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

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

FamilySearch hits a gold mine of luddite comments

When I wrote my Blog post entitled "The Deeper Meaning of RootsTech -- Modern Luddites Revisited" I had no idea of the gold mine of ludditic comments that lay right in front of my eyes. There are currently 553 comments to the December 13, 2010 post by Paul Nauta entitled " Website Changes - updated." The vast majority of these comments are revelatory in the depth of their angst over the change to a new website format that includes a huge amount of information, never before available. Here are a few of the more interesting comments with the senders' names omitted:
  • Everything is now so complicated, for instance why not say HOME at he top of the page instead of a picture of a tree?
  • I need sites that dont have to be redone all the time.Any ideas? [typos in the original]
  • This is terrible I cant find my previous information or even know how to navigate this updated site.
  • Please give us the old system back, this new site is unusable.
  • My job of helping others with their research has been complicated by the changes in this web site. What may seem easy to use by the originators, but it is NOT to the average individual or me, who is an experienced researcher and user of your past sites.
  • This site is SOOOO frustrating.....and my computer, brand new and fast, absolutly hates it. [typos in the original]
  • Why fix something that was not broken? I was just learning the old system and was very pleased with it. It was fantastic.
  • Just awful Everything I loved about the old site is now gone
I think that is enough to make my point. As of today, this horrible new site has 543 collections of historical records, most of which have never been available before in digitized form online. It also has the FamilySearch Research Wiki with 48,974 articles and growing rapidly.  It also has the newly added link to the FamilySearch Family Tech website with dozens of helpful articles. The updated site also has a fully developed search engine to provide access to the Family History Library Catalog which has all of the digitized books in its collection marked. Isn't that just horrible? The new site also has the complete Social Security Death Index. The old site was so much better with its lack of resources to original records. You could always find multiple copies of what you wanted in the secondary contributed records of the Ancestral File, the International Genealogical Index (IGI) and the Pedigree Resource File (PRF). Of course, the new file, as horrible as it is, also contains most of these records.

I cannot imagine what it is that some of these people are looking at? It could not possibly be the same website I get on my computer when I type in "" What do they think they were finding in the "old site" that they cannot find in the new site? The Ancestral File was and is a compilation of user contributed family trees. There are almost no sources listed and the information cannot be considered reliable unless the source is given. The same could be said for the entries in the PRF. Many commentators claim years of experience with the old site and claim "years of ease finding data," again, what did they think they were getting with the old site? Until the addition of menu links to the old FamilySearch Research Pilot and the Historical Books collection, there was virtually no primary information in the old site except temple ordinance records that have now been moved to the website. As pointed out above, the new site has a tremendous amount of information not available on the original site and now readily searchable.

I can only imagine the frustration of the FamilySearch team at reading this drivel in comments. Why are the commentators going back to look for information they apparently already have in their databases? Again, what are they looking for? Reading on down through the almost endless list of comments you would think that the updated website was difficult to use. It is not. Or that it lacked information. Just the opposite.

What this all boils down to is change. The old site, even though it lacked substance in the form of original source records, was familiar. On commentator complained that the Texas Death Records were not available on the new site. There are, in fact, three different Texas Death collections with one, Texas Deaths, 1890-1976 has 4,281,854 records. These records were not and are not available in any form on the old website. So where is the complaint?

Just for a test, I put in just the name of my Great-grandfather Henry Martin Tanner on the first page of the updated site. With just his name only, I found 26,714 results. However, the first record found was a link to his death certificate. With two clicks, I had a copy of the original Death Certificate from 1935. That was not even possible on the old site. How is this more difficult that the old website? I cannot imagine.

OK, I cheated. I used my Great-grandfather Henry Tanner. Let's try someone really difficult to find, my Great-great-grandfather on my mother's side, Samuel Linton. No dates, just a name. Here we go! Hmmm. This is more difficult than I thought. There are 5426 results. Maybe I should put in the fact that any event occurred in Ireland? (Where he was born). A few entries down the page, there was the entry for him in the 1900 U.S. Census living with his daughter, my Great-grandmother Mary L. Morgan with her two children, Linton and Harold. This record was and is not available in the old website.

