Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Not Just a Chart, But a Heart

Dennis Brimhall, president of FamilySearch, International“We may rattle your bones a little bit, those of you who are family history consultants,” said Dennis Brimhall. Brimhall was the Wednesday keynote speaker at the 2013 Brigham Young University Conference on Family History and Genealogy.

Brimhall is the managing director of the Family History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and CEO and president of FamilySearch, International. He also serves as an Area Seventy for the Church. Prior to coming to FamilySearch he spent his career in hospital administration. He explained that the Family History Department and FamilySearch, International are the same thing. His business card is a Church business card on one side and a FamilySearch business card on the other.

“To those of you who come from other faiths,” said Brimhall, “we recognize that you’re in a different culture here.” Indeed, much of Brimhall’s presentation was addressed to Church members or the Church’s family history consultants. (There are 70,000 of them worldwide.)

“We’re here to help people turn their hearts,” Brimhall said. We’ve not been successful in turning hearts of as many people as we need to be, he said.

“We have to start them with the heart and they’ll get to the chart later on,” he said. Too often we started them with the chart and lost them before turning their heart.

We’ve done some remarkable things, said Brimhall. FamilySearch has 4,700 family history centers in 129 countries. They’ve published 2.9 billion searchable names and are adding 1.7 million daily. They have 237 camera teams worldwide and hope to grow that to 500 by the end of next year. (They are looking for missionary volunteers who would like to spend some time doing this.) They are digitizing the microfilm in the vault and think they’ll be done in five to seven years.

“If you think of all of that, the question comes on occasion, ‘How well are we doing?’” said Brimhall. “How many Church members are using it if they are paying for it?” While 25% of adult Church members have registered, only 8% have returned to FamilySearch.org in the past 12 months.

Brimhall quoted a saying, “Every organization is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.If we keep doing what we have been doing, we'll keep getting what we've always gotten… The definition of lunacy is to keep doing what you've always done and expect different results.” (He seems to have been quoting Paul Batalden of the Dartmouth Medical School.) He said we will not improve over the 8% unless we change what we’re doing.

Brimhall related several changes that FamilySearch is making.

A significant portion of Church members do not have access to computers. Just as members don’t need to have a computer to pay their tithing, so also members should not need a computer to gather information about their ancestors. FamilySearch has developed a “wonderful little booklet” (the same mentioned by Elder Packer yesterday) that will be available in 22 languages by the end of August. It starts by soliciting stories. This lets people get engaged without a computer. You can then take the booklet to a family history consultant who can put it into FamilySearch.org for you.

“We’re well on our way and it will be distributed primarily in countries outside the U.S. where computers are not available,” said Brimhall.

The next change is to family history centers and libraries. “We want to change the library from a computer lab to where the first thing you do—not for the seasoned users who go right to the computers—they can have a discovering experience where they can discover themselves,” said Brimhall. Let them learn about themselves and then get them to build their family history. The transitioning of family history centers will occur over time.

Another change is to rethink what a family history consultant is. “The consultant of the future may be different than the consultant of the past,” he said. He showed us a video clip featuring Julene Davidson, a 17 year old family history consultant in New Mexico. Before showing the clip he asked us to see how Davidson defined her role. (Watch the clip below.)

 

(To watch the video on the LDS Church website, click this link. Underneath the video window, click on the video titled “Discovery Through Stories.”)

Davidson felt her job was to get people excited about family history, said Brimhall. The research and the learning and the charts follow. Consultants must retrain themselves on how they can get people excited in addition to helping them with names, dates, and places.

FamilySearch has changed the FamilySearch.org website to make it more engaging to new people. Brimhall joked that we, genealogists, would come and use the website no matter what. The design is to attract those who haven’t visited before. The new features have been very successful. Family Tree contains 950 million names and 41,686 new names are added daily. Names added by the general public (as opposed to Church members) account for 27%. Users have contributed over 700,000 photographs and 5,000 more are added daily. There are over 60,000 stories and 500 are added each day.

Photographs and stories are a great way to engage family members and can be shared via email or other social media. “Kids are incapable of not clicking a link,” he joked. I could never get them through the front door [to the website], but I can get them through the side door, he said. Then we’ll move them from there to doing research.

Another change is to make family history a bigger part of Church culture. FamilySearch has found that wards who implement any five of seven key actions will double the number of members participating. They are:

  • Leaders Guide a core part of the ward plan
  • Youth called as family history consultants
  • At least three family history consultants
  • Youth provide 50% of names they take to the temple
  • Consultants assigned to assist members
  • Consultants assigned to assist new converts
  • Consultants meet regularly with priesthood leaders

Another change is partnerships. FamilySearch knows it can’t do it all. We have started efforts to make all our records available on other sites and all their records available on our, said Brimhall.

