Obsidian Black is a cloud-based authoring tool that first came to my attention in Obsidian’s booth at DevLearn 2015. At the time, I saw some promise in the tool but wasn’t sure how it would evolve. Two years later, I think the time has come to perform a proper review.

Obsidian Black publishes to HTML5. While you can use Obsidian’s servers to show stakeholders and reviewers a course while in development, it’s expected that after finalizing a lesson and publishing it, you will download the zipped files and upload them to your learning management system.

The interface and publishing controls

Let’s start with the publish interface and controls. Obsidian Black takes a slide-based approach, much like PowerPoint and several other authoring tools. As you can see in Figure 1, the control bar includes Back and Next buttons, along with a slide counter.

Figure 1: The standard publish interface

In addition, you’ll see that there are two buttons that may need a bit more of an explanation:

The Menu button—this will pop up a table of contents from which the learner can choose where to go next. See Figure 2.

The Notes button—this will display any notes that are associated with the current slide. See Figure 3 for an example.


Figure 2: The Menu button can show a table of contents

Figure 3: The Notes button can show a slide note

Buttons, one type of interactive object

As you can also see in Figure 1, you can place buttons on a slide. Most of the time, buttons are used to jump to other slides. However, other interactions are also possible, such as showing a popup. See Figure 4. One set of actions that Obsidian Black provides that is not always available in other tools is the ability to directly report a passed or failed result and scores for a specific learning check, a series of questions, or the full course.

Figure 4: Obsidian Black actions

Other static and interactive options

  • You can turn any text into a link. You can customize the links in various ways. You can link to a URL, to an anchor within the lesson, or to your email client to send an email. You can have a link open in a frame, or in a popup, new, topmost, same, or parent window. (If you’ve ever coded HTML directly, you’ll be familiar with those options.) In addition to all that, you can customize the link even more with the options you see in Figure 5.

    Figure 5: More link options
  • You can insert Accordion interactions, wherein you divide information into collapsible sections. The nice thing about this option is that you’re not limited to just text and images. Any of the options normally available can be placed in the accordion, including videos or interactive elements.
  • In addition, you can insert:
    • Icons, small vector images from a library of selections.
    • Panels, which are callouts with titles and text areas.
    • Tables, a feature often missing in other authoring tools.
    • Wells, which are callout boxes.
    • Labeled graphics, which allow learners to roll over markers in an image to get text popups.
    • Tabs, similar to Accordion in function, where the information is divided under horizontal tabs.
    • Tool tips, just like the ones you see when you roll over many application options.
    • Images, videos, and documents. Obsidian Black guides you by showing you the types of each that are accepted. See Figure 6.

Figure 6: Supported file types in Obsidian Black

Quiz options

Obsidian Black offers the following types of quiz questions:

  • True/false
  • Multiple choice (single answer and multiple answer)
  • Drag-and-drop matching
  • Open response

It also offers a Quiz Results slide that you can customize.

Other Obsidian Black features

  • Whenever you have audio on a slide, you can animate different screen objects to points in the audio using Obsidian Black’s Animation Editor. There are 15 different PowerPoint-type animations built into Obsidian Black. You can also set up animations without audio.
  • You can publish to SCORM 1.2, SCORM 2004, xAPI, and cmi5, which ensures your lessons will work with most learning management systems and with learning record stores.
  • There are currently 23 themes available, and more are planned for the future. You can change the look and feel of your entire lesson by switching themes.
  • When learners navigate between slides, you can use the attractive default transition or choose to have a fade, linear, concave, or no transition.
  • Get stakeholder and SME comments by sharing a link to your lesson, and see those comments when you next log in. Note: Commenters (stakeholders and SMEs) do not need a license to preview and comment on individual slides.
  • You can choose to lock navigation upon entering a slide and unlock it when the end of the slide is reached.

Getting behind the scenes: Editing source

For the sake of simplicity, many options in Obsidian Black are limited in some way. When I asked about this, Obsidian told me that those limitations were integrated by design, motivated by factors related to user friendliness, focused choices, and reducing decision anxiety. It’s a balancing act that all tool vendors face: Provide fewer options and keep things simple, or provide more options and make it less simple. For instance, if you choose to insert a button, you can choose from the options seen in Figure 7.

But for those of us who have programming experience, it is possible to work around some of those limitations. There’s a tool bar option  called Edit Source. Take a look at Figure 8, in which I placed a treasured photo of Neil deGrasse Tyson and me as a labeled graphic, so that you can view popup information about Dr. Tyson and about me by hovering above the markers.

Clicking Edit Source lets me further edit the contents of the slide. Of course, to do this, you’ll want to be pretty comfortable editing HTML and CSS!

You can also edit the source to perform tasks such as removing the control bar. See Figure 9.


Figure 7: Button style options


Figure 8: A labeled graphic


Figure 9: Editing the source


I’ve already mentioned some of the limitations that are built into Obsidian Black, limitations that you can circumvent only by editing the source. Truth be told, most authoring tools don’t let you edit their source code, but Obsidian Black is publishing standard HTML5 code, so props to Obsidian for allowing this option. Obviously, you should back up your files before you edit the source.

Another aspect of Obsidian Black that you may find a bit surprising is that it doesn’t offer any responsive design options. It will scale to fit a window, but that may mean empty space above and below in some cases. Think of it as mainly useful for desktop and tablet landscape views.

Pricing and a trial version

Obsidian is simplifying its pricing so that a license to edit Obsidian Black projects now costs $240/year or $25/month, with volume discounts available. There is also a 30-day free trial you can use with no credit card needed. Go to Obsidian.black for more information.

By the way, Obsidian will keep your source files for 90 days past the date your trial ends or after you cancel your subscription.

Is Obsidian Black for you?

Obsidian Black fits an interesting place in the “ease of use vs. power” debates.

If your needs are not complex, you can use Obsidian Black’s features as they’re offered, and that makes it easy enough to use.

If your needs are more complex but you’re not comfortable editing HTML and CSS, you may be better off with another tool that offers more options in its interface.

If your needs are very complex, you may find that the ability to edit the source files trumps those tools that don’t let you do this easily.

I suggest you sign up for the trial and see for yourself whether Obsidian Black works for your design needs.

What’s next for Obsidian Black

Obsidian Black’s development team has informed me that they are working on a private collaboration feature that will be launched soon. Currently, authors can set a project to be publicly viewed and/or commented on by anyone with a specific link, even users without an Obsidian Black account. Only project owners are allowed to edit a project. The new feature will allow authors to grant permissions for a project to individual authors to view, edit, comment, download, copy, and manage permissions.