Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Dan Lawyer explains what it means to be a genealogist-ologist. Church News photo by R. Scott Lloyd.
Dan Lawyer defines Uber-Techno-Genealogist-Ologist
Photo by R. Scott Lloyd, © LDS Church News

Dan Lawyer, product manager, calls himself an UTGO, an “uber-techno-genealogist-ologist.” Roughly translated, that means “geek who studies genealogists.”

I guess that makes me a genealogist-ologist-ologist. I’ve been studying genealogy product managers to see what makes them tick—or more to the point—chirp. Prior to our current crop of product managers, why did crop after crop repeat—over and over—the same mistakes?

I have a theory.

Before I share it, let me emphasize that I love FamilySearch’s current crop of product managers because… But I’m getting ahead of myself.

My theory is that genealogy is deceptively complex. To the unlearned, there is no obvious reason why growing a family tree should be difficult in any way. New product managers are tempted to think, “Give people ready access to records and their genealogy will grow faster than weeds.”

Genealogy is Hard

Let me take a stab at convincing non-genealogists that genealogy is hard. I will focus on one prerequisite of growing a family tree: matching.

  • Like a game of Concentration, genealogy involves finding matches. You must reliably match two mentions of one individual in two records. For example, you look at a John Johnson in the 1880 census and a John Johnson in your pedigree and decide if the two are a match.
  • Records include information that identify and characterize individuals. For example, a John Johnson might be characterized in the 1880 census by his name, his age, his birth state, where he was enumerated, and so forth.
  • A definitive match requires that the identifying characteristics from both records must differentiate the individual from every other person that has ever lived.
  • Reliably making a match is extremely difficult because of the amount of information that must be learned:
    • You must learn how common each of the identifying characteristics is. For example, perhaps the name “John Johnson” was extremely common in 1810 Norway.
    • You must learn how common the combination of the characteristics is. For example, you might consider it extremely unlikely that there are two 60 year old John Johnsons with farm name Vedum in 1810 Norway.
    • Short of unique identification, you must know—qualitatively if not quantitatively—the probability that the two mentions match.
    • You must learn and recognize equivalent values of a characteristic. For example, sometimes John matches Johannes. Sometimes it matches Jack. Sometimes Nevada matches Utah. Sometimes 1700 matches 1701. Sometimes Johnson matches Jonsen.
    • You must learn to recognize non-matching values that probably should match. For example, sometimes typists transposed letters. Sometimes census enumerators rounded ages. Sometimes indexers read Lemuel as Samuel.
    • You must learn how to judge the trustworthiness of information in a particular record. For example, the length of time between an event and the recording of the event affects the trustworthiness of the information.

In summary, one reason genealogy is hard is that reliable matching requires years of learning and experience.

How It Plays Out

Given that genealogy is deceptively complex, here’s my theory of why we get genealogically anemic products: 

When some product managers try to extend genealogy’s reach to less experienced audiences, they approach the most knowledgeable genealogists—professionals—and ask,

How can we make genealogy easy?

This is what the genealogists say:

You can’t make genealogy easy. Genealogy is hard. To do it right, you must…

This is what unwise product managers hear:

I don’t know how to make genealogy easy. Since you can see no reason why it has to be hard, you must assume that I do a lot of extra stuff that applies only to professionals. If you wish to make it easy, you must ignore me when I close-mindedly say that the one and only right way to do genealogy is…

Remember, I’m not talking about all product managers. I think both and FamilySearch currently have a good crop.

But unwise managers proceed under the assumption that genealogy is easy and knowledgeable genealogists make it unnecessarily hard. The managers attempt to make genealogy easy through simplification, eliminating methodology training and gutting products of industry best practices. (Yes, the unwise think they have singlehandedly thought of a better way to do genealogy than the combined learning of tens of thousands of practitioners who have advanced the state of the art for over a century.)

Sadly and ironically, what is eliminated because of perceived complexity are the very practices and tools that have been shown to make genealogy easier!


