The good news is that Blackboard, after going quiet for a while, is out giving updates again. The bad news is that the more they talk, the less I understand. A year and a half ago, I thought that I understood their Ultra strategy and had a pretty good guess about their odds of executing it. Last summer, I felt much less sure about the execution but still reasonably comfortable that I understood the basic strategy. Now, after Phil’s update on their strategy, I am forced to admit that I understand what is happening in Blackboard right now about as well as I understand what is happening in the Republican Presidential primary. I’m generally pretty good at following this stuff, and even I have lost the thread. The messaging has gotten so garbled that I have lost confidence in my understanding of the company’s product vision and strategy.
What is Ultra?
One of the telling aspects of the FAQ that Phil quoted in his post is that it includes a fairly extensive glossary. It is never a good sign when you have to provide a basic explanation of terms to describe your basic product matrix to experienced industry analysts and (presumably) long-time customers. Nor is this a new problem. Back in July, I felt compelled to offer to Blackboard a mini-glossary I made up myself because their product communication was so confusing. Here’s how I defined Ultra at the time:
Ultra is Blackboard’s new product philosophy and user interface. Rather than just sticking in a new tab or drop-down menu and a new bill from a new sales team every time we add new capabilities, we’re trying to design these capabilities into the core product experience in ways that fit with how customers would naturally use them. So rather than thinking about separate products living in separate places—like Collaborate, Community, Analytics, and Content, for example—you can think about synchronous collaboration, non-course groups, student progress tracking, and content sharing naturally when and where you need those capabilities in your daily academic life.
But is that what Ultra is intended to be, really? Did Blackboard intend Ultra to be what I described at one point but changed their minds? I can’t tell. On the one hand, when they tout the Blackboard Student mobile experience as being stream- and task-based, and independent of courses, it sounds a little like that vision of a unified experience. Of course, Blackboard immediately muddies the waters by saying that it is available for both Ultra and 9.x. So apparently Ultra both is and isn’t the LMS flavor. Now Blackboard muddies the waters further by suggesting that an “Ultra Course”—is that an Ultra Ultra course, an Ultra themed course, or an Ultra view?—is for instructors who are somehow less advanced.
Previously, I never got the impression Ultra was supposed to be an LMS with training wheels. Has the company drawn the lesson from customer feedback that any function they choose to leave out in an effort to streamline workflows will be perceived by customers as dumbing down or weakening the product? Sadly, there is some basis for that inference. That said, Blackboard Learn is perceived by the market as being old, clunky, and bloated. I don’t think that they can dig themselves out of that hole by positioning their next-generation experience as, basically, good enough for newbies and and lightweights. Further, as with much else here, the messaging problem makes it hard to tell whether there is also a deeper product management problem. In my experience, the category of “power users” is often invoked when the product team lacks a deep understanding of the segmentation that drives different feature needs. What makes a user a “power user”? What are they using that power for? Is this about people who teach online? Is it about people who teach courses that make heavy use of computer testing? Is it about departments that manage multiple sections of the same course? Or is a “power user” just any user who complains about the removal of any niche feature in the current product?
But maybe that’s not what Blackboard meant anyway. Maybe they meant that the current version of Ultra is suited for basic needs because Blackboard hasn’t yet completed whole areas of functionality like tests, group management, and LTI. But that doesn’t make a lot of sense either. According to Phil, the feedback they got from early adopters (whoever they are) was “come back when it’s finished.” An LMS course shell without those feature areas is not “finished.” And by the way, why has Blackboard made no apparent progress on delivering those areas in the last seven months, which is also seven months after the company had originally promised to deliver a finished product? What have they been doing over there?
- I don’t know what Ultra is.
- I don’t know who Ultra is supposed to be for or how it is supposed to help them, now or three years from now.
- Whatever it is, I don’t know when Ultra is supposed to be “finished” or how I will be able to tell when it is.
- I don’t know what an Ultra “theme” or “view” is and how it will differ from just plain “Ultra,” now or a year or three years from now.
- I don’t know what to expect at BbWorld 2016 or what Blackboard’s LMS product lineup is intended to be two or three years from now.
- I don’t know if Blackboard is making any progress toward releasing its next-generation product at all.
- I don’t know how SaaS impacts the specific functionality that is or will be in Ultra versus the Ultra “theme” or “view” and therefore how much customers who have been interested in Ultra should care about SaaS.
- I don’t understand what Blackboard’s vision is.
- I don’t understand what Blackboard’s capacity for execution is.
It is possible that this crescendo of confusion is a sign that the company, having twice set public goals for itself that were unrealistic, is in the midst of retrenching and establishing a more realistic path forward. It is also possible that there is a sound product strategy in here somewhere that is just getting buried in the confused communications. And it is possible that their communication is a total train wreck because their product strategy is a total train wreck. I just don’t know. I am losing confidence in my own ability to separate the signal from the noise here.
"Dear Blackboard, I am Confused",
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,
From up and down,
And still, somehow,
It’s clouds’ illusions I recall.
I really don’t know clouds
– Joni Mitchell