If you are like me and watch Ancestry.com’s offerings fairly closely, you’ve noticed there haven’t been a lot of major changes to their tree and search features for several months.
“The company has been, and continues to be, focused on improving the website’s performance and stability,” said Matthew Deighton, Ancestry.com spokesperson in a recent e-mail. “Because of this, new search features have been delayed.”
You may not be aware, but for various reasons, software ages. There are business pressures to release features quickly. This sometimes results in suboptimal software, lack of automated testing, and absence of comprehensive documentation. There are technology changes that result in outdated hardware and software tools. There are band aids applied to quickly fix bugs to keep a website up and running 24x7. There are personnel rollover that results in fractured approaches to architecture. In the case of Ancestry.com, there has also been a tremendous growth in the number of subscribers and records.
These result in the need to rewrite all or parts of a software system. If that work is postponed, it’s kind of like the accumulation of debt. The longer you wait, the more the debt accumulates.
“Ancestry.com has been operating a massive data service and website for over 17 years,” wrote Jim Mosher, Ancestry.com senior product manager. “They started with a good design,” he wrote. But with time, Ancestry.com accumulated a lot of technical debt. “As we introduced new functionality into the system, the fingerprints of the architect, developer, and technology-du-jour became evident on the interfaces for that functionality.”
Mosher put it bluntly. “Over time, we created something of a mess.”
“As Ancestry.com continues to grow, we are moving away from a centralized development group,” wrote Mosher. “We have development offices in Utah, California, and Ireland. We’ve hired new employees and acquired companies. We have business partners.”
Almost a year ago Ancestry.com reached the point where they could no longer afford to add new features without first paying off some of its technical debt. “We can’t afford to teach each new engineer or team how to work with all of the legacy interfaces and newly-forming interfaces,” wrote Mosher. They began what I imagine has been a massive project to rewrite parts of their software.
Now, almost a year later, Mosher reports solid results.
“It’s not rocket science, but the platform initiative provides Ancestry.com with a strong set of tools for creating new family history applications.”
Technology change introduces technical debt. One recent change is the appearance of mobile phones and tablets like the iPhone and the iPad. These incorporate touchscreen technology with much smaller screens. These disruptive technologies have required modifications to the software.
“A surprising amount of our users (growing daily) are now navigating on devices with screens smaller than 768 pixels wide,” wrote Jason Boyer, Ancestry.com software developer. “Enter responsive web design (RWD). The main goal of RWD is to display the same information to a user, no matter what device they’re on, in the easiest to use format possible.”
“RWD has now been a hot priority at Ancestry.com for well over a year now,” wrote Boyer. “We’ve made huge leaps forward.”
“We still have more work to do, but we’ll soon be able to shift our attention to new feature development,” said Deighton.
The first search feature they’re working on is a sliding control that makes it easy to broaden or narrow a list of search results. By moving the control left or right, users determine whether search terms are matched exactly or more broadly. Ancestry.com has been contemplating this feature for a long time. They showed me prototypes a year ago.
“We expect to roll out this feature at the end of February,” said Deighton.
They will also enhance the Category Exact mode. That’s the mode they introduced last year to simulates Old Search. I think the technical debt around Old Search and its antiquated software and hardware have signed its death warrant. Ancestry.com really has no choice; Old Search will go away.
Given that inevitability, Ancestry.com has attempted to replicate Old Search functionality within the framework of their current software and hardware.
If you are an Old Search user who hasn’t switched to Category Exact mode, now is the time.
“Be aware that after these changes are made, we will also be limiting access to the old search experience starting in March,” said Deighton.
For instructions on switching to Category Exact search mode, see “How to simulate old search using category exact mode.”