Wait a minute, from reading all these comments this should be next to impossible to do what I just did. I must be looking for people who are too easy to find. Let's try someone really obscure. My Great-great-grandfather Ove Christian Oveson who was born in Denmark. If I believe the comments, it should be really, really hard to find him, since he was born in Denmark and all. Oh dear, there are 234 results. I don't know if I can stand having all these choices. Hmmm. I guessed right. This is turning out to be a lot more difficult than the other two. Oh, guess what. I just remembered, he spelled his name as "Oveson" with an "o" even though he was from Denmark. I was looking for "Ovesen." There he is in the old Ancestral File record. First up. No problem. Now what could all those detractors be talking about?

As Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers would say, "Now it is time to play, stump the chump." Can the new site really be this easy to use? Am I missing some deeper significance? Let's look for someone not even related to me. Somebody famous. How about Abraham Lincoln. I seem to remember something about him being in Illinois. Putting the name and place into the search fields I come up with 380 results. Being very lazy, I decide to add one more piece of information and see what happens. I put in that he was born in Kentucky. There is he is, with the indisputable fact that he had two wives, one of whom was named Ann Rutledge. (Do your history folks, this is getting to be a little bit ridiculous). The information on his marriage to Ann Rutledge comes from that reliable source the Ancestral File. I am glad all those commentators are satisfied with that source and didn't want any more sources.

I must being doing something wrong. How could I find all these names so easily in such a rotten database? Now here is the real test. Can I find Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 U.S. Census? This time I am going to the Historical Records Collections directly. I click on Canada, US and Mexico and get a list of collections. I click again, this time on dates from 1850 to 1899.  I scroll down the page. (Wait a minute. I just realized the problem. All of these people do not know how to scroll! Hmm. That must be it). I find the U.S. Census for 1860 and put in the name Abraham Lincoln (actually quite a common name). I also add Illinois as a place. What a surprise. He comes up as the second entry.

So far, I haven't been able to see what all the fuss is about. Every person I have looked for has come up as one of the first few hits. Everyone. I must be doing something very wrong.

I cannot for the life of me find the difficulty or complication. Each time all I did was put in a name and records came right up. What do the records need to do? Wave a flag and shout?

With all that ire and venom directed at the updated website, there must be a deeper problem. Something I have overlooked in finding my ancestors and other people so easily. What could it be? Someone, anyone out there in the cyber world, let me know what I am missing. Why do I think the updated FamilySearch website is ridiculously easy to use? There must be something wrong with the way I am searching, maybe it is because I am trying with unique names like Ove Oveson or Abraham Lincoln? Anybody got any ideas?

Who are these people who take the time to write incomprehensible complaints about a program that is this easy to use and so full of information?

One more quote before I go, "This is not as user friendly as the last site, I hope that it gets changes back very soon I can not find anything." Who are these people? Where did this stuff come from?


  1. Bravo, James. You said it very well.

  2. I generally agree, I just have to add some (hopefully) insight. You've been using computers and the Internet for a long time. You have a lot more experience with it than most other people, regardless of their age. This gives you a strong skill set in learning new software and changes to how things work. You also have a very flexible and creative approach to things; if something doesn't work you try something else. This is a skill that a lot of people struggle with. I've done a lot of testing of people's abilities; some people are really good at a lot of cognitive tasks and some people struggle with a lot of cognitive tasks. I'm not talking about IQ, there are many more abilities than IQ.

    Some people have a hard time getting out of set, especially if they are older. This means that once they learn something, it is difficult to change it and learn or do something else. Their brains, either by development or by changes with aging, simply cannot handle change and flexibility as well as other people's brains can. What can seem straightforward and obvious to one person, including how to deal with and learn how to change, is not straightforward and obvious to someone else.

    The problem is that the developers and beta testers of technological stuff probably don't have the same set of cognitive skills as general users will have (again, I'm not talking about intelligence, I'm talking about broader cognitive domains that don't necessarily have a lot to do with intelligence). This is why some things seem logical to developers and power users but are not to many other people. So in this way, the issues go far beyond simple experience, although that helps a lot. It gets down to our genes and biology and environments and education (not necessarily formal).

    So what do we do about it? Not change? That's not an option. The best thing we can do is provide information on how to adjust to the changes and make things as user friendly as feasibly possible. People with gripe and complain but that really boils down to an attitude issue. Someone might struggle with change but be willing to do what it takes to cope with it; others simply complain. But we have to recognize that there are a lot of people, particularly ones who fit the genealogy stereotype, who have compromised mental flexibility abilities.

