Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, February 6, 2017

Whatever happened to "User Friendly?" -- An Overview of Genealogy Software

Back in 1984, Apple began changing the world of computers forever with a startling commercial during the Super Bowl. The key concept of the Macintosh computer was the idea that it was "user-friendly." Now, here we are 33 years later. You would think that computers would now be 33 years more user-friendly. Truly, the opposite has happened. The world of computers is now amazingly complex. More complex than could ever have been dreamed of back in those antique, pre-internet days of 1984. By the way, I know exactly where I was back in 1984. I was in San Francisco at the Embarcadero Hotel watching Steve Jobs unveil the new Macintosh computer; so I have really seen the changes from the very beginning.

The basic idea, at the time, was to reduce the need for a complex system of commands and allow the computer user to interact more directly with the information. This concept of being able to graphically move "information" in the form of icons was revolutionary. Of course, I know the who history starting with Alan Touring and Claude Shannon back in the 1940s and culminating with the developments made by the Xerox Research Parc,

Now, let's jump to the present day and have a look at genealogy. Shouldn't the developers of genealogy programs have benefitted from all those years of making computers and computer programs user-friendly? You might think so, but apparently, they haven't learned much. I am going to try and avoid targeting any one program or website, but in general, genealogy programs, both online and stand-alone, are designed to be about as obtuse and confusing as it is possible to be. Most of the programs are similar to walking into a Walmart Super Store. There are a huge number of bewildering choices and no clear path to what you are trying to accomplish with your visit. True, if you have been to Walmart hundreds of times, the landscape becomes familiar and you can usually find what you want, but how many of use in one of these huge superstores have spent some time running up and down aisles looking for someone who worked at the store?

Exactly, this is what happens when we are confronted with the confusing array of promotional material, and blinking slideshows that are usually found in genealogy software. What is the alternative?

It is ironic that the largest online company has the simplest interface. But even here, abandoning all pretense of explanation or welcome can be baffling to the user. How many people realize that there are dozens of options available in the little square block link in the upper right-hand corner of the screen? Isn't there a happy medium?

Any program or website that wants to be truly "user-friendly" needs to address this simple question: What do you (the user) want to do? The huge obstacle here is the need for the user to know what the program or website can do before they can provide an answer to the question of what they want to do. This is the age-old issue of which comes first, the chicken or the egg. To overcome this program, the developers need to learn to separate promotion from utility. If a person is looking at your website's startup page or the opening screen of a program (app or whatever) you are past the promotion stage and into utility. Every program or website should have a clear entry point where the user can see exactly how to get started or, if needed, how to determine what the program or website is all about.

Over the years, I have used thousands upon thousands of computer programs and websites and looked at thousands more. Recently, I have looked at a whole new lineup of genealogy programs and new websites. Most of them do not tell me, the user, what the program or website does. Usually, the designers have a lot of promotional drivel about how their program is going to change the way I do genealogy or how beneficial their program or website will be but then fail to tell me what the program actually does and how it operates. There are always a lot of images of happy, very stylized, people looking at computers or whatever, but I do not know what the program or website is supposed to do or what I have to do to find out what the program or website is supposed to do.

Let me give a hypothetical example. Suppose I want to learn something about my family. Further, suppose I know absolutely nothing about "genealogy," all I want to do is learn about my family. In my hypothetical, I have been to a "Family Discovery Center," like the one being introduced at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah during RootsTech 2017. I have been engaged and interested in learning more about my family from the fabulous displays. What do I find if I go online and look at one of the large, online, websites? Not much. The whole idea of discovering your family heritage is missing. Each of the large online database programs has more choices and more promotional items that information or simple choices to start learning about the program. Not one of these big online websites asks or answers the question of what the user would like to do. They all look more like a Walmart Superstore than a solution to the simple question of what do I do first.

User-friendly does not mean adding more and more features. It does mean giving some very basic and very limited options such as "Start Here" or "What would you like to know or do?' I recently was asked to take a look at a new, online genealogy program. I clicked on the link and was shown an engaging and well-designed interface. But after studying the website for a while, I still had no idea what the program was supposed to do for me.

Now, not all of the genealogy programs are obtuse. Some have a clear message and are more user-friendly than many others. But by and large, they are feature driven rather than user driven. Personally, I really don't care how much stuff they put on their startup page. I mostly ignore it all anyway as soon as I learn how to use the program to do what I want to do.

One last thing. If the program is supposed to be "free" then I feel that it is objectionable to find out that most of what is advertised on the startup page is not free at all, but requires a subscription. It is now a standard promotional activity to make a free program with some basic features and then add a lot more "features" to a paid or subscription version of the same program. In some cases this formula works, in others, it is merely a come-on and the basic, free program is all that people really want or need. There is a way to make money from free programs like Google, but it usually involves advertising or a clear link to a commercial enterprise.


  1. I agree wholeheartedly with you, not only with genealogy software, but also general use software. Each time they bring out a new version, there are more bells and whistles that are never used by the majority. Then there is the change of position of items in a dialog box for no apparent reason.

  2. Many commercial genealogy websites have two "home pages", one for people who have a cookie stored indicating that they have previously used the site or are "logged in" and the other one for people with no cookie, sometimes known as the "logged-out home page". The logged-out pages that I am familiar with are much more basic than the cookied home pages.

    1. Yet most still do not ask and answer the question "What do you want to do?"