Blackboard’s Design Principles

Blackboard Design Principles

One of the many reasons why I enjoy working for Blackboard is because of its mission. Who doesn’t want to be part of a company that seeks to better the education experience? The work is fulfilling and challenging. But over a year ago I found myself asking the existential question: is my work making a difference?

Business experts like Jack Welch or the late Peter Drucker might tell me that I need to have a set of objectives, values, and/or principles that can help define what it means for me to make a difference at Blackboard. With this in mind, I set out to work with my User Experience (UX) team to identify some principles. Our UX team has a variety of roles – content design, instructional design, product design, and user interface design. What ties these varied roles together? Well, in our own ways, we seek to build quality products to enhance our customers’ teaching and learning experiences.

But what does it mean to design a quality experience, and do the people who design and build product features have a shared understanding of what this means? When testing our designs with users, one of the tools we use asks participants to choose five descriptive words that exemplify their experience with the feature tested. We took these positive words and conducted a card sort among team members. That is, we asked everyone on the team to take these thirty adjectives and place them into logical groupings. What we came up with were five groupings which formed the five principles we use today: reliable, useful, delightful, engaging, and simple.

What do we do with these words? Well, that’s the fun part. Because the UX team works with a diverse set of stakeholders, including both colleagues and customers, we seek to measure our designs against these principles. How do we do it? Well, we get feedback a few ways. Internally, when project teams discuss new features, we ask folks to define what each principle means for a given feature or target user. For instance, our content and instructional design teams created a rubric where they rate how well the documentation they create meets these principles. Then they use a peer review process to determine how well they meet these principles.

The use of these principles has also impacted our conversations. It’s been refreshing to hear stories of our engineers speaking to their team saying, “This (feature) is just not delightful enough.”

We also involve our customers. When we conduct research activities, such as usability tests, we ask participants to rate to what extent the tested features met each design principle.

We’ve been getting some great data that we can act on, but we still have some work to do. We know there are some areas of the product where we have hit a homerun, and others where we have work to do in order to stack up against these principles. But at the end of the day, we are committed to bring our customers a teaching and learning experience that is reliable, useful, delightful, engaging, and simple.

I’ll be speaking about Blackboard’s design principles with a colleague at this year’s Information Architecture Summit in Denver. Be sure to attend!

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Blackboard’s User-Centered Design

ACU To Go Foward With iPhone Application Development

As a follow up to my previous post, Abilene Christian University announced that they will give iPhones or iPod touches to incoming freshman next year. What this announcement likely means is that there will be considerable pressure put on the university’s web developers to successfully integrate existing systems and external tools into one seamless experience for users. A demo is provided at (which they explain is best viewed in Safari as it’s designed for the iPhone).

I am heartened to read one quote from Christopher Gibbs, a programmer at ACU, when he states:

“There are a number of challenges when it comes to creating applications for the iPhone. I won’t go into all of them but the biggest is usability. Some people say content is king, well I say usability is king. This is true with any program or website but especially true on the iPhone, where you have a very limited interface.”

Some pressure might come from the administration on down in terms of what should be available, but I hope the team gets a lot of bottom up participation (i.e., students, non-tenured faculty, etc.) when they try to work on the how – how to implement features and functionality in both a usable and desirable way.

The United States is playing catch up with Europe in terms of our level of maturity with mobile devices, but this trend will certainly play out nicely in the education arena, particularly given the high rate (45% of teenagers of teenagers in 2005) already using mobile devices for a variety of needs.

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A Vision of Ubiquitous Computing

I know I am an Apple fanboy (still holding out for the 3G iPhone), but I was inspired by the vision put forth by Abilene Christian University. Here’s a portion of their vision:

“In the spring of 2007, a group of educators, technologists, and administrators at ACU crystallized these ongoing discussions, producing a case for a new emphasis on mobile learning based on ubiquitous information access through powerful, portable, converged devices. Made possible by the broad capabilities offered by a new generation of these devices, we see the future of the university coalescing around the new opportunities that mLearning is bringing…”

The University is in the process of testing the iPhone to determine if the device helps students gain knowledge and get the most from their collegiate education.

As part of this vision, the University posted “Connected: The Movie”, which portrays the following:

“What might a university look like with a fully deployed program of converged devices like the iPhone? Connected is one possible vision. This fictional day-in-the-life account highlights some of the potential benefits in a higher education setting when every student, faculty, and staff member is “connected.” Though the applications and functions portrayed in the film are purely speculative, they’re based on needs and ideas uncovered by our research – and we’ve already been making strides to transform this vision of mobile learning (mLearning) into reality.”

Frankly, the possibilities put forth by this video make me want to go back to school! This vision also seems more readily achievable than Apple’s famous Knowledge Navigator concept video from 1988.

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Games in Education

Although a majority of my career has been spent working as a contractor for the federal government, I’m now working for a company in the e-learning industry. Therefore, I’ve begun to follow technology issues as it relates to education.

Mark Wagner of the EdTechLife blog linked this interesting video [Quicktime movie] about how educators can incorporate games to facilitate learning. He created a webcast about video games in education, with interviews of Henry Jenkins, James Paul Gee, Clark Aldrich…

Gaming is getting much more traction in the education arena. There are some fantastic ways that students can learn while also having some fun. Hopefully this video will encourage you to see the possibilities.

[Runtime: 22:12 | Please make sure you have the latest version of Macromedia Flash installed on your computer to watch this video. To download it, please visit: ]

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