    There's an unofficial clinical assessment.

  3. I have to sweetly disagree with you James. I personally also find the newer site much harder to use and get desired results from.

    Some of my issues may have to do with speed of my isp, which some days is slower than donkey warp. When the new site freezes up my computer time after time, I guess that I am a bit irritated, cause I sure am not finding anything that way.

    That said, I eventually will give the new site more use and probably will eventually get used to it and it's quirks. Hopefully I will eventually find it a new and improved version, but, my results have not been as good as what you are reporting here.

    I am sorry if this is clear as mud, but after hiking 3 miles today, I probably should have waited till I sleep on it to respond.

    No, James, your results are not always my results. I used to think I was a 'sorta' ok researcher and 'sorta' ok hacker. But, no longer. You have made it quite clear I no longer can cut it. SIGHHH

  4. WOW, God is alive and well in Mesa and wishes to let the masses know just how they fail to stack up against his Almighty wisdom and electronic where-with-all. And certainly not a humble figurehead in that he finds it pleasurable to pick out and number the errors of those he deems less than himself so as to prove his superiority.

    Genealogy was a lovely pursuit of ones family and background that generally brought pleasure
    to the seeker along with some frustration at times. Times have changed, research has changed
    and now some of the self proclaimed experts appear to have changed. BUT not all change is for the best. Time to seek out those mentors who offer help without the holier than thou attitude and move on, slowly trying to keep up just so we are not know as luddites or worse.

  5. Re: Anonymous

    Unfortunately, you misunderstood the tone of the post. What you took as hubris was simply bafflement with people who are resistant to change. Yes, his tone was critical but as someone who knows James quite well, there is no superiority on his part. He'll provide all the patient help with the new technologies that people require and ask for. But apparently sometimes it's easier to resort to ad hominem attacks instead of providing useful critiques.

    While there are a number of people who are trying to keep up with technological changes in genealogy research, there are many who are not willing to even try. A lot of people are threatened by change and will do all they can to not accept it.

    Yes, not all change is for the best but progress will not occur without significant change. Technology is one area that will pass you by unless you actively strive to keep up. Because much of genealogy research is now based on technology, to fight against the changes is fruitless and even self-defeating. No far-reaching, significant progress in genealogy research ever occurred without technology; the technologies have simply changed over the years to the point where much genealogy research requires modern computers and high speed internet, which are not available to everyone at home but most public libraries or family history centers provide that kind of access.

    Luddites are not people who are trying to learn new technology, albeit slowly, luddites are people who actively fight against technological progress (fighting against can be as simple as refusing to accept the changes). In James' other post about Luddites, he said, "Modern luddites may not be entirely anti-technology, they do not have to refuse to use telephones and TVs to be luddites, they can simply refuse to acknowledge when a technology has substantially changed and continue to cling to the older technology without any really valid reason for doing so."

    That's the context in which you must read this post. It is not a valid argument to say we do something one way because that's how we've always done it. Yes, what was done in the past might be the best way but make a case for it, don't just assume it's the best way.

    James has never stated that technology replaces the core skills of genealogy research, technology is a tool that facilitates the research. Yes, you can plug along using old tools but you can be much more effective if you keep up with the new tools. It is hard and takes effort to try and keep up but that's all James wants people to do - try and then keep trying.

    People can and should provide constructive feedback about changes to FamilySearch but offering criticisms without offering suggestions is not helpful. Like the first comment James quotes: "Everything is now so complicated, for instance why not say HOME at he top of the page instead of a picture of a tree?" That's actually effective. The first part isn't ("Everything is now so complicated") but the "for instance" part is useful. But just saying, "I don't like the new site change it back" is not useful.

  6. It is so easy for the computer literate to ridicule the less experienced user. The fact there is so many complaints indicates there is something not intuitive with the site design. Any designer should take notice of these complaints.

    Yes, not everyone likes change, especially with a familiar website, and often there will be a number of complaints. However, do not be so critical of other people's apparent lack of computer savvy. Their comments are often the result of frustration with the site design.

  7. Thank you James for this great article. I am so incredibly glad somebody had the guts to say this. What you said is 100% and don't let the ignorants change your mind.

  8. While I appreciate your insights into contemporary Luddite tendencies, I think it would be fair to point out that most of the user complaints you quote refer to the efficacy of the search engine, features and site layout of the pilot.labs.familysearch site compared with the newer (formerly 'beta') site.

