Devil in the Details

Sometimes the difference between technology that doesn’t work at all and tools that work great can be really small.

A screen capture of the Divvy app for iPhone.

A screen capture of the Divvy app for iPhone.

On a recent research trip to Chicago I had the opportunity to use the city’s Divvy Bike rental service. The bike rental works like this: There are bike docking stations all over town, and you swipe your credit card at a station to get a 24 hour rental for $7. The catch is that each bike can only be used for 30 minutes before you must dock it at another station, request a new rental code, and retrieve another bike to start the clock all over again.

The Divvy Bike App

There are enough bikes and docking stations in the center of town that make this all a fairly easy proposition, but how do you know where the closest docking station is to your next destination? Well, there’s an app for that, as they say. And the Divvy app for the iPhone is a really nifty idea. It shows you a map of the city, your current location, and the locations of all the nearby bike docking stations, along with information on how many bikes there are at each station and how many free slots there are to dock your bike.

After all, you don’t want to walk to a docking station to find there are no bikes (which isn’t very common); or almost as bad, you don’t want to ride to a docking station, get there with a couple of minutes to spare, and find that there are no free spots to dock your bike (this seems to be a more common problem, especially around popular attractions, as this did happen to us at the Chicago History Museum).

Anyway, brilliant idea, but the app was missing a couple of obvious things — and this made it very difficult to use. First, there was no search feature on the app, so you can’t just search for a landmark and see where the bike stations are around that landmark. You have to scroll around and find stuff. Not too bad if you actually know the city, I guess, but for a first-time visitor, this was very frustrating. However, the worst part about the app was that there was no way to map your route from one station to another. Instead, you have to open up another map app, like Google Maps, and map out the route using vague cross street reference points, hopping back and forth between the app and your map to get things right. Besides the incredible inconvenience and lack of precision this caused, this also meant that I always had two apps running GPS at the same time, draining battery life pretty rapidly. I think my fully charged battery lasted something like four hours before I ran out of juice.

This Also Sometimes Happens with Education Tools

Here's Blackboard's inline grading feature.

Here’s Blackboard’s inline grading feature. As you can see, the paper itself for grading is awfully small…

My point here is that this app, so beautifully conceived to help you interact with the real world, has some glaring flaws that make it pretty hard to use. And the same thing happens every so often with online education tools like Blackboard. Getting it right means understanding how human beings work and matching the technology to meet our own expectations and abilities, and I see more and more potentially useful applications out there that never seem to take the average end user into account. Case in point: Here at W&M, we’ve just implemented Blackboard’s inline grading feature. Students submit papers to Blackboard, and faculty members can then grade those papers in their Web browser.

The problem, as you can see from the screen capture above and to the right, is that you can’t really see the student paper large enough to do any grading at all. There’s just too much stuff on the Blackboard Grade Center page to make grading possible. And the solution is simple, that’s the annoying thing. All they need is a button that says “Grade Paper” that will open only the paper in a new window. But there isn’t one. Now luckily, I discovered a workaround (provided you’re not using Internet Explorer). In Firefox (and maybe Safari and Chrome), you can right-click (or control-click on a Mac) on the paper and request to open this frame only, then you can actually see the paper large enough to grade it.

Here's how to adjust the size of a student paper in Blackboard's inline grading tool.

Here’s how to increase the size of a student paper in Blackboard’s inline grading tool. Right-click on the paper (control-click on a Mac), go to “This Frame,” then select “Show Only This Frame.”

But this was news to the folks at Blackboard, who thanked our Blackboard expert, Rachel Kleinsorge, when she mentioned it to them, but the problem is that they did not see this as a problem from the beginning. I’m guessing because they don’t think like end users? Anyway, I guess my point is that you need to speak out when you see the possibilities in a new piece of technology that’s not meeting it’s full potential.

I guess I’d better write a message to the developers of that Chicago bike rental app. Now where did they put the “email” button?


About Mike Blum

Mike is the Academic Technologist for the Humanities at the College


  1. Nice observations, Mike. I’ve been using the inline grading feature and the interactive rubrics tool in Blackboard this semester- they’re great time savers (no more downloading and uploading) and it’s nice to have everything in one place (as opposed to emails and folders on my computer). But you’re right, for anyone who’s ever spent considerable time inserting comments and annotating essays, you need a little more real estate. Thanks for the workaround. In regards to planning with end users in mind- This semester I’m teaching a section of Instructional Technology for Elementary School Teachers. My student teachers have inventoried the technologies in their schools. Two have reported that while their schools have been outfitted with interactive white boards, the Kindergartners and first graders can’t reach them well enough to interact (so they’ve had to add step ladders). Another example of why it’s important to get the instructor or end users perspective when designing and planning for technology.