Archive for January, 2010

Amazon for Lookups vs. Yellow Pages for Researchers

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

As my wife and I use Genlighten day by day, we notice things it does well and things it’s not so good at yet.

On the Plus Side

One of the things Genlighten does well is handle the iterative back-and-forth communications between client and provider that lead to a successful lookup result. Short notes from each party to the research transaction are displayed together in chronological order on a summary tracking page for each lookup request, along with the documents and report that are eventually produced.

lookup_notes_back_and_forthDiscovering Providers, on the Other Hand…

But when we go looking for a specific lookup provider (say, one that specializes in Jewish research or one who can access a certain repository in California) Genlighten doesn’t have a well-designed way to do that yet.

There’s a reason we didn’t build that feature in initially. We view ourselves as an e-commerce site (like for genealogy lookups — NOT a Yellow Pages-like directory of genealogy researchers-for-hire. The distinction is an important one, and it arises out of our focus on fixed-fee lookups rather than on open-ended hourly research.

Buying a Camera vs. Hiring a Photographer

I’m not sure about you, but when I go to buy a digital camera, I focus on the product first — the features, price point and customer ratings — and pay attention to the brand second. On the other hand, if I wanted to hire a photographer, I’d focus on referrals from friends, professional credentials, portfolio… and only then would I look at specific packages the photographer might offer.

The initial design of Genlighten has a distinctly product-oriented e-commerce mindset, where the “products” are lookups. If our products appeal to you, you can then check out the profile of the providers who offer them, and evaluate their background, experience, and customer ratings before deciding to submit a lookup request. We made the assumption that most potential clients would approach the site in that order, and our information architecture reflects that.

product-oriented-lookup-searchThe Problem with Assumptions…

Four months in, it’s becoming apparent that some of our site visitors don’t use Genlighten like we thought they would. One piece of evidence showed up recently in our Google Analytics logs:


Notice the Google site search for the keyword “California”. It’s hard to tell exactly what the site visitor had in mind, but my guess is they wanted to see if we had any providers that could do lookups either in California (i.e., at California repositories) or for California records. Or they might have read Randy Seaver’s blog post about Genlighten the week before and tried to find out if we’d added any California providers. Either way, they didn’t find our UI sufficiently intuitive and decided to take a shortcut.

“Hidden” Lookup Providers

A second indication that users aren’t behaving as we expected showed up when I went to do a census of every registered user so I could count the number that were offering lookups. To my surprise (and dismay!) I discovered sixty-some users who had filled out a provider-oriented profile (listing their qualifications, repositories they could access, etc.) but who weren’t yet offering any lookups. Because of the design assumptions I mentioned above, these providers are effectively hidden from our users. They won’t show up in any lookup search results, and we don’t yet offer a purely provider-oriented search capability. That’s starting to look like a problem.

Now perhaps the hidden providers don’t want to bother with basic lookups, but instead are just interested in quoting on custom requests that clients post. We do offer that capability in addition to off-the-shelf lookups, and it’s seen a fair amount of use.

But our thinking on custom requests was that providers would first establish a reputation for reliable, high-quality service with their off-the-shelf lookup offerings, and then be more likely to have their custom lookup quotes accepted based on high ratings they’d received. I still think this is a sound approach, but it’s become clear that we’ve done a poor job of communicating the idea.

Unfortunately, I suspect that some of these hidden providers don’t know they’re hidden. They assumed we’d make it easy for users to find them, like the yellow pages does, even if they didn’t offer any products in our online marketplace. And we haven’t.

So What to Do?

As a result of the thought process I’ve described, we now plan to:

  • Reach out to our hidden providers and explain the advantages of offering off-the-shelf lookups so they can gain credibility and exposure to potential clients
  • Invite our users to participate in usability testing so we can get feedback on typical flows through the site
  • Develop search tools that let users discover providers based on the contents of their profiles, not just on the lookups they offer.

Glass Half Full

I’ve decided to take a positive view of these discoveries about our users. If I’d followed Steve Blank’s Four Steps to the Epiphany when we were first building Genlighten, I might have uncovered these design issues during the Customer Development process. But now that I’m belatedly trying to adhere to Lean Startup principles, customer-centric iteration is a sign that we’re heading in the right direction. Now if we can just work on making those iterations “ferocious” and “rapid”!