    Some of the oft-used features of the pilot site do not exist on the newer site and getting to database images was much easier. The new site loads much more slowly, and its CSS is not now functional with older operating systems (it was functional when still in an early phase of 'beta').

    Such site changes are not necessarily taking advantage of improved technology, although they may be beneficial for site code-writers and in terms of obtaining less expensive programs.

    Persons finding that their tried-and-true operating systems no longer work on a site can be expected to be unhappy. Not everyone can afford the latest tech, not everyone likes the planned-obsolescence path of certain software monopolists. Not to mention the intrusive, dysfunctional and counter-intuitive features of some of "the latest." Those who prefer ease of use do not admire programs that have been cobbled together over 20 years that now require immense RAM and huge hard drives just to function at all. Poor platform, after all, is just poor design.

  9. I'll post another reply.

    Feb 16 @ 8:43 AM Anonymous said: "The fact there is so many complaints indicates there is something not intuitive with the site design. Any designer should take notice of these complaints."

    The second sentence is true. The first is a logical fallacy. People generally comment online about something if they either really like it or really do not like it. So it is easy to perceive general consensus as leaning one way based on what a number of people say. I'm not talking about being to extrapolate attitudes out to a population based on a sample and sound statistical principles. What we see is a self-selection bias in people who are reporting problems. This means that there are many many more people who are not saying anything about the site but who might feel completely differently from the vocal few (or they might feel the same, we just don't know yet).

    Is the new site really more user unfriendly than the old site? I don't know. I didn't use either very much. What might seem like poor UI at first might be extremely helpful in the long run. I saw an example of this recently. I was attending a training course about some research software that I use (for neuroscience). On attendee kept asking if the development team was going to add a graphical user interface to the software instead of relying on just the command line. Their answer, "No." They did not have the time and/or resources to create a GUI frontend for the software, supposing that would even be a good idea (which I don't think it would be).

    While it takes a lot of time to learn to use this particular software, once you do, it is incredibly powerful. Having a GUI wouldn't work well and would slow everything down a lot.

    So how does this apply to the new FamilySearch website? Sometimes what looks like poor UI really is simply change from what you are used to. Maybe it is a step back but maybe the old way was really the bad UI. It just takes time to learn new things.

    UI, results, and other things are great things to make critiques about but it's not helpful to say, "I don't like it, go back to the old site" or "I can't find anything." Maybe there are bugs, maybe it runs slowly on some people's computers (but there are a lot of possible reasons for that, many of which are not the fault of the developers).

    Maybe the new site isn't that great, maybe it has serious limitations, but we can't make those assumptions based on 500+ comments. Again, that doesn't mean all those people are wrong, it just is not possible to extrapolate much useful evidence from comments online because the commenters are self-selected. If the site is getting about 1 million visitors per month, it is difficult to know what the other 99.97% of users think based on a few vocal people. Maybe they are correct, we just don't know. In any case, resisting change just because at first you don't like it isn't sufficient reason to not change (which was the point of James' post).

  10. If people don't like the site, why don't they just...not use it? I mean, there's no law that says you have to use the internet at all. You can still drive to your local NARA branch and use the Soundex if you want. You can still write letters. It's totally fine to stick to the methods you're comfortable with.

    But when you try to stop progress, you kind of screw those of us who DO know how to use a site like this, and DO want new records and change and streamlined interfaces and all that. If you don't, fine...but I do, and I'm not thrilled when people try to stop progress so I can't have it either. Just stick with what works for you and let the rest of us move forward. Please.

  11. I think you hit it right on the head, changes are hard to get use to!

    I personally love the new site! It seemed like many were upset it wasn't as easy (or is now impossible) to access things like the IGI and Ancestral File. Which is fine by me, I prefer access to original records versus compiled databases full of errors. I agree, the search could still use some work, especially when searching the FHL catalog.

  12. Geolover, thanks for your comments; I think you hit the nail squarely on the head. As you say, "poor platform is poor design". And that is the source of my Luddite woes! Been using computers since long before the microchip, and system engineering and programming for functionality is, I think, still in the pioneering stage in so many ways for far too many organizations, both private and public, mainly because of the monopolistic planned-obsolenscence. But,looks like the new cloud technology is about to change that! :)