In closing Brimhall said that “we have learned that we need to champion the things that affect the heart in addition to those that affect the chart.”

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Become Agents of Change

Elder Allan Packer“My purpose today is to extend to you an invitation to become agents of change,” said Elder Allan F. Packer. Elder Packer was the opening keynote at the Brigham Young University (BYU) 2013 Conference on Family History and Genealogy. The theme this year is “Strengthening Ties that Bind Families Together Forever.”

Elder Packer is the executive director of the Family History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is a member of the Church’s First Quorum of the Seventy. Previously he worked for companies such as Boeing, Eaton-Kenway, O.C. Tanner, and MyFamily.com.

“It is really a remarkable time. Perhaps more changes are taking place in family history than at any other time in the world,” he said. Packer explained that change is fundamental to life. It is really something we should embrace. He said that there are those who are oblivious to change. There are those who observe it. There are those who participate. And then there are those helping others embrace it.

The change that Packer wants us to effect is the involvement of more people in family history. About 60% of people in the United States have expressed an interest in family history, but only a few percent are actually involved. He challenged us to inspire others to become involved. “I ask you to ponder what you could do and how you would do it.”

Now is the time for change, said Packer, because of the greater availability of tools and resources. Because these are available online, “the new family history center is the home.” There is also great cooperation between companies, organizations, and people.

One reason to get more people involved is the strengthening effect family history has on individuals and families. Packer quoted from a Parade magazine article by Bruce Feiler. “When a team of psychologists measured children's resilience, they found that the kids who knew the most about their family's history were best able to handle stress.”

There are specific things you can do to get more people involved. One thing is to involve young people. “The youth have been amazing as they’ve become involved in family history,” said Packer. (“The youth” is a term used by the Church to reference Church members aged 12 to 18.) Those becoming involved in FamilySearch Indexing are giving up video gaming time to do so. The Church also encourages local congregations to call youth as family history consultants. The youth know computers and are able to help older people use the technology.

To get more people involved, simplify family history and change the sequence of how we introduce people to it. Start by helping people discover themselves. Use stories and pictures.

Packer showed the cover of a booklet that the Church is currently printing and preparing to distribute. It is a simplified approach to the introduction of family history to the youth and has some space for stories

Each of us have stories that are worth recording, Packer said. He related the story of a man in Ghana. He was sitting in the Church’s Ghana Temple when a younger man happened by and by chance struck up a conversation. The two spoke for several minutes when a realization hit the younger man. “You are my father!” he said to the older man. The two had been separated when the younger man was very young. Separately, each had investigated and then joined the Church. Both had travelled some distance to be at the temple that day. And they happened to strike up a conversation.

“Imagine the feelings of a little boy having been separated from his father. Image the feelings of the father,” said Packer. “This story is worth recording.” Each of us have stories that are worth recording, he said.

Love is the great motivator. Stories create feelings and stories about ancestors create feelings about ancestors. Feelings motivate us to do something.

Think about sharing stories with your great, great, great, great, great grandson, said Packer. Think about how knowing his family history—your stories—might strengthen him to deal with the challenges he will face.

“Become agents of change.”

Monday, July 29, 2013

Answers Coming at the BYU Genealogy Conference?

The BYU 2013 Conference on Family History and GenealogyI hadn’t planned on attending the BYU Family History and Genealogy Conference this year. Almost at the last moment I noticed who the keynote speakers were. Then I was honored to be named an Official Blogger.

On Tuesday, 30 July 2013, the keynote presenter will be Elder Allan F. Packer, executive director of the Family History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In that capacity he fills the role of chairman of the board of FamilySearch, International. On Wednesday, 31 July 2013, the keynote will be delivered by Dennis C. Brimhall, managing director of the Family History Department and Chief Executive Officer of FamilySearch.

The third keynote this year is J. Mark Lowe, a genealogist and educator of national renown. He has a particular reputation for excellence in southern research. I myself chose my ancestors carefully so they were all from New England. But if you were less (or more, depending on your point of view) lucky than me, Lowe’s expertise may be just what you need.

Last April FamilySearch released a new website design that some felt deemphasized serious genealogy. That prompted me to write “The Chasm” and “Either Really, Really Good or Really, Really Bad.” In the former I pointed out that pre-Chasm genealogy and post-Chasm genealogy are very different. In the latter I pointed out that some organizations provide a one-size-fits-all type of experience because they are oblivious to the existence of the chasm. They err too much to one side or the other rather than competently addressing both.