Want to Help?

Are you interested in helping us make Genlighten easier to use? We’d love to have some 15-20 minute chats with clients and providers willing to talk with us over the phone while navigating the site and pursuing basic tasks. E-mail us at if this sounds like your idea of fun!

Surname Saturday: Mathews/Matthews

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

matthews_family_thomas_sarah_kids_uncle_auntHere’s what I know (or think I do!) about my direct MATHEWS/MATTHEWS ancestors:

1. Dean Richardson

2. Roberta Matthews Knapp

3. Roberta Trafford Matthews born 05 July 1907 in Leonia, Bergen, New Jersey; died 19 September 1987 in Emmaus, Lehigh, Pennsylvania

4. Thomas Taylor Mathews born 31 August 1868 in Cookstown, Tyrone, Ireland; died 01 August 1954 in Emmaus, Lehigh, Pennsylvania

5. William Mathews lived in Grange, at the time of Thomas’ birth

As you can probably tell, the Mathews line is one of the ones I know the least about and for which I have the least solid sourcing.

Thomas’ birthdate comes from FHL film 0101170: Quarterly returns of births in Ireland, 1864-1955, with index to births, 1864-1921. Though the details given in the birth return match family remembrances and later US Census data, the evidence is far from conclusive.

In the photo, Thomas Taylor is seated on the right (per the identification is pen on the reverse) and his wife Sarah Caroline Trafford is seated in the center. Their children are identified as (left-to-right) Robert, baby Evie, and Celia. The other two in the picture are “Uncle Sam and Aunt Anna”.

I’d be grateful for any information any Mathews cousins might have regarding Thomas Taylor Mathews and his immediate family in Ireland.

Follow Friday: FamilySearch Labs Blog

Friday, January 29th, 2010


Like many genealogists, I’m anxious for the LDS Church to  open up New FamilySearch (or whatever it’s eventually going to be called) to a broader (i.e., non-LDS) audience. In the meantime, I’m eager to hear the latest from their development team: new features, new records collections, opportunities to get involved or give feedback… you get the idea.

An Inside Source

One place I can go to get this info is the FamilySearch Labs Blog. Here, various members of the group developing NFS cover the latest progress they’ve made. The most common post author is Senior Project Manager Dan Lawyer, but Grant Skousen and several others also contribute from time to time. They don’t post every day, and they don’t offer tons of specifics, but at least I can get a feel for the major milestones they’re hitting, even if the news is mostly after-the-fact.

A Thought-Provoking Post

One recent post that caught my attention was entitled Obstacles in the Genealogical Workflow by Dan. Though extremely low-key, I thought it hit on a crucial point that genealogy software needs to address but seldom does: recognizing the chaotic thought processes most researchers experience  and trying to tame them to allow greater productivity. Ideally, genealogy software wouldn’t just store records or offer them up for searching… it would accompany us on our genealogical journey and offer coaching, support, and encouragement at just the right times. Here’s the key workflow diagram’s from Dan’s post:


I’m sure it’s pretty obvious why I liked this diagram: notice that box in the lower right corner. It indicates that gathering and searching for genealogical records involves three stages: tapping personal knowledge, mining online records, and finally, retrieving offline records. Naturally, we think Genlighten can become a huge help in the offline record retrieval stage of the genealogical workflow process.

Its Continuing Mission

I look forward to hearing about the NFS rollout to Southeast Asia, and about NFS’  eventual availability to those without a membership number and a confirmation date. Sure, the Ancestry Insider will probably be all over that news when it comes, but I suspect Dan and his team will offer a perspective on those accomplishments that won’t be available anywhere else. I encourage you to include their blog in your RSS feed subscription list.

52 Weeks to Better Genealogy Challenge #4: Inter-Library Loan

Thursday, January 28th, 2010

This week Amy Coffin asks us to:

Learn about your local public library’s inter-library loan (ILL) policy. Pick a genealogy-related book that you want to read that is not in your library’s collection. Ask the librarian how to request the book from another library.

