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

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How do the online family tree programs compare?

There are dozens and dozens of online programs allowing people to either enter or upload their family information. Most of those programs store the information in the form of a modified pedigree format based loosely on a traditional family oriented pedigree. Here is an example of a standard-type format for a pedigree which is also called an ancestor chart:

This particular chart came from some free forms online from the Mid-Continent Public Library. This format is very efficient and it would be hard to improve on this basic form. a few of the genealogical databases have experimented with variations, some more successful than others. I thought it would be interesting to see how three of the major online family tree programs approach this issue (with my usual comments, of course).

I had to stop for a minute and think about which program to talk about first. So I decided to start with the newest one,'s Family Tree. Arguably in setting up the tree, they would have had the cumulative experience of all of their predecessors. Here is the first screen shot showing the basic FamilySearch Family Tree format.

The design is clearly adapted from the basic pedigree or ancestor chart. The main difference is that the basic chart starts with a single individual with space for a spouse. Family Tree has a space for a husband and a wife. I find this to be somewhat confusing and even disconcerting, for single people who look at this chart for the first time. Those never married or widowed often question what they are supposed to do with the blank spaces, particularly with the admonition to "Add a husband" or "Add a wife." I have had several comments questioning the form for that reason. I think you can emphasize the family without making singles feel left out.

This format is also confusing to people for the first time, because they have to sort out which line they are following. It does an adequate job of allowing users to navigate as long as people realize that the families are represented by the parents and that not all parents are showing. Navigating up the pedigree is fairly easy and the layout is clean and uncluttered, if that is a virtue.

FamilySearch Family Tree most recently added a fan chart view of the pedigree. Here is a screen shot of the fan chart view of the same person:

You may already know from my pervious posts that I am not a fan of fan charts. But it is a nice display and certainly gives a graphic representation of the families in the file. It is interesting that in this format the individual is treated as unique and no spouse in mandatorily shown next to the center name and there are no blank spaces for the missing spouse except at the bottom of the chart.

Next is Here is a screen shot of the same individual that I used in the Family Tree examples:

It is readily apparent that the Family Tree is about the same as the roughly equivalent FamilySearch Family Tree. The major difference is that it starts with an individual and has a spouse, if there is one, in a pull-down menu. The problem of how to depict the family is then solved by putting the spouses in different boxes. If for no other reason, I like this view better because it shows a sensitivity to those who may not have and have no hope of having a spouse's line to work on. The lack of a spouse in not then emphasized. When navigating with both  FamilySearch Family Tree and Family Trees, you are forced to navigate up through the tree unless you happen to know the name or ID number of the person you are searching for. has another even more traditional family tree view called the "Family View." Here is a screenshot of the Family View"

Of course, you can zoom in and out on this format, but I find it relatively more difficult to use and seldom go to this view on purpose. Rather than being informative, it is mostly confusing. I am glad has provided a different pedigree type view. I am sure that this is a matter of personal preference.

Next, I am going to which also has two different ancestor chart views to choose from.  Here is a screen shot of the Modern View:

As you can see, has a view similar to's Family View. Both of these suffer from a difficulty of finding ancestors and navigating around the huge chart when the words are large enough to read. I resort to using the search function rather than trying to find anyone using the family tree view. The Classic View is almost the same, except it is more compact and easier to navigate. Here is a screen shot of the Classic View:

Neither of these views is particularly easy to use. I would prefer a horizontally oriented chart, but that is a personal opinion. As with most of the other examples, if a spouse is missing, there is no line shown. In fact, to save clutter, the spouse's tree, if present, is not shown unless selected.

There are, of course a multitude of other forms of family trees, but combined these three trees probably contain more individuals that there presently are alive in the entire world: not to say everyone is represented, counting for duplicates, of course. With those large numbers it is extremely important to have an interface that is easy to navigate. Both and FamilySearch Family Tree fall into that category, but there are other concerns that make each of the trees strong in some features and views and weak in others.

All that said, I would not make a decision to use or not use a family tree program based on the user interface alone. The other features of the program are much more important to me.


  1. The title of this post is rather mis-leading. All you evaluated was how these views presented ancestors' names. You barely touched on the key features of using these views to navigate to other persons on the tree and to access the popups or sidebars for additional information. The option to open and close branches in the views at Ancestry and MyHeritage keep these views visually less complicated. None of these views allow much editing beyond some positioning.
    I like to use both the pedigree and descendant ("Family") views when evaluating a tree - an overview of how it compares with my knowledge of the family, how the submitter is related to the person I am interested in, etc. and then, look at the details using the individual views.

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