I withheld judgment about the new FamilySearch website at that time, waiting for some signal from FamilySearch as to their direction. I am using these first two keynotes, coming from the top and directed to a post-chasm audience, as a litmus test. Does FamilySearch understand the differing customer requirements pre- and post-chasm? Or are they merely swinging (again) a single pendulum from one side of the chasm to the other?

If you aren’t signed up for the conference already, you might be out of luck. I was told Thursday that the conference was pretty-much, sold out. (Attendance at this popular conference is limited, which is one reason the RootsTech conference was born.) To check for last minute availability, see registration options on http://ce.byu.edu/cw/cwgen/registration.php.

Stay tuned to the Ancestry Insider for coverage of this strategic conference…

Friday, July 26, 2013

Pioneers and Prominent Men of Utah

Descendants of Utah Pioneers will welcome the latest record collection from FamilySearch: “Utah, Pioneers and Prominent Men of Utah, 1847-1868.” The collection contains just the photographs. FamilySearch states that the collection contains 11,722 photographs (but FamilySearch is known to overstate image counts by double).

The book has been digitized repeatedly by different parties and placed online, generally with a computer generated index (OCR). The quality of an OCR index is far inferior to a human created index. Compare the image quality and searchability of these versions:

Ancestry.com database. Text only. Somewhere since they published this on a Folio CD, Ancestry.com has lost the photographs. A search found both pages listing Henry M. Tanner: the photo caption and the biography.
BYU Books. 1966 reprint. image I find searching with the ContentDM software used by BYU to be very confusing. You first do a global search. Then you select the book. Then you scroll through the list of pages, looking for red notations of matching pages.
Internet Archive. The 1913 original. image Name search failed when reading online. A name search in the PDF works if you know beforehand exactly what to search for: “HENRY M. TANNER” finds the picture, “TANNER, HENRY M.” finds the biography. However, search did not work at all in Chrome.
FamilySearch Historical Record Collection. Photographs only. record-image Name search worked flawlessly, as did the image browse. Henry Tanner, Henry Martin Tanner, and Henry M Tanner all worked.
FamilySearch Book. 1913 edition. image This is a PDF and hence has the same search limitations as mentioned previously.
FamilySearch Book, part 1.
1966 reprint. Possibly even a photocopy. Part 1 is just the photographs.
image PDF.
World Vital Records. Photographs only. image Search for Henry Tanner and Henry M Tanner worked.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Printing FamilySearch Family Tree Charts

Users can print pedigree charts and family group sheets from FamilySearch Family Tree. The capability has been there for several weeks, but I have failed to mention it. Printed charts look just like the 8.5 x 11" printed forms formerly available from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

To print a pedigree chart, click the printer icon below the Fan Chart button:

The icon for printing the pedigree chart

The printer icon is currently available for pedigree but not fan chart. I understand a printable fan chart is in the works. (See below for a current option.) Click the icon and FamilySearch.org creates the chart in PDF format. The PDF can be edited to add chart numbers or change information on the chart.

Pedigree chart with exploded detail of upper-left

A pedigree chart or a family group sheet (that’s what we also called the family group record report) can be printed from the person page. Look for the icons on the right side of the window.

Links to print pedigree or family group records from person page

Like the pedigree chart, the family group sheet matches the format of the 8.5 x 11" form. Source information is printed on extra sheets, making the whole thing very long, but adhering to genealogical best practice.

Family group record page 1 and source page

A printable 9-generation fan chart of your own pedigree is currently available for free from Misbach Enterprises, a third party. Go to https://createfan.com/. Log in using your New FamilySearch.org account. Click Create and the website reads your pedigree from New.FamilySearch.org and formats it into a fan chart. It can take a couple of minutes. (I assume this also works for people with a Family Tree account? Does anyone know for certain?) The resulting PDF file works for both 8.5 x 11" size charts as well as large wall charts.

CreateFan.com 9 generation fan chart

Createfan.com points users to one of several websites providing print services to have charts printed:

TenGenChart.com creates free circular 10-generation charts from FamilySearch Family Tree, New.FamilySearch.org, or GEDCOM upload. Charts can start with yourself, anyone else, or can be blank. Chart layout can be optimized for sizes 36x48, 24x36, 24x24, or 8.5x11".

TenGenChart.com circular chart

These are the basic, free charts. Other third-parties have additional chart types which are not free. If I missed a vendor of free charts for FamilySearch.org Family Tree, please leave a comment for all to see.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

FamilySearch Family Tree Navigation Features

FamilySearch has recently released a large and a small feature to Family Tree.

