Blog24 Sep 2010
My name is Ian Tester, and I’m the product manager at findmypast.co.uk. That means that it’s my job to try to invent new features on the site to make finding your ancestors easier and more satisfying. I’m also heavily involved in getting new records onto the site, and improving the search features we offer.
I started off in marketing at findmypast.co.uk a few years ago, but it wasn’t until I had spent a winter using findmypast heavily to start building my own family tree that I felt confident to move over into the product manager role.
I’ve worked on websites for 13 years, but you really can’t work on something as complex as findmypast or develop features for family historians until you have been at the coalface doing your own research and understanding what real family historians need. Perhaps the most important thing for me to learn was: a few years of my own research has left me with an awful lot to learn. This is where the experts come in.
I’ve now got my own (hard-won!) insights into family history research; however, I’m very lucky in that I have access to a lot of highly-skilled and smart people to help me out. The first group of people are my colleagues here in London and Dundee – they’ve got years of experience, many as professional genealogists, and they have unrivalled knowledge of family history records, research and research tools, so they’re always a valuable source of ideas, suggestions and improvements.
Because they’re using the site every day, their feedback tends to come thick and fast and one of my key tasks is stay on top of it all, capture it and make sure we follow up on all those small tweaks and improvements they suggest. In the nicest possible way, they can be quite demanding (which is good for our customers)!
The second group is unique to findmypast.co.uk – the groups of experts that we work with on a day-to-day basis. We’re constantly getting feedback from members of family history societies around the country (and beyond), the Guild of One Name Studies, the Society of Genealogists and of course, The National Archives, who have a dazzling display of subject experts on every set of records that you can imagine. Add to that the expert publishers we work with, such as the Naval and Military Press and Gould Genealogy in Australia and our partners at FamilySearch, and I’m able to tap a range of experts on any subject under the sun.
We often use our partners in the industry as ‘expert reviewers’ to gather early stage feedback, and to demonstrate early versions of new services to before we refine them and put them on the website. For example, when we launched the 1911 census last year, we spent months getting expert feedback from industry experts and made a huge number of changes to the way that the search and website worked before we went live.
Perhaps the most important group, however, are our customers, from whom I get feedback constantly. Key to this is our customer support team, who act as our ‘eyes and ears’ and understand better than anyone the issues or improvements that you suggest. I also attend family history events around the country and this one-to-one contact with customers provides some of the most useful ideas for what we need to do to make your research easier. Finally, we do a lot of market research with our customers, and it’s your generous and constant feedback that helps us decide what to do next and often how to make it work. I once tried to work out how many years of family history experience all our customers combined might have – but gave up when my calculator ran out of digits.
Enough of how we gather feedback – what am I actually working on at the moment and how is it going to make your research easier? Well, there are a number of projects that we’re actively developing features around at the moment. The most important is ‘improving your search’.
Improving your search is not only about adding new records to the site, but also revising the search facilities that we currently offer you and making sure that we make it as easy as possible to find your ancestors in the records.
We already transcribe more fields than other family history websites, meaning that our advanced search features let you search pretty much anything that is in the original record, but we could do better at making our searches cleverer (and, therefore, making you work less hard). For example, we spent a lot of time designing our new fully-indexed births 1837-2006 search to work with some of the idiosyncrasies of the records themselves. So, when the original indexes only record the initial of a second name of an ancestor, our search will intelligently spot that and find you the ‘Andrew P Smethwick’ recorded in the index for the ‘Andrew Peter Smethwick’ you entered into the search.
More cunningly, it will also find you the ‘Unnamed male Smethwick’ you might never have thought of searching for. If you include the mother’s maiden name in your search, it will even try to uncover scandal by finding possible illegitimate births (maybe an Andrew Peter Middleton).
I’m currently working on the fully-indexed marriages which will be on the site in the next few months, and trying to design ways to make this much easier. We’re designing something we’re calling ‘MarriageMatch’ at the moment, which will automatically hunt out and check both partners’ records and make sure that they match each other. These results will be marked as ‘MarriageMatches’ and put right at the top of your search results. This will save you having to look for both partners in a marriage and cross check the reference yourself.
We’re also designing a degree of flexibility into this search – again so it works with the idiosyncrasies of your ancestors and the records, so it will also look for variants in MarriageMatches and find these too. My great grandmother Gertrude Minnie Hardwick was somehow recorded as ‘Hardwicke’ on her marriage certificate. Our new search will still find her for you and match her up automatically with her husband’s marriage record, even though she was married before 1912, which was the first time a partner’s name was recorded in the General Register Office index.
So what’s the lesson in all this? Well, first, that searching records that you might find on other sites is not the same as searching on findmypast.co.uk. We’re aiming to make our new BMD search the best that you can find online. It will be complete and apply extra intelligence to your searches to help you find your ancestors faster and with a higher degree of confidence that you’ve found the right person. Second, that spending time to understand the records thoroughly before we design searches is key to making them work well. Third, that consulting our customers and industry experts gives us some of the best insights we can get into what makes searching records difficult and, therefore, ideas to make it easier.
After marriages, as in life, will come deaths, but I’m also working on incorporating ‘extra’ BMDs into the new BMD searches. Findmypast.co.uk already has the most complete set of GRO indexes 1837-2006 available online (we’ve been diligent at tracking down those missing pieces that other sites may not have got round to over the past seven years) but we’re also going to be adding BMDs at sea and BMDs overseas into the main BMD search in the coming months. They may help solve some of those mysterious missing events.
The new BMD search is just a small part of our ‘improving your search’ project and that project is just one of many that we’re working on to improve your experience on findmypast.co.uk. At the risk of sounding a tease, I’m going to save telling you about some of the other projects for another post. In the meantime, if you have any great ideas…there’s space for comments below.