User experience lessons from a university dumping Blackboard

Duncan Stephen
Oct 15 · 3 min read

I’ve spent most of the past year at work conducting user research around how students and staff use virtual learning environments, with a particular focus on Blackboard Learn. So I read with interest this thread from Arvind Narayanan about his university (Princeton) “dumping Blackboard”.

(You may only see one tweet embedded here, but do click through to read the entire thread.)

I don’t particularly wish to single out Blackboard here. As the thread notes, this highlights a big problem with almost all enterprise software.

Everything here could be written about almost any similar piece of software. The thread could as easily be about an off-the-shelf web content management system, a finance system, or SharePoint (or, let’s be honest, almost anything from Microsoft).

But there are lessons for us all to learn, particularly if we work in a large organisation.

It’s all to do with incentives.

The customer is not always the user

The people who make a decision to purchase software for a large organisation rarely have to actually use it.

Blackboard probably has an excellent customer experience (or, it has a good sales team). It has a terrible user experience. CX and UX are different things.

Avoid featuritis

Arvind Narayanan astutely notes that when the people making purchase decisions tend to make them based on lists of features.

In this sense, enterprise software companies are incentivised to actually make their products worse, in the name of having a longer list of features.

Anyone who has spent much time working in usability knows that having more features doesn’t necessarily make for a better product that better meets users’ needs. In fact, having a lot of features usually makes it harder for people to actually get stuff done.

When I interviewed people about their use of Learn, both students and staff reported feeling overwhelmed by the number of features. Moreover, many people had been given a guilty feeling that they weren’t getting the most out of Learn, because they’d seen so many features that they hadn’t fully explored.

Don’t get bloated

Product teams are also often incentivised to needlessly add features to their previously streamlined product. They feel like they need to do so to justify their existence.

Remember when everyone moved over to Google Chrome because it was so refreshingly lightweight? Notice how it gradually became just as bloated as any other browser out there?

If you want to justify your team’s continued existence, doing maintenance jobs or making incremental usability improvements is a harder sell than all those sexy new features that your superiors love.

Users over technology

For a similar reason, throwing money at creating more technology is often seen as a solution to the perceived problem. Don’t like SharePoint? Have Jive as well. And why not throw Confluence into the mix?

Of course, this only serves to further confuse users, who struggle to understand which systems should be used for what.

It may be a cliche to say that less is more. But sometimes it’s true.

User experience will become a greater differentiator

Everyone uses great software every day at home. People increasingly expect a similarly great experience at work — — and rightly so.

I used to wonder why people liked Slack. Then I was forced to use Microsoft Teams.

And it’s not (just) about slick interaction design or shiny interfaces. What’s most important is enabling people to easily meet their needs.

In universities, grumbling about bad software can (and does) filter through to become grumbling about the institution. A bad user experience can lead to (or be a function of) a poor student experience.

How to get to a better user experience

Knowing what your users are trying to do is the first step. Often, no-one in your organisation knows what’s going on out there, least of all the people making decisions about what software to buy. If they are even thinking about their users, it’s often based on assumptions and guesswork, or an idealised best case scenario.

Thankfully, in most workplaces, your users are easy to access. There’s no real excuse not to invest some effort into user experience.

Once you know what your users are trying to do, you’re in a better position to evaluate the usability of enterprise software.

The risks of not doing user research far outweigh the costs of doing it.

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