I’m feeling a little lazy tonight (and it’s been about 15 degrees out every night this week here in Wilmette) so I decided to just fulfill this assignment online. The Wilmette Public Library website lets me scan both their local catalog and a broader selection of materials available at other Illinois libraries.

As mentioned in my previous 52WtBGC posts, the WPL — my local community library — has a good selection of popular genealogy how-to books and local resources that I haven’t even touched yet. But after a brief scan of the online catalog, I picked a book that looked like a good candidate to borrow via ILL: Elizabeth Powell Crowe’s Genealogy Online, eighth edition.


As you can see, lots of libraries near me have copies of this book on their shelves. I clicked on the “Place Hold” button to submit an ILL request. I then entered my wife’s library card number and password (mine wasn’t handy for some reason) and that was it. She’ll be notified via email when the book arrives.

As Amy mentions, ILL is a great way to expand the reach of the materials you can access from your local library. And it’s a lot cheaper than just ordering the books I want from Amazon, which unfortunately tends to be my default search strategy. Thanks, Amy, for helping me build some more frugal research habits!

Wordless Wednesday: Wayne Clinch

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Wayne Clinch (infant) with Unknown Family Members, circa 1938

Wayne Clinch (infant) with Unknown Family Members, circa 1938

Tombstone Tuesday: William Bielby

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

lyonsville-0021My Bielby ancestor, Thomas A. Bielby, is buried in the Oriskany Cemetery in Oriskany, Oneida County, New York, but his brother, Robert P. Bielby, moved to the Chicago area about 1850 and is buried in the Lyonsville Cemetery, Lyons, Cook, Illinois. (We made the same upstate New York to Illinois move about ten years ago.)

I thought it would be enjoyable to focus on the Bielby line today and so I looked back through the photos we had taken on a Sunday afternoon cemetery trip to Lyons some years ago and chose one to post—Wm Bielby, died Feb. 28, 1869. Then I went searching to find out how he fits into the family.

Checking for “william bielby” with a death date of “1869″ and a death place of “cook, illinois, usa” I found nothing. Too specific. But searching without a place of death gave me a number of family tree results.

From a OneWorldTree entry at Ancestry, I learned that he was probably William Reilly Bielby, born 15 January 1807 in New Malton, Yorkshire England, died 28 February 1869 in Downers Grove, DuPage, Illinois. From the birthplaces of the children listed on that tree, it appeared that he, too, had lived in Oriskany, arriving between 1830 and 1832 and remaining in New York until at least 1850. Likely a relative of some sort. Then I located an Ancestry public member tree by GaPeachFlaGator that suggests he was a brother to my ancestor, born between Thomas and Robert.

So two of my ancestor’s brothers came to Illinois. How had I missed that before? It’s a find of sorts and a delightful reminder of how many discoveries there are waiting to be found among our notes and photocopies and photos if we take the time to go back and look.

How long before “It’s not all online” isn’t true anymore?

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010

Courtesy California Genealogical Society and Library

David Rencher, FamilySearch’s “Chief Genealogical Officer” stopped by the Genlighten booth at NGS in North Carolina last year and we had a pleasant chat together. He asked a question that I’ve thought about often but never come up with a perfect answer to:

How will Genlighten’s business model stay viable over the long term as more and more records become available online?

As you already know if you’ve been reading this blog for long or if you’re one of our users, Genlighten’s unique selling proposition is that we help you find offline genealogy records — the ones that are only accessible in libraries, archives, courthouses, historical societies, etc.. In fact, when a provider signs up and offers to do lookups solely using their Ancestry or Footnote subscriptions, we ask them to modify those offerings to utilize an offline source instead.

Beneath the Tip of the Iceberg

Our unspoken assumption here is that many more records are available offline than online. Or as the marvelous image shown here depicts it, the biggest part of the iceberg is below the surface. I stand confidently behind that assumption, despite the fact that I can’t back it up with any meaningful data or statistics.

David’s question implied that he foresees a time when the statement “Most genealogy records aren’t online” won’t hold true anymore. And in fact, he’s in charge of an organization — FamilySearch — that is working hard to digitize and index every single reel in its vast collection of microfilmed records. Whether it takes five years or ten, they will eventually achieve their goal. Whither offline genealogy research (and our business model) then?

