Genealogy from the perspective of a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon, LDS)

Thursday, February 1, 2018

What works on the FamilySearch Family Tree and what doesn't

The Family Tree is a complex program that has several rather disparate objectives. Some of the aspects of those objectives work very well, others not so well. I will explore what is working and what is not working with a series of hypothetical users and the consequences of their interaction with the Family Tree.

Before getting to the hypotheticals, it is important to understand some of the underlying objectives or reasons for the existence of the Family Tree. The Family Tree is the creation of FamilySearch, a wholly owned subsidiary of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Its main objective is to provide a way to "turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers" as is expressed in Malachi 4:6. The members of the Church follow this admonition by providing vicarious ordinances for their ancestors in the temples of the Church. See for example, "The Purpose of Temple and Family History Work." All of the real questions about the Family Tree then become centered on how well it is doing in supporting that work.

The Family Tree does not exist in a vacuum. It is the end product of over a hundred years of attempts to provide opportunities to the members of the Church to fulfill their mandate to provide those saving ordinances to their ancestors. The Church has now built or has in progress over 170 temples throughout the world. The Family Tree is the presently the sole provider of names to all those temples (assuming the name extraction program has entirely ended.)

The website and specifically the Family Tree is the culmination of all of the previous programs that were used to prepare names for submission the temples. As such, the website allows and assists members (and others outside of the Church) to identify their ancestors and relatives, document their lives and then provide the saving ordinances for those ancestors and relatives in the temples.

So, the question arises, what does the Family Tree do that assists in this underlying objective and what doesn't it do so well? Where are the flat tires that slow done or prevent the work from being accomplished? Some of the good things about the website are not directly related to the ultimate objective as well as some of the difficult parts of the website that also do not affect the goal of advancing temple work.

Now I can start with the hypotheticals.

Hypothetical Potential User No. 1

This hypothetical user is entirely new to the concept of finding ancestors. I will call this hypothetical user the "Potential" users. The Potential User does not know about the Family Tree and if anything has only a vague idea about family history or anything associated with family history. So, how does this person fit into the picture of an online website called the Family Tree? By the way, at this level, there is no difference between a Potential who is a member of the Church and one who is not. There are many people who are members of the Church, who may have heard some talks or instruction about "doing family history" who have not yet connected those teachings with any type of personal action that they need to participate in. Outside of the Church, people may have heard the term "genealogy" or "family history" but have no interest or knowledge of what those terms actually mean.

This potential group is sometimes characterized as "having an interest in families" but that interest does not rise to the level of any action. They are part of the huge number of people in the world who are totally ignorant of the existence of an internet program called FamilySearch.

Combined with other large online genealogy-based programs, FamilySearch does a fairly good job of advertising its existence. By no means does it have the reach of a program such as with over 93 million users, but FamilySearch is pretty good at promoting itself. Are new users attracted to the website? Well, yes. Personally, I regularly help people both inside and outside of the Church sign into the program for the first time. I have done this hundreds, perhaps thousands of times.

We can leave Potential now and move on to another hypothetical level where the Potential User becomes an initial user.

Hypothetical Initial User No 2

The next hypothetical user is one who becomes aware of the website. What happens to this user? This is where we begin to see what works and what doesn't.  Quite frankly, the website is confusing and, in my experience, very few first-time users have any idea what they need to do. You would think that a big blue button that says "Get started" would help new users. But it doesn't. Some of these hypothetical Initials will explore the program, but many are put off by the program and give up. The key here is having a mentor, someone to guide the Initial user through the first few steps of becoming aware of what the website has to offer since the website itself does not provide that experience.

In essence, the website assumes an interest and a level of engagement that seldom exists in the Potential User and is only rudimentary in Initial User. If the Initial Users continue to try to use the website, they become Beginning Users.

Hypothetical Beginning User No. 3

The Beginning User comes to the website with some practical knowledge about families, family history, and online family tree programs. The program is still difficult, but with some motivation, this user is able to begin working with the program. Now we get to the issues of what does and doesn't work. The Family Tree has a rather complicated set of "rules" about how information is entered and supported. None of these rules are obvious. The Beginning User immediately is faced with warning icons and all sorts of arcane terms. At this level, the Beginning User is baffled by the program. Even though there are really helpful instructional materials available, the Get Help link is equally baffling. There is no way, easy or otherwise, to tell what information presented in the Family Tree is accurate and what is not accurate. There is no way for the Beginning User to know how to find information about their family or how to "properly" enter such information into the Family Tree. There is an underlying assumption made by the Family Tree that the Beginner can just "figure out" what needs to be done.

After having taught hundreds (thousands) of beginners, I find that there is a long list of fundamental questions that need to be answered for any Beginning User. For instance, The Family History Guide presents an organized and structured explanation of the program, but there are only a few very obscure links to this resource on the website and there is nothing else that instructs a Beginning User about how or why the program exists. At this point, some people would ask, "where is the manual?" Except for third-party programs, such as The Family History Guide, no such manual exists.

At this time, if you go to the program and click on the Get Started button, you will be asked to register. If you register, you are basically lost. There is nothing telling you what to do next. The Beginning User is offered a number of interesting choices but there is no clear way to enter the program except a companion program based on a short paper book called My Family. If you have already begun using the program, you are taken directly to a fan chart. Again, with no explanation about what you are supposed to be doing and no consideration of what the Beginning User would like to accomplish such as finding a parent or grandparent.

