Blackboard Impressions: the clunky user interface
5 September 2006 4 Comments
Anyone using version 7.0 of a mature web-based software application might reasonably expect the user interface to show a high level of consistency and to have optimised the interaction sequences. Surprisingly I did not find this to be true of Blackboard.
Response times for page refresh were in general very good with only the occasional erratic long response times of up to 15 seconds in perhaps 5% of cases. Off-campus were much the same and make working from home a joy. The only downside from off-campus is the upload speeds for large documents (I had video files that averaged 30-40 MB).
In layout terms all Blackboard pages are consistent at least. The main layout problem is the consistent overuse of vertical white space exacerbated by large font size and overlarge images/icons. Lists of information items (documents, links, folders and so on) seem to be optimised at about 8 items for average-sized browser windows. Since many items are based on teaching weeks in a semester additional vertical scrolling is almost always necessary.
Lack of consistency is also not a fault with the Cancel/OK buttons that always appear at the extreme bottom right of most pages. [I hate to think of the extra kilometres of mouse/cursor travel over a semester that this features causes alone.] Worse still, in large forms like the popular Add Announcement and Add Item usually require a vertical scroll to make these buttons visible. What can’t the Cancel/OK buttons be duplicated at the top of every form in the huge amounts of white space at the top right? This change alone would save many minutes per semester.
The spurious extra ‘OK-only’ pages that occur after every change operation are commented upon by every staff member and student. In virtually every case the page shown after the OK button is clicked gives enough feedback to assure the user that the update has occurred successfully. (If not the browser can be made to scroll in that page to show the necessary feedback.) Again the browser page refresh time, quick as it is, and the extra mouse move/click of hundreds of these unnecessary pages over a semester must be significant. Even being allowed to press Enter on these pages would save a lot of time and frustration.
This brings me to the poor keyboard support in general. Take Add Announcement as an example (remember this is done via the Control Panel not the Announcements page as one would logically expect). Assuming you use the default rich text edit, type an announcement title and press Tab in the expectation of then typing the announcement text. No, you must type Tab 30 times (and then press Space or Enter in Internet Explorer to confirm use of the insecure editing control). Of course, you resort to the mouse and have to click in the text box.
Frames are used in most windows to bring the benefits of constantly visible navigation links, one of the main reasons for frames to exist. Yet for instructors most operations in the Control Panel the important master left panel navigation links are lost. The breadcrumb links are another vital navigation aid especially when 5 or 6 levels deep in control panel operations. Yet the breadcrumbs themselves are not in a frame and scroll out of sight when the main frame contents are scrolled – duh!
I realise secure access to Blackboard is important, and that a sensible timeout due to inactivity is necessary. I just wish it could be a little longer to save having to login several times a day. Storing the login details in a cookie with a few hours expiry, although not ideal, would be less frustrating.
In no way is the Blackboard user interface difficult, it just seems unpolished by today’s standards of interactive web applications. My concise comment on the Blackboard user interface: too many clicks!
Refer to Blackboard Impressions Summary