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What Do You Wish Genealogy Software Did?

Tuesday, 8 Jan 2008 | by Mark Tucker

Software can be a great help to genealogists, but at times we wish that it did more. Think of the desktop software and tools you use, online databases, and the newer social networking sites. As genealogists we want more of our genealogy software.

Are there features you would like added to the software that you use? What if a brand new genealogy application were designed from scratch, what would you want it to do? What is on your wish list for genealogy software?

Here is a chance to share your ideas.

By way of a challenge, I would like to see at least 50 responses. The more ideas, the better. So don’t be shy. Add your wish list item.

Genealogists Can Share Ideas and Innovate

Thursday, 27 Dec 2007 | by Mark Tucker

The more we understand the design process, the better we can design genealogy software. In a previous post titled “More Design in the Genealogy Community”, we discussed the development process. In this post, we will look specifically at the Design Process that was represented as Phase 0. 

Development Process - Phase 0

Design is represented by a funnel showing that more ideas exist at the beginning of the phase than at the end. Much of this information can be found in “Sketching User Experiences: getting the design right and the right design” by Bill Buxton.

Genealogists as well as designers and developers must work together as part of the design process. In the early part of this process, it is important to generate as many ideas as possible. No idea should be held back as it might be a stepping stone to a much better idea. Ideas tend to generate more ideas. As the two-time Nobel Prize winner, Linus Pauling, once said:

The best way to a good idea is to have lots of ideas.

The diagram indicates that no matter how many great ideas enter the funnel, there will be less at the end. Not all ideas survive.

On page 144 of “Sketching User Experiences”, a slightly different visualization by Paul Laseau is presented which shows two opposing funnels: one for idea generation and the other for idea reduction. My modification of the diagram is as follows:

Design Process Timeline

The process begins with a single idea or a few ideas. This leads to more ideas. Ideas are explored quickly and cheaply and can be discarded just as fast – easy come, easy go.

At some point choices need to be made and ideas need to be refined. After all, idea generation cannot carry on indefinitely. We must create something to ship. If we do this correctly, we won’t just have something we will have the right thing. Ideas are refined roughly at first and then with more granularity. More ideas might still surface but they are more fine tuning of existing ideas than radical new ones. More choices are made as we approach the final design. If you think of these two funnels superimposed, it’s not too difficult to visualize the single Design funnel represented as Phase 0.

To make this point a second time, designers, developers, and users (genealogists in our case) are involved in this process. Everyone’s ideas are important. Designers share their ideas and also guide the others through the process.

The subtitle of “Sketching User Experiences” is “getting the design right and the right design.” This process of working together to generate ideas and refine them into a final design is part of getting the “right design.” When this process is not followed or those who use the software are not involved, a design will result but quite possibly not one that will provide an effective, usable, and enjoyable experience.

This blog is a place where we can have a conversation about design and go through the process together.  I want to listen to your ideas.  All ideas are welcome as we are at the starting point of design.  We can change the world of genealogy software.  Innovation can happen.

In a future post, we will explore the technique of sketching and how it can be used to quickly capture and share ideas.

More Design in the Genealogy Community

Friday, 21 Dec 2007 | by Mark Tucker

… Continued from this previous post.

The previous post ended by asking a few questions.  One of these was: Do we really need designers anyway?

Bill Buxton would answer that we need designers. Just because we are able to add up our grocery bill doesn’t make us all mathematicians. There are principles and practices of design that must be learned and honed. I know that Carnegie Mellon University has an acclaimed Human-Computer Interaction Institute whose mission is to create effective, usable, enjoyable experiences with technology. Are graduates in this area finding their way into genealogy software development?

Both authors (Bill Buxton and Alan Cooper introduced in the previous post) share a similar view about design’s place before development with users contributing significantly to the process. Typically the development process is Design, Engineering, and then Sales. Design is shaped like a funnel to indicate that the number of ideas or concepts at the beginning of the phase is greater than those at the end. The arrows indicate involvement from the other teams in the design process. Bill also accounts for the need sometimes to do engineering (or in the case of software: programming) before design as an input into the design process:

Product Development Process

Let’s discuss the advanced Research and Development team for a minute.  What is it purpose?  Sometimes there are enough unknowns that you must do something first to determine what you do and don’t know.  The question might be if something is technically feasible. Or maybe we want to try out a concept some people who will actually use the product.  There are three main places that I have seen this:  Google Labs, Microsoft Research, and FamilySearch Labs. What is the purpose of all those free applications that Google develops?  One reason it to try out concepts and explore possibilities?  The same goes for Microsoft and I would propose it is the same for FamilySearch Labs.  Some projects that started in Phase -1 have later passed through the other phases to become a real product.

