Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Three Reasons Vendors Get It Wrong

“We have failed
to recognize
the chasm”

Image used with permission.

I am obsessed with explaining a phenomenon I’ve witnessed for 30 years. When it comes to tree management software, why do unwise product managers re-make the same mistakes over and over? (As I’ve said before, these observations do not apply to wise product managers in the industry today.)

I’ve written of two theories. Today I wish to add a third.

Genealogical Maturity

One theory is that personnel turnover limits product maturity.

The name, genealogical maturity model, reflects my scientific background. A scientific model simplifies—perhaps grossly so—something more complex. The idea of maturation is that of natural and normal progression.

The genealogical maturity model, then, is a highly simplified model of the perceptions and practices that I and many other non-professional genealogists go through as we advance in knowledge and experience.

It is most useful as a self-improvement program. But it also may explain why some vendors produce immature products. Personnel turnover may cycle out experienced product designers before they have progressed much beyond levels 2 or 3. New personnel start over at the bottom. Products, then, never reflect greater genealogical maturity.

(For more information, see my article, “Genealogical Maturity Model” or the FamilySearch Wiki article, “Genealogical Maturity.”)

Genealogy is Deceptively Complex

Another 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. The unwise product manager dismisses the combined learning of tens of thousands of practitioners who have advanced the state of the art for over a century. By adhering to the belief that genealogy is easy, the unwise have no choice but to conclude that such practitioners make genealogy unnecessarily hard.

Sadly and ironically, by ignoring the complexity rather than dealing with it, it is the unwise product manager who is making genealogy unnecessarily hard.

(For more information, see my article, “Genealogist-ologist-ologist.”)

Today I wish to add a third observation to these two.

Three Time Frames

My theory is that ancestral research proceeds through three historic time frames, a chasm divides the last two, and product managers rarely make it across the chasm.

This theory will also explain why genealogical maturity occurs among ancestral researchers in the order it does. And it will explain why new product managers incorrectly assume genealogy is simple.

Ancestral research begins with yourself and proceeds backwards through the three time frames. The three time frames are:

Time Frame 1.

In the most recent time frame a new genealogist is taking known people and dropping them into their proper places on a pedigree. It is easy. Dates, places, and records are not necessary to identify someone you can easily pick out of a lineup.

A new genealogist can complete three generations in this manner: himself, his parents, and usually his grandparents. That is seven people on a pedigree, in four families, totaling perhaps 20 people. Throw in a second marriage or two and you can complete a lot of genealogy for people in this time frame.

Time Frame 2.

As a genealogist’s research pushes beyond living memory, vital records are often available that unambiguously identify another generation or two of ancestors. The genealogist continues putting people into their proper place on his pedigree. It is still easy.

In actuality, the genealogist is now dealing with records instead of people. As long as the genealogist is fortunate enough to deal with records that uniquely identify his ancestors, then his person-based paradigm continues to work and continues to be easy.

Somewhere before time frame 3, a product manager concludes that genealogy is easy. What he has proven to himself—by his own experience—will be hard to disabuse.

Time Frame 3.

Not only has the genealogist never met these ancestors, no unambiguous record identifies them.

A chasm exists between time frame 2, where the product manager quits, and time frame 3, where the genealogist works. Genealogists have failed to recognize the chasm exists and prevents us from speaking the same language as pre-chasmites.

Next time, “the chasm” and time frame 3. Stay tuned…


  1. I love this series of blog posts.

    "Sadly and ironically, by ignoring the complexity rather than dealing with it, it is the unwise product manager who is making genealogy unnecessarily hard."

    Might I add that GEDCOM probably doesn't help.

    At BetterGEDOM, we're just organizing ourselves to look at GEDCOM from the standpoint of _Evidence Explained_ users. In this initial work, it sure looks like "room for improvement" is an understatement.

  2. Hi - we would like to use your article on the three time frames involved with genealogical research as a basis for an article used to educate our clients and potential clients. Since we'll be referencing your idea we will cite your blog and url. Please let us know if this is not okay!

    Jessica Taylor
    Legacy Tree Genealogy

    I apologize for the public comment - I couldn't see a way to contact you privately.

  3. My personal belief is that genealogical links must be weighted with 'probabilities'

    As you stated, the furter back you go, the more ambiguities in our theories exist.
    Where more than one candidate for someones father legitimately exist - all, or just the top 2 or three must be ale to be linked - also theories under investigation need to be categorised - especially where researchers are working callaboratively.

    Heaven forbid you are researching that village in wates where nearly every person hd the same surname !

  4. AI, a very useful insight. Experiential bias of designers limited the gedcom format (such as eliminating particular geopolitical location denominators -- did they think everyone in the 17th through 19th century lived in cities?), and can be seen today among the designers who think 'everyone' is connected with facebook and twitter.

    Instead of designing for simple and simply intelligible complexity of detail, the tendency is to follow the MS model of piling patches on originally poor design. Perhaps newFamilySearch could be looked at from this standpoint.

  5. Amen to what Geolover said! I despise the newFamilySearch. With the old, you could put in a last name, the mother & father names (if known, and find a wonderful number of people who could or were related to the ones you were researching. The newFamilySearch doesn't allow that and in many (of my family, anyway) doesn't even bring up the info on specific members of my family that I KNOW (because of those earlier searches) are out there! Talk about regressing!!

  6. As touched on by some of the previous comments, relative "distance" is not only time but also unfamiliar languages, geography, social norms, etc. A lot of researchers reach one of those barriers and either switch to easier lines, or if lacking sufficient preparation and aids, make major mistakes. Given the variety of challenges out there, it's hard to see what "product managers" can do to encourage people to self-educate.

  7. Dear readers,

    FYI. Today I simplified the final section of this article, "Three Time Frames."

    -- The Insider


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