Given my theory, you can well imagine my delight last week at the FamilySearch Blogger Day when Dan Lawyer, displayed a slide that read (in its entirety):

Genealogy is Hard

The rise of genealogist-ologists has given hope to this genealogist-ologist-ologist—hope that product managers will make genealogy easier by dealing with the complexity instead of ignoring it.


  1. I'm glad you've detailed this issue. I'm an engineer at heart as was my father, and we've been involved with genealogy for many many years. From that perspective we certainly realized genealogy was hard.
    Still, I'm amazed that today genealogy tools directed at "the masses" hardly scratch the surface with respect to taking a complete approach to doing genealogy "right". Users of those tools almost immediately become dis-enchanted because the realities of what it takes to do genealogy right are glossed over. Hopefully this type of discussion will continue and will resonate with the developers of these tools with the result being improved quality.
    The quality of software genealogy tools plays a major role in promoting or stifling proper genealogy practices - it's hard to get right, but certainly worth the effort.

  2. I believe genealogy is a Religion. You KNOW very little, but you BELIEVE that John Johnson is your ancestor. In the religion of Genealogy FAITH = FACTS. The more faith/facts you have the more you BELIEVE. Hallelujah!!

  3. Very well said. I believe exposing Genealogy to the masses is not a bad thing. Soon enough a beginner realizes genealogy is hard. By then they either are hooked and will stick around for the long haul or move on. Either way they have learned something.

  4. I think genealogy is a field of study/activities which aligns well with expert systems technology. (See: ). Building the rules and methods of good research and documentation into genealogy software that also provides an inviting, encouraging user interface should result in more usable genealogy software. Do any genealogy software products available today include expert systems technology?

  5. My husband has begun laughing at the commercials that tell you "you don't need to know what you're looking for". As a largely self-taught family historian, was enormously helpful to me in getting started, and I'm still a big fan, but I see so many people start and stop in that first "free" period, probably because they don't realize just how hard it is until they try it. While I could rely on an extensive oral and written history from my mother's family to guide me, my husband's family history was largely unknown to living family members and has required lots of work that a software program could probably not readily duplicate: lots of death records,census investigation, cemetery searches, and contacts with other investigators and local historical societies. It's been the most tedious fun I've ever had, but it wasn't easy!

  6. AI, Very Good Post.

    One angle on your general point is the difference between "simple" and "simplistic".

    For example, the Pythagorean Theorem is an elegantly simple way to describe a rather complex mathematical and spatial relationship.

    Anonymous described a spouse's laughter at "the commercials that tell you 'you don't need to know what you're looking for . . . .'"

    Somewhat analogous is's intensive marketing of user Trees as substitutes for genealogical research. For example a few months ago they installed the Tree-wide assertion, "Ancestry Family Trees / (insert number of) citations provide evidence for (insert name, vital event)," in every instance where a Treebie had copied something from another tree.

    Evidence? While there may be some evidence presented in a tree, no tree is evidence for anything.

    The difference between simple and simplistic is often a lie.

  7. When I attended NGS this year (my first time) I was impressed with the level of technology knowledge and backgrounds in the management levels of FamilySearch. I feel like this is very important to the future of genealogical research.

  8. AMEN! Great article -- I hope those genealogy software developers are PAYING ATTENTION to this!

  9. "Jumbo Jet Software" versus "Piper Cub" A senior couple in my neighborhood spent a solid week of intensive training to learn New Family Search.
    My wife recently went to their home and tried to retrain them over to Family Search. The husband is lost and his wifes vision is nearly gone*
    AutoCAD is the biggest computer drafting software. But, it's like flying a Jumbo Jet. Fortunately, there is a "Classic" option. Click this and it goes back to an early simplified version. We really need some simple software in Genealogy.
    [A Piper Cub trainer has only 5 instruments and is simple to fly.]

    *Vision problems: go to Windows Control Panel, Ease of Access, Blind read aloud


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