Take the recent example from FamilySearch Labs.  The Pedigree Viewer prototype has recently been incorporated into Genetree (which I wrote about in this post). This same viewer in combination with the Life Browser is now part of another FamilySearch Labs project, called Family Tree that can be used with the new FamilySearch.

It appears that some organizations in the genealogy software field understand the importance of design and are taking advantage of current principles and practices.  I hope many others will see it too.  It is my desire to encourage innovation in genealogy software.  We need better experiences with the software.  It needs to help us more.  These types of experiences must be designed.  Working together as genealogists and family historians, software developers, user experience designers, and management is the way to improvement.  We need to better connect as a community.  We must share ideas and knowledge.  We need to care.

Ideas. Design. Experience. Innovation.  Are these words also buzzing around in your head?


How Does the Genealogy Community View Design?

Friday, 21 Dec 2007 | by Mark Tucker

Ideas. Design. Experience. Innovation. It seems that those words are continually bouncing around in my head. I am fascinated by them. They motivate me. Sometimes they frustrate me.

Two books that I have been reading lately help bring order to the words swarming in my mind. These books are “Sketching User Experiences: getting the design right and the right design” by Bill Buxton and “About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design” by Alan Cooper, et al.

The first diagram in Chapter 1 of “About Face 3” shows the four evolutionary levels of the software development process:


Level 1

Software Development Process - Level 1

This first level is how many software companies start out. It’s the “two guys in the garage” scenario. The programmers see an opportunity or have an idea that is within their real of knowledge. They spend hours developing it and do some testing as they go along. When it is “good enough”, they ship it.

Level 2

Software Development Process - Level 2

The next level adds one or more managers that likely have knowledge of a particular market. It is their job to understand the opportunities and define software requirements which the programmers then build.

Level 3

Software Development Process - Level 3

As things progress, a more formalized Quality Assurance process is defined. When bugs are found, they are sent back to development to fix. When the application passes QA, then a Graphic Designer gives feedback on UI elements, icons, colors. But this design approach is more of an afterthought.

Level 4

Software Development Process - Level 4

The final level shows user input early in the process before development begins. Interaction Designers or User Experience Designers work with users to understand needs and goals. Programmers provide feedback to Designers as to technical feasibility. The design is provided to the programmers to build the software. Part of passing QA is meeting these design specs. Users play a key role at both ends of the development process.

In my career, I have seen these four levels. In thinking about the organizations that ship genealogy software, I wonder which level most closely matches where they are. I would be very interested in surveying all these organizations (even anonymously) to better understand the current state of genealogy software.

Over the last year, I have come across at least two organizations that have advertised job openings for Interaction Designers: (part of The Generations Network) and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If they are seeking Interaction Designers, does that mean they are practicing at level 4?

How are other genealogy software organizations doing? What are they doing about design? Do we really need designers anyway?

Continued on next post

The Future of Genealogy Software is not “Hard to See”

Thursday, 29 Nov 2007 | by Mark Tucker

Many years ago I was (incorrectly) singing the words to the song, “Que, Sera, Sera” and my wife pointed out my humorous mistake.

Instead of singing:

Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours, to see

I sang:

Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not hard to see

This personal joke has been used many times since then and has never failed to deliver a cheerful effect.

I think that the author and design leader, Bill Buxton, would agree that the “future’s not hard to see.” In his book, “Sketching User Experiences: getting the design right and the right design,” Bill stresses the importance of looking at least 5 years down the road when designing user experiences and adds:

Now most people say that you cannot predict the future, much less five years out. They use this as an excuse for not making the effort, or even contemplating it. I believe that this reflects a lack of training, technique, or responsibility on the part of design or management. (page 209)

He then goes on to quote William Gibson from an NPR interview on 30 November 1999:

… the future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.

