Dan Lawyer defines Uber-Techno-Genealogist-Ologist
Photo by R. Scott Lloyd, © LDS Church News
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 Ancestry.com 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.