Friday, October 27, 2006

Deodat's Descendants

One of my ongoing efforts in my own genealogical research has been a descendancy project. I've been trying to find all of the descendants of Deodat Brewster and Lois Drury (my GGGGGGGParents). Yesterday we added a descendancy view capability to the FamilySearch Labs site and used a portion of Deodat's descendancy as a sample file to look at. Take a look and let us know what you think.

I was thrilled the first time I pulled up Deodat's descendancy in the viewer and started looking around at (what seem like) familiar friends. I don't know why more people don't do descendancy research. Pursuing ancestors is a very 'western' approach to genealogy. There are many cultures around the world that have a hard time thinking of genealogy outside of the descendancy of an honored ancestor. After all, it doesn't start from me and go back, it starts from them and comes down.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Nothing Like Real Users

Wow, I love the 'labs' concept! 13 days ago we made the FamilySearch Labs site available. Since then the tool has processed about 3,000 pedigrees. We've received lots of feedback from real users on what they love and hate about the experience. Because of the volume and quality of the feedback we were able to quickly isolate and resolve usability issues.

We borrowed the idea from Google Labs to see if we could create an environment where we get user interaction with software substantially earlier in the development process. In the past we've often done paper prototyping to show concepts and task flows to users and get their feedback. Paper prototypes are good at helping you understand if you have the right elements on a page but don't do much to tell you if what your application will be useable. The labs approach has given us a whole new capability in useability testing.

While the labs experience has been a great success, it still doesn't remove the need for first hand observation of users. Here's an example. After we had resolved most of the major issues with the Smart Pedigree Viewer (thanks to Ben Crowther for the name) we decided to go and do some live observation. I spent some time at my favorite family history center watching people use the viewer. In twenty minutes I picked up a handful of usability issues that we never could have discovered without first hand observation. On the other hand, the amount of time we had to spend doing live observation to attain our currently level of useability was substantially reduced.

So what do I like about the labs site:
  • Speed: We can change the application, put it on the site, and know if our new features sink or swim within a few hours.
  • Audience: We've had users from all around the world looking at the application. This is critical for an application that will have an international reach.
  • Cost: As you can imagine, gathering feedback on an application from several thousand users would be extremely expensive and virtually impossible. The cost to do this through the Labs site is trivial.
  • Open: The labs culture of letting the users have a peak behind the curtain and sharing often imperfect software early and often creates an openness in communication between the developers and the users that I've never seen before.
  • Motivation: Working in an environment that allows you to 'publish' your work every couple of days (or more often) is extremely motivating to the development team. It is exciting to get the newest thing into the hands of users.
  • Community: Bringing the end user into the process helps us all feel like we're on the same team. It creates a sense of community. Everyone is invested in the outcome.

I could go on, but the point I'm making is that there is substantial value in the 'labs' concept. I HIGHLY recommend this approach to anyone developing consumer software. I know that some organizations will feel they can't be this open because their competitor will come look at the site too. My response: I believe speed, agility, openness, and community will beat fixed-length secrecy any day. They're going to see your product sooner or later.

Friday, October 06, 2006

FamilySearch (TM) Labs

A week or so ago I posted an image of my pedigree in a smart pedigree viewer we've been working on. Many people expressed an interest in playing with the viewer using their own data. We've just made a new website available (FamilySearch Labs) to showcase interesting new technology we're working on. The first project on the site is our smart pedigree viewer. It allows you to upload your own GEDCOM and view it or view one of our sample files. Go check it out at and be sure to use the feedback link on the site to tell us what you think.

Monday, October 02, 2006

My Data or Our Data?

One of the ongoing debates in the genealogy industry is over who owns the data. This question has been analyzed in a number of ways including the legal/copyright angle. What's more interesting to me is how average people feel about the data they come across and piece together about their ancestors.

In some ways this debate reminds me of a favorite game my two oldest kids used to play whenever riding in the car. One would start the volley by saying: "He's my Dad!" The other would retort, "No, he's my Dad!" They would continue until the object of their debate became so enraged he ended the game for them (much to their dismay). After this they usually started another game: "I'm a boy!" "I'm a girl!" "Well, I'm a boy!" Those were the days.

At times I feel the same frustration over the debate on ownership of genealogical information. Here's a different way to look at the problem. Let's not talk about dead people, let's consider living people. Imagine that you have grandchildren (may be a stretch for some of you). Suppose that one of your grandchildren was digging through your filing cabinet and found your birth certificate. For some reason they didn't want to share it with the other grandchildren. Imagine another of your grandchildren really wanted a copy of the birth certificate so after some bargaining paid grandchild number 1 for a copy of the birth certificate with an agreement that he wouldn't show it to anybody else.

I know there are some gaping holes in the analogy but I do wonder how our ancestors feel about some of our strange attitudes toward the facts of their lives. The biggest hole in the analogy is that I do believe there can be a reasonable value exchange when one party has gone to some effort and expense to make information about our ancestors more easily available. The fee however should be for the service of making it accessible, not for the information. The information (in my opinion) is community property.

I've just put my kevlar vest on, I'm ready to post this, let the debate begin.