Usability Lessons For All From A UX Critique Of Canvas LMS

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Arif Kabir believes it’s time for the User Experience (UX) of the Canvas LMS to “refresh.”

But competitors should not start delighting on anybody’s misfortunes just yet.

The LMS space is a curious place. Most industry veterans realize, often to their frustration, that having the most or best features does not equal a better foothold on the market. The paradox extends to the UX only partially. As the online learner gets younger, savvier and more vocal about the interfaces on which they engage on a regular basis, user-centered design should become a priority in the roadmap of LMS and EdTech developers everywhere. (A special word of caution goes to open source developers.)

At a minimum, having a subpar UX could jeopardize a company’s vendor and future prospects. Kabir would likely agree. Designer, consultant and humanitarian, associated with the University of Maryland, IBM and Deloitte, provides a sensible messages centered a around people, but one that stays acutely aware of businesses and project management rationales.

What Canvas LMS has been doing right

Focusing on the Canvas LMS at the University of Maryland from the point of view of a student, Kabir gets the pros out of the way first, however vaguely.

  • It easy to doing what you are looking for.
  • It looks prettier than Blackboard.

Overall, the LMS feels “complete” and most of the core affordances are robust and straightforward: “[C]hecking grades and finding all assignments, quizzes and discussions.”

The ‘uh-ohs’

Before going forward, Kabir acknowledges a predictable objection. Many of the issues he points out have a fix provided by the LMS and it might only take a settings tweak by the admin. In his defense, this isn’t always obvious for an ordinary user.

File management is confusing and relies on user conventions.

If your course instructor isn’t a particularly organized person, may god have mercy on your soul.

Canvas file system does not provide a way to point out which file in the folder belongs to a given module or activity.

Other LMS allow embedding files within the specific module, but the distinction may get lost in case the student wants to grab them all for offline use. The problem compounds with LMS such as Moodle, that allow multiple repository access (local, web-based like Dropbox, and even plugin-based to name a few).

Simple solutions could include automatic renaming, folder relocation or labeling. Bolder ones might point at getting rid of untethered files altogether.

Students are limited to default tools

Email, calendar, messaging and communication are common examples of “applications” LMS look to provide as baked goods into the system.

The quotes are intentional. While popular tools do represent full blown applications, users often find lackluster imitations. Fortunately no LMS has decided to create their own office suite.

In this case, open source LMS have a leg up. (Another one.) They are usually design in a modular way that allow the introduction of third party services. Plugins and synchronization methods allow at the very least the ability to update information on both the LMS and the client.

Now, this isn’t saying that all baked in tools are bad. But as they push their own calendars and messaging apps, hopefully they will be wise enough to enable interaction with the students already favor; and bring them onto their features by being valuable rather than imposition.

Universal conventions not many people understand

Every system, no matter how hard they try to uphold universal design guidelines, reaches a point where they need to create their own terminology, codes and conventions. Users are often prey of “signifier inertia” where the cost of learning a new set of symbols, no matter how much more efficient it is, seems to large be offset by the theoretical benefits.

(This may give systems, especially those with a large enough user base, a perverse incentive to obscure their language and make it unusable outside its borders.)

Systems designed in a “benevolent” way provide cues and reiteration, aiming to strike a balance between quick onboarding and minimization of annoyances. Not least of all, the accessibility of the UX improves when the designers takes advantage of elements such as tags, metadata or even shortcuts.

Kabir believes LMS would benefit of a little redundancy. Hover descriptions, general terminology and simple, quick-to-access help menus are easy wins.

Great features, not always easy to find (or realize they exist)

In fairness, Canvas is often more capable at showing users what it can do than Moodle-based systems (including Totara and BOLMS). The reason is simple: Canvas doesn’t have a literal hundreds of features, options and permissions hidden under the hood.

Discoverability is a challenge across modern UX. While Canvas developers seem to go for the “don’t allow what cannot be shown” route, Kabir finds that teachers often fail to take advantage of a feature where it would make a lot of sense and seem perfectly straightforward to do so.

There’s no clear cut solutions here. Many would disagree with smaller feature set even if they leave the discoverability question unanswered. Could AI the answer?

Too many homepages!

This one could be the pet peeve that boils my blood to the highest degree. I’m often confused between the site and course homepage, the syllabus and the site map. What’s worse, they often list topics and modules in different orders. Where am I, and where am I supposed to go?! A poor coordination between a system architecture and a learning path can awake an existential crisis out of the purest of souls.

The trouble is, making paths look simple is about the hardest thing a UX designer does. By contrast, a designer who wants to make her job simple is most likely offloading the complexity to the end user.

There’s no easy answers here, but they’re are clear courses of action. Thoughtfulness. Mindfulness. A careful observation of what the learner needs to move forward. Give them that. Take everything else off their hands.


In a general sense, all Kabir suggests from Canvas and fellow LMS is to be sensible about the student. In a way, this also means to be aware of the progress UX has made over the years. Not every lesson is worth taking in, he will be the first to warn. But once feverish trends die out, some key practices are here to stay. Standardization, discoverability and genuine interest for understanding a user’s drivers and intents are always welcome traits in the minds and hearts of LX designers.

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