Thursday, April 3, 2014

FindMyPast have put their foot in it ...

I have been so busy recently I haven't had time to do much online searching - so this morning I visited the reformatted FindMyPast web site. I decided to try out a few things and superficially the site looks better, and gives the impression of being more friendly. I carried out a number of searches and definitely one of my deliberately "awkward" searches was much better. My first impression of the newspaper searching was that while the search algorithms were exactly the same the user interface was better.

Some of the other search interfaces were easier to use for noddy queries - but as soon as I started to ask real questions serious drawbacks emerged, and the number of messages pointing out what is a serious redesign error suggest that many people will not be renewing their subscription. I have posted the following message on their forum under "SEARCHING"

First let me say that the old site needed a face-lift - and on the technical side there have been some real improvements. Of course many people will not like change - even if it is for the better - and at least some of the comments I have seen fall into this category.

I started using computers for family history research in 1977 and gave a talk at the first ever meeting of the Computer Group of the Society of Genealogists. However I switched to local history studies (often linked to the family) when I retired. Before I retired I actually taught Human-Computer Interaction techniques, and you appear to have fallen into a common trap of thinking that the key to a good computer system is technical expertise. Too many people think that employing computer geeks who know all there is about scripting web sites is vitally important. (Most computer geeks are what they are because the are better at interacting with computers than with fellow human beings.) In reality what you really need when you are (re)designing a system is someone who really understands users and what they want to do and if you give them what they want they don't really care about all the bells and whistles ...

I currently use your system regularly for local history studies - I am interested in the people who live in an area, what they do, and how they interact. For instance I am currently looking at the Victorian Photographers in Hertfordshire and I am not only interested in family relationships but also business links - such as where a particular photographer learnt their skills - perhaps as an assistant for another photographer - or perhaps their father, or a close relative, was a portrait painter. ... ...

The apparent failure to be able to search for census occupations in the new system is an absolute disaster. In addition the loss of a complete transcription listing of a household seems to have no technical justification (presumably some computer geek thought it would be tidier) but means that people will have to waste more of their own time and your computer's resources repeatedly asking questions about other members of the household.which could have been provided in less than a milisecond. (I am well aware that in some cases it may be necessary to restrict questions to optimise load on a very busy computer - bit this is not one of those cases.)

In any case, if you want to encourage people to research their ancestors - or local history - providing the whole household can excite people to ask more interesting questions - because they see detail of the other people in the house and ask "I wonder why ....?"  Perhaps the change was made because you were trying to ape a competitor's site - when in fact the other site was worse than yours - and people were using your site because the way you did it in the past was more helpful. Definitely that was the main reason I normally use FindMy Past for census searching.

The problems the new site demonstrate suggest that you did not have a well chosen and varied panel of genuine uses at the early design stage.  Maybe you made the changes because of complaints - failing to realise that these exclude the views of the majority of satisfied customers - or perhaps you ran a market survey with inappropriate questions. Viewing the storm the changes have caused you need such a panel PDQ.

I am sure they will be making more changes - and I will reassess the site later in the year to see if they have improved. I am almost certain to continue my subscription because the site has the Hertfordshire parish registers which are not available elsewhere, and one also has access to the British Newspaper Archive.

Comments on you own experiences of the changes would be welcome.


  1. Glad you have taken a stand on this. I too find the new format lacks features that proved useful in the past.

  2. If that is your notion of a better site appearance, then you must be cracked.

    The entire site is now dysfunctional and unusable and all of the customers are saying so and are demanding the restoration of the old site format, and if you intend to continue to renew your subscription, you will probably be in a minority of one.

    At the rate that the current level of infuriated customer complaints is rising, pretty soon there will no longer be a site left to subscribe to, and in it's present disastrous condition, that won't be any great loss.

    1. You fail to distinguish form and function. A brand new Ferrari without an engine is far more attractive to look at than a still functional rusty 50 year old land rover but the Ferrari is useless. The old site was a bit of a mess, and had some serious limitations if you pushed it as hard as I did, and it urgently needed a more consistent interface. The new design attempts to provide a more consistent interface but at the expense of functionality. The promises to "improve things" on an ad hoc basis can only mean that the new system will become a hodge-podge of rushed amendments.

      As to continuing my subscription you overlook the fact that my site is a specialist Hertfordshire site and FindMyPast are the only site which currently hosts the Hertfordshire registers. I am seriously thinking of asking HALS to reconsider their contract with FindMyPast.


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