Blackboard) and unless everything has been optimised it crashes the Web browser – which means not usability. So if you have a student, who is studying remotely, and they have low technology skills there is no hope.


  2. Tom,

    Having just finished grad school, I know the BB pain all too well. I have a friend who works there – and I hear they have a new focus on wanting to improve usability. I’m going to send him your post.

    – Mark

  3. Tom,

    Very interesting observation about web usability. I think lots of times software engineers simply can’t put themselves in user’s shoes, I, for one among other things, had such an experience myself, a user reported “I’m confused” (for which I’m grateful), I thought, it’s so simple and straightforward because it’s a simple app. Looking forward to reading more on this topic.


  4. I think itâ??s interesting to note that my professors who can barley speak English don’t complain much about blackboard.
    In fact, a lot of them love it, most of their VT blackboard pages are all decked out and are 10 times better than my â??tech savvyâ?? professors.

    Might it simply be that â??web savvyâ?? users see blackboard as a dial up connection when theyâ??ve been using T1 or better most of their lives.

    To say that BB is “completely unusable” goes a little far.

    To say itâ??s outdated and could use some updates can be said.
    But to write a whole ‘blog’ about how ‘crappy’ it is and base its â??unusabilityâ? on a long interface with crappy icons and cryptic menus as justification for why it is the worst web application is a little much.
    Just keeping it real.

  5. @VT Student – First, I don’t see a correlation between speaking English and BlackBoard’s usability. The fact that they are not complaining does not imply that the software is usable or even that they like it. It only proves that they either don’t care or don’t feel like complaining publicly.

    You’re entitled to your opinion, but I’ll ask one question. Presumably, from the name left on the comment form, you’re a student. If so, have you actually used the instructor interface for BlackBoard? Have you actually tried to set up a course, add grades, add documents, and otherwise manage a course throughout a semester. This is what I’m discussing and maybe I should have been more clear in mentioning my specific perspective though I felt it was implied in the post.

    You may have a different point of view as a student using the system, but from the instructor perspective BlackBoard is very hard to use compared to other applications and what is available today.

    I’ve mentioned these issues with BlackBoard in every class and I’ve yet to have any student say positive things regarding the app.

    Finally, the post was not necessarily meant to attack BlackBoard, but to use it as an example of how important web usability is in designing web applications. Additionally, I wanted to emphasize how some companies have little incentive to improve their products which can ultimately lead to problems.

    Anyone else think I’m being overly harsh? Let me know!

  6. I believe Tom Markiewicz’s main theme on this particular blog is about the importance of Usability, which I share. And I would think speed is also extremely important, again allow me to use the particular little web app I developed lately as a case, it was slow, frankly quite slow, my suspicion was on three possibilities, my box’s security? my code is not optimized? db not well designed? And I knew I’m strong in the last two, so, I tackled the first suspect first, well, didn’t find anything wrong, then I reexamined the other two, and late this afternoon I found the culprit, a humongous db log file laying around (it wasn’t obvious). Man, now you know what lighting speed means. Sorry I’m getting off the topic.

  7. Tom, Thanks for sharing these web usability insights. I was interning at a college that’s looking to acquire BB for their learning management solutions. Will forward your post to them so they can make an informed decision before they plunge and regret.