The Power of Family Search Indexing

This point hit home particularly hard for me this last December. I visited the Massachusetts State Archives just outside of Boston, mostly to see what kinds of records Genlighten providers could retrieve there, but also to do some of my own research. I was excited to see how many records were available on microfilm and could be scanned at low cost. Within minutes, I easily found the marriage certificate for my Walter Ferdinand Knapp and Rosamond Guilford.

A local Boston provider, I reasoned, (or one with access to the corresponding FHL film) could just as easily provide Massachusetts marriage record lookups for a reasonable fee and still be well-compensated for their forty-minute trip on the Red Line. Cool! Now I just needed to recruit the right providers and help them take advantage of the opportunities available.

Just as I was about to tweet or blog about this discovery, though, what should appear in my Twitterstream but a link to a post about Massachusetts marriage records becoming available on the FamilySearch Record Search Pilot. I tried the site out, and lo and behold, in seconds I had the image of the very same marriage record I had just finished printing out. Thanks to FamilySearch indexing, that was one lookup opportunity that no longer seemed as attractive. Massachusetts Births and Death records still weren’t available online, but for how long?

A Prediction

longtail2I don’t know how FamilySearch decides which records to digitize and index next, but I can guess. They must know which FHL film sets are ordered most, and I suspect those ones get bumped up in priority. So in the short term, we should expect that films of records towards the left end of the long tail will become available online. FamilySearch and other organizations will gradually work their way down the long tail, digitizing and indexing as they go. Over time, more and more long tail records will become available at low or no cost online, just as obscure bands’ music can now be found on iTunes and films that only a few thousand people even know about are now available on Netflix.

Another Prediction

So Genlighten has four, maybe five years before its business model begins to evaporate? I can’t be sure, but I suspect not. At least, not due to a lack of offline records. I will go out on a limb and predict that for many years to come, as fast as old records are brought online, “new” old records will be discovered. In other words, the entire curve will rise.

Where will these new records come from? Diaries, generic government agency paperwork, medical records (despite HIPAA regulations), legal proceedings, SEC filings… I bet you can think of many more. The types of offline records that Genlighten providers will be asked to look up will change, but there will still be plenty of them to perform lookups for.

Of course in five to ten years paper, microfilm, and even electronic data storage as we know it may have been completely superseded by some grand and glorious new medium. Or Google may simply have achieved by then their goal to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” In which case, they’ll hopefully have already acquired us!

Eternos: Preserving your Tweets, Facebook Photos, Gmail and RSS for Future Generations

Sunday, January 24th, 2010

Well, that didn’t take long.

A few weeks back, I posted about Bud Caddell’s idea for a Social Media Time Machine that would “Preserve and Curate My Social Media for Future Generations.” This weekend, I was followed on Twitter by a startup that looks like they’re trying to build exactly that. It’s called Eternos.

What Does Eternos Do?

From what I can tell right now, Eternos lets you backup your Tweets, your Facebook status updates and photos, your Gmail account and an RSS feed of your blog. You can browse through your  “artifacts” using a timeline format. If you’re not into social media, Eternos lets you upload and store standard content such as photos and videos. I’ve let it connect to my Twitter account, and that seems to work fine. It’s cool to be able to access the older tweets that typically won’t let you see. No luck syncing with Facebook yet though.

eternos_tweet_timelineHow Much?

It’s free during the beta period, and they’ll offer the usual “Freemium” pricing plan after that. That typically means that basic functionality will continue to be available for free, while a paid pro account will be needed to access the coolest features (including ones they’ll add over time.) Sounds reasonable to me.

Am I Excited?

I like what Eternos is doing… it seems like it’s got a lot of potential. Right now (as one would expect for a minimum viable product) it does the basic things it needs to do. They’ll iterate based on early customer feedback and add additional capabilities over time, I’m sure.