FamilySearch Family Tree person dropdown history list

The small feature combines the history list with the Person button. The basic functionality is still there. Click the Person button to move from the pedigree or fan chart view to the person view. Alternately, click the little down delta (arrow) to see a list of the persons you’ve viewed recently. Click one to jump immediately to that person. Alternately, for those of you with exceptionally good memories, enter the PID (person id) and go to directly to that person.

The last addition to the menu is a useful feature, although I wouldn’t expect to see it in a navigation setting. The last menu item is “Create New Person.” Click this to enter a new person that is not connected to anyone else in the tree.

The large feature added to family tree is the ability to launch a search of historical records from the person page.

FamilySearch Family Tree link to search records

To start the search, click on “Search Records” in the Research Help box. It is located on the right hand side below the Print box and above the change history. The feature apparently fills in first name, last name, birth year, and birth place, and launches the search.

FamilySearch Family Tree can launch a search of historical records

That’s a little anemic, compared to Ancestry.com’s Member Trees. They fill the search form in with every last detail known about the person. While that can sometimes be annoying, I find it helpful, allowing me to delete extraneous information whenever I need to hone in on a city directory or a misindexed record.

In my usage patterns on Ancestry.com, the ability to launch a search from my tree is the single most compelling feature of the Member Tree system. I’m glad to see FamilySearch take their first, haltering steps down that avenue.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Shoebox from Ancestry–Final Thoughts

Shoebox from Ancestry automatically associates and uploads an image to an ancestor in a Member Tree

The past couple of days I have been reviewing my experience with the Shoebox from Ancestry smartphone app. Tuesday I related my experiences using the app. Wednesday I compared images of a document, one taken with a cheap, consumer camera and one taken on my iPhone with the Shoebox app.

Before this little experiment I was not a fan of using a camera for document or photo scanning. After comparing the results of my camera and my iPhone, my opinion is unchanged. If you can, use a flatbed scanner. Doing so avoids lens imperfections, perspective distortion, barrel distortion and others. It avoids uneven lighting. For me, it avoids blurriness introduced by tremors. The latest scanners may inflict the increased color saturation problem observed in the iPhone, but that can be avoiding when the proper settings are employed. Using a scanner makes it a lot easier to use the appropriate scanning resolution. Cameras may lack the necessary resolution for large documents or photograph enlargements.

Scanning in the field is a different animal. A camera can be an adequate scanner substitute. Cameras are also necessary for grave markers and other three-dimensional objects.

I seldom make it to courthouses, churches, and other archives holding the records I need. I try to maximize the number of images shot in the short time I have in each archive. Using Shoebox made me slow down between each shutter click to enter a description, date, place, and people mentioned. Typing on the iPhone keyboard is a bit slow for my old fingers. Then Shoebox made me wait while photographs were uploaded. Many archives won’t have guest Wi-Fi, so uploading will cost data plan minutes.

While I didn’t like pausing, entering information, and uploading, after returning home I was glad to have it already done.

I could have expeditiously taken a day’s worth of photographs using the normal camera app and then after I had returned home used Shoebox to tag and upload them. But in that workflow, I would just as soon use the larger keyboard and screen of my computer rather than using the small iPhone screen and fake keyboard.

The Shoebox app has some real things going for it. If I could hold it steady and type as fast as young kids, and if I had unlimited data minutes, I would welcome the convenience and utility of Shoebox from Ancestry for use in record archives.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

iPhone versus Camera Document Scan

Comparison of Sony and iPhone document imagesLast time I related my experience using Shoebox from Ancestry, the new smart phone app from Ancestry.com. It turns your cell phone into a portable scanner. While marketed primarily as a photograph scanner, I tested it as a document scanner. Today I’ll continue my evaluation with a comparison of photograph quality.

Because photograph files are often compressed to save size, I worried that Shoebox might compress the file uploaded to Ancestry.com. I checked and found that the copy of the photo on Ancestry.com was exactly the same as the iPhone original.

Next I compared the quality of the cell phone photos to the higher resolution photos from my 14 megapixel Sony. What I found surprised me to a degree. As expected, the Sony photos were pristine clear, colors matched the original documents, there was no perspective distortion, and no other distortions that I could discern. (More on that later.)

Oops. As I inspected the Sony photograph, I noticed I had forgotten about a tiny problem with my Sony. There is a swath along the left margin that is often out of focus. I have to watch carefully for this in archives, as I sometimes return home and find I can't read important details along that edge. Blame the lens. Consumer cameras have cheap lens with these sorts of subtle imperfections. I read recently (sorry, no citation) that lens quality has gone down in recent years offsetting improvements in resolution. Today's cameras give no clearer photographs than the lower resolution cameras of a couple years ago.

