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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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