What I don’t see yet is the “Wow!” factor… the sense that they’re adding something uniquely valuable on top of the archiving function. In my post discussing this idea, I mentioned that I wanted to be able to look backwards in time and see relationships forming and evolving. Will Eternos tackle that? Are they developing some cool social media algorithms up there in Seattle? We’ll see!

Surname Saturday: Jourdan

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

walldorf_germanyBack to my father’s side this week. Here’s what I know (or think I do!) about my direct JOURDAN ancestors:

1. Dean Richardson

2. David Richardson (1935-1998)

3. Margaret Jourdan, born 01 June 1903 in Erie, Erie County, PA; died 25 January 1982 in Erie, Erie County, PA

4. Friedrich Jourdan, born 08 February 1864 in Walldorf, Starkenburg, Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany; died 03 May 1951 in Erie, Erie County, PA

5. Jakob Jourdan I, born 28 January 1833 in Walldorf, Starkenburg, Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany; died 11 September 1902 in Walldorf, Starkenburg, Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany

6. Johann Peter Jourdan II, born 23 November 1792 in Walldorf, Starkenburg, Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany; died 27 September 1866 in Walldorf, Starkenburg, Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany

7. Jean Philippe Jourdan, born 28 January 1759 in Walldorf, Starkenburg, Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany; died 08 December 1833 in Walldorf, Starkenburg, Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany

8. Pierre Jourdan, born 12 January 1713 in Palmbach, Wuerttemburg, Germany; died 08 September 1766 in Walldorf, Starkenburg, Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany

9. Jean Jourdan, born 06 June 1689 in Roure, Piemont, France; died 16 April 1754 in Palmbach, Wuerttemburg, Germany

10. Janon Jourdan, born 1651 in Roure, Piemont, France; died 16 February 1705 in Palmbach, Wuerttemburg, Germany

My main source for the Jourdan line in Walldorf, Palmbach and Roure is the book “Das Walldorfer Familienbuch, 1699-1875″ authored by Wilhelm Klink and Jean Becker, published in 1974 by the “Working group for Walldorf history and  genealogy” and the city of Walldorf.

The picture in this post is of the Astorhaus, which according to Wikipedia “was built in 1854 from a pecuniary legacy of deceased John Jacob Astor to his hometown.” I have no idea whether or not I’m related to Mr. Astor, of “Waldorf-Astoria” fame. If any Jourdan cousins can clue me in, I’d be grateful.

Follow Friday: Behold Genealogy and Louis Kessler’s Behold Blog

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

I like to think that our blog is fairly unique in offering an insider chronicle of the travails of building a genealogy startup. But I tend to be pretty circumspect in sharing our technical struggles, bug fixes, and product roadmap. Louis Kessler, on the other hand, let’s it all hang out. Louis is the visionary behind Behold Genealogy. For this week’s Follow Friday recommendation, I’d like to encourage you to get to know Louis and his plan to “Change the Way Genealogists Work” by subscribing to the Behold Blog.

Software that Focuses on the Output Report Instead of the Input Form

beholdheaderFrom what I can tell, Behold is designed with the end in mind, and acts more like a word processor for top-notch genealogy reports than an “enter names in a blank pedigree chart” data-gathering tool. I haven’t used Behold yet so I can’t offer a recommendation one way or the other, but I’m completely drawn in by Louis’ passion for his product and his innovative thinking about what genealogy software can and should do.

GEDCOMs, Programming, Bug Reports, Future Plans

Here are some of the topics you’ll read about in Louis’ blog:

  • Arcane details of how GEDCOM files are constructed and processed (harder than you probably think!)
  • Louis’ daily battles with software bugs (in Delphi no less!), much of them fought well after midnight
  • His painstaking efforts to construct error messages that are helpful to his users
  • The bugs he can’t fix on his own, and his humble efforts to get help from StackOverflow (where he’s also a regular contributor)

And that’s just the last few months… Louis has been at this for almost eight years!

As you can tell, I have a lot of admiration for Louis’ openness, persistence, and pride in his craft. You won’t find a lot of details of Louis’ genealogy research in his postings, but you can tell he’s channeling his love and respect for his ancestors into his software development efforts. If you want to gain a sense for the work that goes into that shrink-wrapped genealogy software you bought, the Behold Blog is a good place to get it.