Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Elephants in the Room - Kendall Hulet at #RootsTech

Kendall Hulet, Ancestry.com senior vice president of product managementPart 1 of 3

Kendall Hulet is Ancestry.com’s senior vice president of product management. He spoke at a Saturday luncheon titled “Things to Look Forward to on Ancestry in 2016.” And to be clear, he was not the elephant in the room. Whoever wrote that headline was… But I digress.

Kendall told us a little about the work he’s done at Ancestry. I (the Insider) was working at Ancestry when they decided to move their strategy away from One World Tree to the present way of doing things: independent trees for each user. I thought it was a big mistake and sat down with Kendall to tell him so. He assured me that he had talked to a lot of genealogists and discovered that they didn’t want to share one tree with other people. He was confident in his decision. I was not. History has proven him to be correct.

At the luncheon Kendall shared a few observations that led to the decision. The first thing he observed is that users would search for the same ancestor over and over, looking for new content. The second thing he noticed is that new users always started by searching for themselves. “That didn’t work out so great,” Kendall said. “We specialize in dead people.” The last thing he saw is that the more information users added to the Ancestry relevance ranked search engine, the better their results.

With Ancestry member trees, the first thing you enter is yourself, which caters to that customer behavior. He added the Shaky Leaf feature so users would not need to search over and over. Users would be notified when new content was added. (If I recall correctly, notification was first rendered as popup toast. Fortunately, that imagery didn’t survive.)

Kendall addressed the New Ancestry Experience. “We rolled this out after receiving lots of customer feedback,” he said. When releasing new products they get lots of user feedback along the way to guide the product. They perform alpha and beta testing. New Ancestry was a two year project. Most customers are happy with the results, although some customers are not. The intention was to allow people to better tell their families’ stories, to make their source citations better, to make the gallery easier to use, and to simplify the user experience.

What’s Next for the New Ancestry in 2016

Ancestry is still trying to address the concerns dissatisfied people have with New Ancestry. There used to be a continue search button and users really want it back. Ancestry has or will soon do so. People have complained about the depressing colors. “We’re rolling out themes, where you will be able to pick your own color scheme to personalize your tree experience so that it will work for you,” he said. (That brought lots of applause.) They are adding the ability to pick standardized dates and places when you enter them. They are adding drag-and-drop support for uploading media. “We’re going to continue to make improvements and we’re still listening to feedback,” Kendall said. “We’re not done.”

Kendall said there’s “another elephant in the room: Family Tree Maker.” When they announced the discontinuation of Family Tree Maker at the end of 2016 “a lot of people felt like they had just lost a good friend,” he said. It was a tough decision, and one that generated a huge response. He received 10,000 comments on the announcement, which spurred the negotiations that were occurring in the background. Just a couple of days before RootsTech, Ancestry announced partnerships with Software MacKiev and RootsMagic. (See http://www.ancestryinsider.org/2016/02/family-tree-maker-to-live-on.html “Family Tree Maker to Live On” on my blog.) Software MacKiev will continue to produce and sell Family Tree Maker. “That best friend that you thought you might have lost will still be with you,” Kendall said. And in addition to Family Tree Maker, RootsMagic will be able to

  • integrate with the Ancestry API (although they are going to change how that works, a little bit)
  • sync your desktop tree with your Ancestry tree
  • search Ancestry content and view Ancestry hints

(I was glad to see Ancestry open up their API to another desktop product. FamilySearch has held the competitive advantage there with dozens and dozens of partners. Come to think of it, date and place standardization has also been a FamilySearch advantage, as well as drag-and-drop media upload and a more sophisticated gallery. I like having two players in competition. It’s improving the user experience on both.)

Stay tuned for information about Germany, new records, mobile apps, better hints, DNA, and New Ancestry.


  1. I dropped Ancestry.com when they changed to "stories". I only wanted to research. I use Family Tree on one computer and Legacy on another. I also use FamilySearch. I find the new Ancestry.com very confusing and difficult to use. I wish they still had something for me so I could continue to use their site - I did like it when it was straight forward. Barbara

    1. You can turn off "LifeStory" so that you do not see it. I agree with you, it's absurd.

  2. Thanks for today's very interesting and informative column. I've learned so much from reading The Ancestry Insider and look forward to it every day. Patricia Harris

  3. I really, really, really wish you had asked about the appalling transcriptions of many passenger lists, city directories and Canadian voter's lists, to name just a few that stick in my craw on a daily basis. There appears to be no oversight, not even any side-by-side comparison with results from two independent readers, and so many names are so mangled that I don't even see how any relative could find them to correct them, so we can't even do free work for Ancestry!

    They are clearly not transcribed by people who know English. I don't say that to denigrate anyone, but simply to observe that it's a huge problem, and I suspect will only get worse, as I am sure it is much cheaper to hire these overseas transcribers. However, I don't see how Ancestry can look at this dreck and not feel deep shame at these results being part of their "product."

    I would also like to know why New Ancestry no longer autofills when you use commas to indicate a missing place, or place and county. I.E:

    London, Middlesex, Ontario, Canada:

    , Middlesex, Ontario, Canada;

    ,, Ontario, Canada.

    It's only intermittently there even if I have entered a place over and over--or it comes up in some screens, but not others, and it basically means thousands of new users don't even know the system.

    I liked the One World Tree in theory. But there were too many errors for it to have worked in practice. You'd have to have a way to weight good trees one way and lousy, a-historical, bad-dates, crappy ones another way, and I am afraid a lot of the crappy bad-answer people are very eager and many times got in there first. Sometimes it helped me find a path, at least, but mostly I used to just shake my head and push on regardless. But it would have been lovely if it HAD worked.

  4. I overheard that Ancestral Quest also has some agreement with person who have FamilyTree Maker, but I couldn't hear what it was. Do you know anything about that? how about Legacy? Are they helping Familytree Makers in anyway?

  5. Please give us those options to choose how we want our data screens to look! Actually, other than an esthetics issue, I am fairly pleased with Ancestry.

  6. The most useful improvement in my eyes, is if we could search the Shoebox.

  7. I have whined enough about the Ancestry.com announcement about discontinuing product support for FTM that I won't repeat it here. I took them at their word and spent several days reading and evaluating other software as I wanted to make sure I had a good product for my databases. After some consideration I purchased Legacy; normally I would have tried the free product first but since I assumed Ancestry was serious it never occurred to me to not buy the software and they had a nice discount. After Ancestry changed their story I was whining yet again about having put out $ when I would probably retain use of FTM since I have used it since its premiere many years ago. My whining was to a Legacy users group and I stated I did not want to give up syncing my FTM with the ancestry database and could not do that with Legacy. I had several users come close to calling me an idiot for even using this function of the Ancestry subscription. I use it all the time for selected types of citations [pretty much transcribed sources], rarely any stories, a few photographs, never any info based on unsourced trees and not much more. I always download a scanned document so I can verify secondarily if I need to and usually look at the document used for the transcription. Now with so many detractors -- am I the only one who routinely uses the info from the hints and incorporates it into my database or did I just run into a group of people who would rather enter every citation themselves? I did not think I was being sloppy and just accepting information since my sources used are pretty selective. I would appreciate some input--I have yet to transfer my GEDCOM over to Legacy but if I am wasting time with my methodology in syncing sources I might as well just move the databases now.

    1. I do as you do Judith. With care there is absolutely nothing wrong with using the hints judiciously.

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