Buxton gives two examples. The first computer mouse was built in 1964 but didn’t reach widespread use until about 1995 – 30 years later. The idea for the CD came around 1965 but it wasn’t until 25 years later in 1990 that the industry reached $1 billion. From idea, to design, to prototype, to first production, to ubiquity takes time.

Bill then makes this statement that I would like us to consider:

If history is any indication, we should assume that any technology that is going to have a significant impact over the next 10 years is already 10 years old. (page 215)

Innovation Future Timeline

 This made me wonder if this could be applied to genealogy software. What has happened over the last 10 years that could affect the design and innovation of genealogy software over the next 10 years?

At first nothing came to mind, but then I thought of Elizabeth Shown Mills’ book, “Evidence! Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian” which was published in 1997. In 2007, the much expanded “Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace” was released. We are now beginning to see specific examples of Elizabeth’s work showing up in genealogy software. In a podcast interview by Dick Eastman, Elizabeth Kelley Kerstens indicated that the software Clooz version 2.x was influenced by handouts she received from Elizabeth Shown Mills. Another example is from a podcast by DearMYRTLE where she interviews Geoff Rasmussen about Legacy version 7. In this interview, Geoff gives a sneak peek of one of the major new features which is source citation following the standard set by Elizabeth Shown Mills. There is still much work that needs to be done in this area such as online databases providing better source citations. I talk about this in my previous post about Jumping Curves. So you see, the future is not so hard to see.

Another area that I want to point out is the Genealogical Proof Standard which was also created in 1997 by the Board for Certification of Genealogists. Other than its use in the certification process, you don’t hear much about it. But this standard is useful to researchers of all levels to help them get as close to the truth as possible. At some point genealogy software designers and developers will realize this and incorporate it into future genealogy software.

There are probably many more examples of ideas, technology, and methodology that exists today that will help us better see the future of genealogy software.

What things should be added to this list?

As a genealogy community, I hope we aren’t thinking:

Que Sera, Sera,
Whatever will be, will be
The future’s not ours, to see

Share your thoughts as the future is ours to see.  I hope that is not hard to see.

Jumping Curves by Better Online Source Citation

Wednesday, 7 Nov 2007 | by Mark Tucker

According to Guy Kawasaki  (author, speaker, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, etc.) one key point to great innovation is “Jumping Curves” which means moving from the curve where everyone else is to a new curve.  The folks at have been talking about this concept lately which is where I heard about it.  See ”How To Innovate And Change The World” by Whitney Ransom and “Jumping Curves At and” by Yvette Arts.  The second article asks for suggestions about jumping curves.  The following is part of an e-mail that I sent in response:

I like the fact the WorldVitalRecords geocodes all records added to their site.  Why you are at it, why don’t you add source citations in metadata/xml form following the conventions in Elizabeth Shown Mills book, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace

Currently source citation is hard.  When it is available, it is in text format that must be copied and pasted into your genealogy program.  But source citation is vital so that proper evaluation of evidence can be done and so that constant re-examination of the same records can be avoided.  If when you click on a document to download the image, the link was instead something like an rss link that has metadata with it (think rss enclosure tag) and if that xml format were a standard then genealogy software could read the information, add the image to the application, and add the proper source citation.  What could be easier for a user than every time a document image is downloaded from an online database, the source was automatically cited?  The software developers would be half way there as they would then just need to add a way to manually add the same information for offline sources. 

The first analysis that needs to be done with a source is to determine if it is original or derivative.  The metadata could include this information already.  The next step would be to have the metadata for derivative sources include the source provenance all the way back to the original.  Who would be in a better position to know that than the site owner who negotiated with the owner of the source content?  This identification would then only have to be done once correctly and it would save many family historians/genealogists from doing the same work and sometimes incorrectly. 

Now the metadata would also be available to search engines and special source searches could be created to find and aggregate the information.  Think about what Google, Technorati, Digg,, Facebook or others could do with this type of information.

  1. Creating a source citation metadata standard. 
  2. Being the first records site to metadata source cite all their content. 
  3. Making it extremely easy to cite online sources. 
  4. Creating a whole new way to search for records. 

Now talk about jumping curves!

Some of these ideas I have shared before in Expanded Vision of Genealogy 2.0.

Happy curve jumping.

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