The iPhone photos, on the other hand, had several problems. The first thing I noticed was color. The slight yellow-brown of the document had become orange. Technically speaking, the iPhone had automatically increased color saturation. For consumer photography, this has the pleasing affect of bringing out the blue in the sky, the green of the forest, and the red of the sunset. For documents, it is unsound.

Next I noticed that writing at the edges of the document had been clipped off. In subsequent attempts I learned to be more careful, positioning the corner crosshairs a little off the document.

Next I noticed that the iPhone had introduced banding, visible like parallel gray shadows running up and down the document.

Placed side-by-side, the iPhone image was taller than the Sony. I didn’t think to measure the document itself, so I can’t tell you which one squished/stretched the image.

Zooming in to see document details, I felt the iPhone did as well as the Sony. Unfortunately, the iPhone uses higher jpeg compression. While the iPhone’s files were quite a bit smaller than the Sony’s, the iPhone jpegs had bigger halos around the letters of the document. The halos are not as visible in consumer photography, but for legibility of historical documents, jpeg compression is problematic and the higher the compression, the worse it gets.

As to be expected, Shoebox cropping does waste some camera pixels. Mathematically, I know it also produces minute blurring. Practically, there is no trace that it has occurred. However, you should always  center the camera exactly over the center of the document and try to square up the document before taking the picture.

I had one document that, try as I would, I could not get the iPhone to focus.

Finally, I had photographed a grid pattern on the copy stand. Here I could see that the iPhone lens produced greater barrel distortion than the Sony.

So what conclusions did I come to?

  • The first thing I need to do is throw away the Sony. That lens aberration has got to go.
  • Neither camera produced results as good as a flatbed scanner. For  important documents (and photos, for that matter), use a scanner. Duh. I should have used the scanners built into the copy machines at the Archives. 
  • For those times that scanners are not available, try a camera with a decent lens. A cheap standalone or cell phone cameras should be your last choice, but can produce acceptable results.

As this is a Shoebox review, I should conclude with a conclusion about it. I’ll save that for tomorrow’s wrap.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Shoebox from Ancestry

Shoebox from AncestryI had a chance to try out Ancestry.com's new mobile phone app, Shoebox from Ancestry. You may recall Ancestry.com bought 1000memories last year. This app is the result of that technology acquisition.

I'm not a fan of using a cell phone as a scanner, but thought I would give Shoebox a fair chance. While I had already posted my valuable photographs to my Ancestry.com Member Tree, it seemed reasonable to use it to capture images of manuscripts. Not all archives are scanner friendly so using a camera is a good alternative. Shoebox uploads images directly to Ancestry Member Trees, making it doubly attractive as an in-archive solution.

For comparison I used my simple consumer point-and-shoot camera, a Sony Cyber-shot DSC-W530. It is a 14.1 MP digital camera released in 2011.

One nice thing about the U.S. National Archives reading room in Washington is the copy stands for taking pictures of documents. These make it easy to line up a camera directly above a document while evenly illuminating it with two obliquely mounted lights. You use the tripod socket to mount and align the camera. A grid allows adjustment of the camera to avoid perspective distortion. Pages in a document or items in a packet can be photographed in rapid succession. With my familial tremors, a copy stand or tripod is an absolute requirement (or a trustee assistant). To review the Shoebox app I interrupted my regular shots to take a few extra photos with my iPhone.

Ancestry Shoebox photo croppingAfter downloading the app I was prompted to log into my Ancestry.com account. Users without an account can sign up for one for free. As does Ancestry.com’s website, the app allows creation of member trees for no charge. The iPhone is not equipped with a tripod mount, but I was able to rest it on top of my Sony, with the iPhone lens poking out over one side.

I aligned the document and pressed the shutter button (the usual camera icon).

Shoebox presented an opportunity to "crop" the photograph or rotate it. Crop the photo by aligning the four corners of a box with the four corners of the document. A magnifying glass allowed precise alignment. Under the covers, the operation is more sophisticated than a mere crop, as alignment of the four corners corrects perspective distortion.

Trying to align the bottom left corner turned off the dashed lines and I thought I had missed my opportunity. I went on to subsequent steps,not realizing i had touched the Align button and touching it again would allow completion of the cropping step.


Clicking Next presents four additional options: People, Date, Location, and Description.

