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.