Registered users also have a "personalized" and very busy looking startup page after signing into the website. In my experience with Beginners, this page gets mixed reviews. Many of the Beginning Users get bogged down in tasks that they do not want to do and do not understand. If they persist, they may find some of the links useful.

Hypothetical Basic Level User No. 4

Let's assume that the Beginning User somehow gets over the first hurdles to using the program and actually begins entering family information into the Family Tree or in the case of a member of the Church, wants to "find a name to take to the temple." Now the program gets really complicated. Programmers, engineers, and experienced computer users can figure out how to navigate the program, but the average Basic Level User is lost. Once again, instruction from a mentor is indispensable. At this level and every succeeding level, all of the Users begin seeing some of the results of working with a collaborative Family Tree program based on a wiki model. Almost universally, there is frustration with changes initiated by other users are observed and begin to irritate all of the users.

What about the hypothetical "young savvy computer user?" The real "savvy" part of the young user is that they know that they can click on icons and buttons and get some reaction from the program and they aren't afraid to do this indiscriminately. Yes, if you begin to click on everything, you will soon get an idea of how the program works. But this is not the way to learn the program's objectives and purpose. Many very young Basic Level Users see the program as a "video game" where the objective is to find "green icons." They are rewarded for finding all the green icons they are able to find and soon learn that random clicking on the extensions of the Landscape and Descendancy views will produce results. They have little or no idea about the major objectives of the program and only in rare cases add anything substantial to the information already contained in the program. What is more serious is that these young users only rarely connect the green icons with real people. If they have supportive parents who provide temple opportunities they can make the connection.

This level of use brings up an important question. Returning again to the topic of extraction programs, is this level of use just a substitute for name extraction programs? What is the real difference between taking a random name to the temple and taking a name randomly located in a vast family tree? Of course, there is the "Show My Relationship" link. However, most people I work with do not understand how these links work or understand their relationship to distant relatives.

Hypothetical Intermediate Level User No. 5

Moving on, the person who reaches the Intermediate Level finally begins to see how the program works. The Intermediate Level person is even more frustrated by "changes" in the program but can see some results from adding sources and looking at the records on the website. Many Intermediate Level users are fixated on the "end of line" people, thinking that this is where they need to focus their attention. But here is where the person reaching this level has the most questions.

Here also, we reach one of the fundamentally fatal flaws in the program's operation: Hoarders. If the objective of the program, as understood at this level, is to "find names to take to the temple," then the person with the "most names" wins the game. I have heard from a usually reliable source that some people have filled their Temple list with hundreds of thousands of names. Given that each person and family has a finite number of opportunities to attend the temple, these huge accumulations of names are defeating the main purpose of providing names for the temples. FamilySearch has imposed a two-year limit on maintaining lists on the Family Tree, but these users bypass that restriction by printing off thousands or names. I see these people all the time with briefcases and notebooks full of names. Some boast about the number of names on their list. The program desperately needs limits on the number of names that can be reserved and a concerted effort to ferret out the large caches of cards. Oh, by the way, it is my understanding, if one of the ordinances on the card is done, then the two-year limit doesn't apply.

Some of this hoarding is justified by supplying "names" to ward and stake members. Again, we are back to the issue of extraction. What difference is there in obtaining a name from a friend or from the temple?

Of course, not all Intermediate Level Users are hoarders. Most of the regular users of the program probably fall into this category and much of the real work of adding new names to the Family Tree likely comes from this group also. But this is also the group who would benefit most from making all of the parts of the program work together. For example, few users of the program realize that the search engines only search through indexed records and that there are millions of unindexed records that still must be searched in the same way they have been for years and years. It is also noteworthy that many resources on the website are underused because they are so obscure. The digitized books are an example in this category.

Eventually, with persistence, the Intermediate Level User gains information and research skills and has a good experience using the website.

Hypothetical Experienced Genealogist User No. 6

Some experienced genealogists have "grown up" with FamilySearch. Some come from different backgrounds and learn about the program after spending years of research. Either way, the program's value is directly proportional to the level of expertise of the user. So advanced researchers appreciate the resources and use them far more than those with less experience. For an Experienced Genealogist, the program still has some of the same frustrations experienced by less sophisticated users. But the resources more than make up for any limitations. An experienced researcher will overlook the less developed aspects of the program and find the wealth of information that is available, so found in no other place.

Personally, I love the program. It works wonderfully for me. I think is it only getting better all the time. But even for programs that I love, I can still find issues and things I would change. For example, I would like a way to opt out of the "personalized startup page." I don't use it and don't find anything helpful in a page full of information about people I am not researching. On the other hand, some users may find the concept really helpful.

The main issue I have with the program is that it sometimes looses its focus on the ultimate objectives set out at the beginning of this post. I am really privileged and happy to be able to help add even more digitized records to the collections on FamilySearch. Some of the older records we have seen so far at the Maryland State Archives really need preserving. Let's all hope FamilySearch keeps improving the program and we keep finding new people to add to the Family Tree.


  1. I love FamilySearch too. I find using the tree and searching for records there much easier and logical than using Ancestry, MyHeritage or the other large websites.

  2. For LDS users it doesn't take much to be directed to local family history consultants and they will work with you one on one. However, I do agree there should be more online to help users both beginning and experienced.

  3. As you have pointed out several times, the whole experience of doing real family history research is an incredibly complex undertaking. I suspect that as time goes on, we will continue to see improvement in and when I think about the vast improvements that have been made, I'm willing to be patient.