Blackboard Impressions: the clunky user interface

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

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About Michael Rees
Academic in IT interested in Web 2.0 and social media

4 Responses to Blackboard Impressions: the clunky user interface

  1. kclarkson says:

    Great post Michael. I’m looking forward to reading more of these. While my initial reaction is to defend or make excuses for Blackboard’s shortcomings, which you have very nicely highlighted, reading through the user experience issues you raised, I have to remember that I’ve been making excuses to academic staff about these very things for over 4 years now. While significant improvements in functionality have been made over these years, some tools including the much-disused calendar and the archaic student pages, have been untouched since 4.0 (or possibly before). I do hold out hope that Blackboard’s recent acquisition of WebCT may result in the incorperation of some of WebCT’s better UI aspects. This is already evident in the next version of the discussion board.

    The only point I will disagree with you on Michael, is the session timeout, which currently ocurrs after 3 hours of inactivity. This is still quite generous, especially when we take into account student users, and the best we can do without using cookie-based authentication.

    Aside from this point, your thoughts echo my own and its great to hear these issues described from an academic perspective.

  2. mrees says:

    Kate, you are right. 3 hours for timeout is fine as it is. It simply seemed shorter in actual use. Just shows how I lose track of time!

  3. Andrew Krespanis says:

    You can conquer the 3 hour timeout by opening the page in Opera and setting it to refresh every hour or so. Problem solved 🙂

    The ‘OK’ everywhere issue is a complete pain — if only Bb would take advantage of fragment identifiers to indicate the updated content the number of page loads would drop dramatically; improving user experience and reducing server hits.

    My personal pet hate with Blackboard 6.x is the HTML and the inability to insert markup within the of the page (valid s to CSS being the most frequent problem). While their use of framesets is appropriate, the nested frameset structure used in Bb 6 is unnecessary and frankly, nothing more than sloppy design. As the Bb7.1 test environment at work seems to have choked this morning I can’t check if that’s still the case, but I’d be surprised if it was not.

  4. Pingback: Impressions Scholarcast » Blackboard Impressions: iLearn Q & A

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