Ancestry Shoebox add details  2013-07-10 09.43.54  Ancestry Shoebox specify location 

The People option allowed me to tag references to people in the document. This automatically attaches the document to them in a Member Tree. If multiple ancestors were mentioned in the doc, I could have tagged all of them.

The Date option gave me the opportunity to associate a date with the document. I usually specify the date of the documented event rather than the date the document was created, but I'm not entirely consistent.

The Location option allowed me to associate the photograph with a particular location. I was in a hurry to get to the next document so I didn't avail myself of that opportunity.

Ancestry Shoebox add descriptionLastly, I added a description of the document. I clicked Save and Shoebox immediately uploaded it to my Member tree. The upload was not instantaneous, of course, but still interrupted my rapid fire work flow. As might be expected, Shoebox also stored a copy with the rest of my photos on my camera.

After returning to my hotel, I went through the normal process of transferring the photos from my Sony to my laptop. Then I went through and changed file names, adding necessary descriptions and meta data. After returning home I would upload them to my Member tree to associated individuals, adding titles and descriptions and transcriptions.

The Shoebox photos, on the other hand, were already in my tree, attached to the subject individuals. The Description assigned in Shoebox was the Title of the photo on Ancestry.com. After returning home I would add the transcription.

Next time I’ll compare the quality of the photographs.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Ancestry.com Revamps Shoebox Mobile App

Ancestry.com revamps Shoebox appI’m on the road this week and haven’t found time to author articles. In the interest of timeliness, let me share an Ancestry.com announcement that I’d like to write about later.

The Shoebox Mobile App has been recently updated and is better than ever for family historians. This free photo scanning app allows you to take high quality photos, edit, date your photos, map the location, tag family members and more. With a free registration to Ancestry.com, the mobile app will upload images directly to specific ancestors on your Ancestry.com tree. You can upload photos right at the cemetery, library and archive. With unlimited scanning, you can scan the entire box of photos that may appear at holiday gatherings, and make notes attached to the photo so you can remember every detail.

Download the app now so you can scan photos on the go, tag your ancestors and upload the image right to their Ancestry.com profile. It’s a great way to scan and archive an unlimited number of photos for free. The quality of camera phones has increased drastically in recent years and are now as good as many scanners. For example, the iPhone 4S+ offers an 8 megapixel camera that takes images at 2448X3264 resolution. You now have a high quality scanner on the go!

The app can be found at the App Store as well as Google play. For more information on the Shoebox Mobile App, visit shoebox.ancestry.com.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Old Search Experience in New Search Clothing

On 27 June 2013, Ancestry.com announced the retirement of its “Old Search” search engine. “We expect to discontinue the old search function as a separate experience within the next 6 months,” wrote Ancestry.com. This has been “S.O.S. Week” at the Ancestry Insider Offices where Wednesday we examined the Real Old Search pages. Contrast them with today’s.

Before logging in, the home page today does not provide a search form. After logging in, it looks like this:

The Ancestry.com home page search form

Contrasting it with Real Old Search, note that it allows specification of a full place name, specification of an estimated birth year, and a checkbox to limit results to US collections. These are the best fields for a new search, ranked result mindset. Matches are not limited to exact, so the number of results is huge and some do not match the search terms entered.

If you are an Old Search fan, do yourself a favor and go directly to exact searching: click Search, Show Advanced, and Match all terms exactly:
Turn on exact matching

To change last name from exact to Soundex, click underneath the Last Name on “Restrict to exact.”

To enter a birth and death country and year, click on Add life events. It is not really possible to enter the span used by Real Old Search. Instead, set the Any Event year to something in the middle and change the +/- box to 1, 2, 5, or 10.

Enter relatives under Family Member, clicking on Add Family Members as necessary.

To force the search results to show categories and top databases, select Categories above the results on the right:

List results by Categories

Clicking on a single database shows a sorted list of matches. Unfortunately, sort orders are not always intelligent. For the 1930 census, results are sorted by age, not location. This splits and shuffles families with other families across. Also, the full width of the window is underutilized. Many census columns could have been displayed. The results are no worse than current Old Search, but screen size has increased over the last 10 years. On my 15 inch monitor, just 5 inches are used to display results.

Bottom line:

  • Skip the home page
  • Use exact match
  • Use Add Life Events to enter birth and death search terms
  • Change the result list from Records mode to Categories mode

Finally, try New Search with these settings and complain to Ancestry.com about things that don’t operate the way you want. Ancestry.com is not trying to get rid of the Old Search way of doing things. They just need to retire an old goo of code, the Old Search engine, that is too expensive to continue using. They may be able to Save the Old Search functionality that is most important to you.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Ancestry.com Consolidated Search and Real Old Search

On 27 June 2013, Ancestry.com announced the retirement of its “Old Search” search engine. “We expect to discontinue the old search function as a separate experience within the next 6 months,” wrote Ancestry.com. This is “S.O.S. Week” at the Ancestry Insider Offices while we examine the issue.

