Monday, April 17, 2006

What Do Ordinary People Want?

There have been some great discussions going on in the comments of this blog and through other forums. John Vilburn recently expressed well the fundamental purpose of this blog. John said:

Making genealogy engaging for the common person requires a broader vision. A big part of that is using technology to make genealogy easier. But the more important question is "What makes genealogy engaging to someone who has no experience?"

That really is the core of the problem my team is dealing with every day. It sounds simple but it is a monumental challenge. It is hard for people who think that the status quo experience with genealogy is interesting to understand what it would take for the rest of the world to share our sentiment. So what is it that will capture the interest of ordinary people? How do you take that interest and convert it into actions that will successfully find ancestors without the interest waning? Here are some interesting things we’ve learned about what gets and keeps the interest of ordinary people.

  1. Sharing pictures, records, maps, audio clips and other artifacts of their family. Ordinary people love to see pictures of their ancestors, the records of their lives and any other artifact related to an ancestor. In some ways this is like scrapbooking. As they look at these items they are trying to get a sense of the ancestor’s life journey. They are trying to find the parallels between themselves and their roots. Even items which aren’t directly about their family but are from the same place or time can add meaningful texture.

  2. Stories. Ordinary people are interested in stories about their family. Again, they seem to be trying to appreciate the life of the ancestor. Learning about the ancestor somehow helps them understand themselves better. It boosts their self-worth to realize that their ancestor did something great, funny, unique or just survived. While stories that relate directly to an ancestor are most meaningful, some stories that are about others in similar places, times and events are also meaningful. Stories add texture.

  3. A sense of community. This is an area we are just starting to explore. There seems to be something appealing to ordinary people in just knowing that others are interested in the same people, stories, pictures, times and places and being able to communicate with them. The ability to see who else is interested is powerful.

  4. A sense of relation. Ordinary people seem to like knowing how they are related to others (both living and deceased). They aren’t very good at figuring this out themselves but are interested in the information when it is offered.

  5. Immediacy. Ordinary people (at least in 1st world countries) have an expectation of immediacy. They don’t want to search for a picture or record of an ancestor, find out where it is and then write a letter to request a copy or wait 3 weeks for a microfilm to come in. If they can’t see something immediately they aren’t likely to be interested.

  6. Short bursts of time. You have a matter of seconds to convince someone coming to a website that they’ve come to the right place. Once you’ve got them to stay on your home page you have a few more seconds for them to determine how to access what they’re looking for. If you’re lucky they’ll give you two tries to produce the desired result. Once they’re convinced that the desired results are available you may get them to give you 5 or 10 minutes of their time. I point this out not because I think all genealogy experiences are web-based but because it shows how sensitive ordinary people are to succeeding in short bursts of time. Ordinary people need to get something meaningful done in 10 minutes or less. When they come back to the activity later they need to be able to pick up where they left off without losing any time.

  7. Don’t want to be trained. Ordinary people (varies slightly by culture) don’t want to read the manual and don’t want to take a class. We cannot rely on manuals or training to get ordinary people involved.

  8. Don’t like to feel stupid. Ordinary people don’t like to feel stupid (as it turns out this isn’t limited to ordinary people). There are some classic examples of this but one that is fairly ubiquitous is search. There are lots of ways to stump people with search: complex search forms; pages and pages of ambiguous results; and my favorite, 0 results.

Please comment and add to the list of things that would interest ordinary people.


Michael said...


I live here in Orlando and one of things that goes over well at Islands of Adventure is the little shop where you can find out the origin and meaning of your family's last name.

Maybe if you start off with a section or tab of family name histories with a corresponding link to a map showing the primary towns or counties where the names originated.

As you said, people are interested in visuals so you could allow people to post old pictures of the towns or maybe link up with the historical societies around the world to provide town histories.

You could also allow patrons of family search to be linked to a particular geographical region or regions and then when people visit the maps they can see the family histories that have already been completed for that area. Then they can contact the person(s) already working on that location and family name.

I think this approach will help people to get over the initial hump of having to actually do research. It will wet their appetite so maybe they will go home and start seeing what info they already have.

As you said, it is all about getting them visually hooked and the best way to do that is by having them look up where their family came from on a map or on a family name. Then they can go from there.

Mark Butler said...

How about not feeling like you are repeating research that has been done ten times before by people who are much more qualified than they are?

Or not feeling like the work you do will be seen by a few and then languish in a basement file cabinet for a few decades before being tossed?

Wikipedia is a very good example of the quality of work you can get out of volunteers simply because they know it will have a wide distribution.

Anonymous said...

One of the most frustrating thigs that occur on searching for a particular person or thing is to find that although you ask for the search to be limited to one specific country (in this case Australia) the engine completely ignores your request. There may be some persons who have not been put into the right "box", but surely if a particular country is specified this should be possible.

Nora Ray said...

Providing a workspace for each individual to store info on a temporary basis would help many of my patrons. They frequently spend 30 minutes one day and 2 hours three days later looking for Uncle Ned. If they could quickly access a record of which resources they have already searched and what findings they made, they could spend more time on new research.