You may recall that Ancestry.com held briefings with bloggers in early June about coming search functionality. (See “Ancestry.com Revisiting Search.”) We were briefed then on the retirement of the Old Search engine but were embargoed on writing about it. While the core functionality of the Old Search engine is present in the New Search engine (the “primary experience,” as Ancestry.com calls it), they have found that it is mostly hidden. They wish to provide a mode that better exposes the old search experience. They were calling it “Category Exact mode” since it presents search results in categories and uses exact matching. They showed a mockup of a possible search form, containing just first name, last name, location (country or state), and date range.

An interesting contrast is the Real Old Search form on the home screen back in 2004:

Ancestry.com Real Old Search home page

The Real Old Search results page looked like this:

Ancestry.com Real Old Search results page

The total number of matches was given as well as the number of matches in each category. Categories were sorted in perceived popularity. The advanced search form appeared underneath the results, pre-filled with the search terms.

Information entered in search forms had to match exactly, except surnames could be set to Soundex matching.

One or more categories could be expanded to show the five databases with the most number of matches, as well as links to pages containing all the databases in the category.

Ancestry.com Real Old Search expanded results page

Clicking on a single database showed a list of sorted matches:

Ancestry.com Real Old Search single database results page

The full width of the window was utilized, showing as many columns as feasible.  Columns and sort order were intelligently chosen for each database. In the example above, seven columns fit the available space, sorted by state, county, city, and birth year (which tended to group families together).

Happy 4th of July everyone. I’ll return Friday showing how these same screens look today, using features currently available in New Search.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Ancestry.com Responds to Old Search Controversy

Take the Ancestry.com search survey to affect the future of Ancestry.com search functionalityOn 27 June 2013, Ancestry.com announced the retirement of its “Old Search” search engine. “We expect to discontinue the old search function as a separate experience within the next 6 months,” wrote Ancestry.com. This is “S.O.S. Week” at the Ancestry Insider Offices while we examine the issue.

Immediately after the announcement users began expressing concerns, as did John Mutch to me in the message I published yesterday.

Ancestry.com’s Matthew Deighton sent me a message, responding to John and those like him.

“I know that Old Search is a hot topic right now,” wrote Deighton. “We want to make sure that the community knows that we are not abandoning the functionality of Old Search, but merging the best of Old [and New] Search into a consolidated search experience.” Deighton asks that I provide you with a survey link. The results “go directly to our product developers so they can take it all into account in the coming months when designing this new [consolidated] experience.”

You can take the survey here: http://ancestry.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_8ubNXU8IiQcxqVD

From my experience in software development, customer input through the normal support channel often does not make a difference. First level support people have limited ability to correctly filter grain from chaff. Overworked product managers may not have time to read tons of chaff-laden feedback. Feedback is often inactionable. (It’s too general.) Even if time were taken, engineering resources might not be available to make changes.

I think this is one of those moments of alignment when your input will make a real difference.

No, you won’t convince them to keep the old search engine around. Old code gets more and more difficult and expensive to maintain. I’m surprised they’ve kept it as long as they have. But I’m convinced that if you articulate exactly some aspect of old search that is lacking in new search, this is one of those times when your feedback can make a difference. I recommend you jump on the chance.

Deighton included this message to users:

Ancestry Statement

Good evening,

In an effort to continually improve your experience on Ancestry.com, we are asking for feedback on our search function. Our plan is first to gather feedback from our core users. We will take all of that feedback into account when we are merging the functionality of Old Search and current search into a consolidated search experience.

You can take the survey here: http://ancestry.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_8ubNXU8IiQcxqVD

Many of the recent concerns and comments have cited functionality that actually exists in current search, as well as in old search – specifically:

  1. Our current search experience allows users to view search results as a list of ranked records or as a consolidated list of categories.
  2. Our current search experience allows users to do “Exact Match” searches.
  3. Our current search experience allows users to specify a “Collection Priority” to filter results by country.

Crista Cowan has a great educational video which demonstrates this functionality in the current search experience:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c423yU5Ccs0

We also have a helpful article which does a side-by-side explanation of how to achieve the same types of results with the current search as in Old Search: http://ancestry.custhelp.com/app/answers/detail/a_id/5569/kw/old

Thank you,
The Ancestry.com Product Team

Ancestry.com Smart Search Tips and Tricks

Stay tuned for more S.O.S. Week articles.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Monday Mailbox: Fooey on Ancestry.com

The Ancestry Insider's Monday MailboxDear Ancestry Insider,

Fooey!  Per their e-mail to me today (see below), I am one of only 2% of their subscribers using the "old search" and they are going to discontinue it in about six months.

I primarily use Ancestry in a somewhat different way than most folks - As editor of the "Maverick" column of the Token and Medal Society, I assist members of our organization in the attribution of trade tokens that do not show on them the city and state where they were used.  As an example, see eBay item 111105958281 which just has the name, "W. M. Pashons"  One clue I have is that the seller is in Indiana, but even that is a starting point. From experience, I can guesstimate the piece dates from say 1910 to 1935.  With the old search, I can search for "Pashon*" and get the summary of records, and use my best guess to check the 1920 Census first and look at 44 records before moving on to my second guess, etc.  With the new search, I get a list of 1425 possibilities, starting with the latest first.  I can either refine my search to look at 1920 first, or wade through pages of meaningless results.

Call me "stuck in the mud", but I see this "improvement" as just another example of fixing things that aren't broken.

John Mutch
*****************************************************************
President - Token and Medal Society
*****************************************************************

Ancestry.com’s email to John Mutch:

Dear John,

Ancestry.com is continuing our efforts to improve the search experience across Ancestry.com and will be making changes to our search functionality in the upcoming months. Some features will be added and some will be discontinued. As part of the 2% of our subscribers that use the old search function on the site, we know that you are passionate about the search experience on Ancestry.com and we are reaching out to you to get input on potential improvements. We hope you will take the opportunity to share your insights and feedback on our plans.

To identify which areas of the experience we should focus on this year, we have drawn on customer input, usage data, usage patterns and our old search function for inspiration. From all of that, we are looking at making your time on Ancestry.com more productive by improving these areas of the search experience in 2013:

  • More relevant search results with the best results at the top
  • Easier refining and control of your search results
  • Keeping a better history of the work you have done
  • Publishing more new content and more corrections to existing content
  • Performance improvements to return results faster

As we begin to make these improvements, we will no longer maintain two separate search systems for the site. Maintaining two systems limits the resources we can use to make improvements and increases the complexity of every improvement we try to make. Additionally, continuing to maintain the two systems limits our ability to direct more investment into other areas like adding more record collections and correcting existing collections.Based on that, as a part of the work this year we will be bringing together the two search experiences into a single search experience on Ancestry.com. We hope to bring forward the best features of both the old and new search systems into the consolidated experience to facilitate the transition for our users and to improve the overall search experience. We expect to discontinue the old search function as a separate experience within the next 6 months.As a user of the old search feature, we wanted to give you advance notice and let you influence the changes we are making in search. Please take this survey to share your feedback and ideas on key features to improve.

Best regards,
The Ancestry.com Product Team

Dear John,

I certainly understand your pain. Anytime Ancestry.com (or FamilySearch or some other company) redoes a product from the ground up, they always mess up. What we have today as “old search” is already wanting of what the real old search used to be.

Let me give one example. Before Ancestry.com introduced relevance-ranked results one could click the search button without entering anything in the search form. The search engine dutifully did its thing, and as old search does, listed the number of results in each category and in each record collection. This was a great coverage tool. One could immediately see that (for a hypothetical example), Cook County Marriages looked too low to cover the entire population. When Ancestry.com switched to relevance-ranked results, some well meaning engineer or manager stopped that, giving an error message when searching on an empty form. Perhaps it was necessary to prevent the engine from comparing many billions of records with nothing. Or perhaps they thought they were being helpful. Either way, functionality was forever lost.

Let me give another example. Just as it does today, the real old search allowed the user to specify the number of results. If you selected 20, then the end of the URL showed “hc=20”, or whatever other number selected. There are several workflows where a researcher might want to examine 1,000 results at one time. With the real old search, you could change 20 to 1000 and the search engine would do what you asked it to. Today, it doesn’t. Picking a a FAN club out of results might take copy and paste of 20 pages.

John, the bad news in this situation is obvious. But I don’t want to be a Debbie-downer. There is good news as well. I’ve decided to make this “Ancestry.com S.O.S. Week here at the offices of the Ancestry Insider to delve further into the issue.

Signed,
The Ancestry Insider

P.S. My apologies to anyone actually named Debbie Downer. I don’t mean to offend. Oh, and you have my sympathies as well.

Tomorrow: Ancestry.com’s responds to John.