How to Fix a Poor Web Design

Warning: This article contains personal opinions.

A newsletter reader wrote today to tell me of a recent update to a very popular genealogy web site. In short, the web site reportedly has been converted from a very useful genealogy resource into something that is nearly unusable. I won’t mention the web site but will quote a few sentences from the message (with minor editing for readability reasons):

“The old account information won’t work, you need to establish a new account which means anything you had stored under an old account won’t work. They won’t let you put in a full first name on a basic search and the “narrow search” function is awful. The documents fly around the page so fast it is hard to zone in and read about person you are researching. To contact them with issues etc. is difficult. The contact page on the web site is limited to 200 characters, so you cannot send them much of an email message at all.”

I guess I have been in the computer business too long and have heard similar stories far too often. Yes, I suspect this complaint is valid, as are hundreds of other complaints I have heard over the years about other web sites, software applications, and more. My experience is that such problems usually get fixed although never with the speed that customers expect. Here is my response to the person who wrote me today:

Poor web design has a history of correcting itself. However, that normally requires six to twelve months, occasionally longer.

Historically, here is what happens time and time again:

1. An organization “updates” its web site to “improve it” but users quickly find the new version is much worse than the old.

2. Users complain. Web site management usually ignores the complaints.

3. Over the next few months, web site users start using the site less and less. Sales generated by the web site start dropping significantly.

4. After a few months, financial reports are delivered to the mangers who suddenly see they have a problem. They wake up.

5. Managers start running around and perform “studies” to identify the cause of the problem. (Had they paid attention to the initial complaints, the managers could have skipped this step. However, that rarely happens.)

6. The problem is “identified.”

7. A study group is formed to find a solution.

8. The study group spends months and dollars to identify the problem and to create a report identifying the fix. The report is generally identical to the complaints created by customers months earlier when managers were not listening.

9. New programmers are hired.

10. Over a few months, the new programmers are trained and become familiar with the site and with the problem(s).

11. A fix is created. (This is usually the shortest part of the whole effort.)

12. The fix is tested.

13. The fix is released to a small group of beta testers for their analysis and feedback.

14. The beta testers report “the fix is worse than the original problem.”

15. Go back to step 5.

16. Repeat over and over.

Eventually, the problem gets fixed, despite the efforts of management. However, it takes much longer than it should have. In the meantime, users are dissatisfied and leave in droves. Revenue drops and probably never recovers to the levels it was before the “new and improved” web site changes were made. In the meantime, management spends a lot of dollars fixing the “new and improved” web site.

The above scenario has been repeated thousands of times in the business world.

The bottom line is: “This, too, will pass.”



I think this exact procedure has been being used by Ancestry with regards to Family Tree Maker. 😦


The other “popular” problem is that new developers come along and persuade naive marketing managers to adopt a new design that is reliant on some “new” or “specific” bit of technology. If you use Microsoft Internet Explorer with no security or privacy lock-downs – it will probably work for you – if you are prepared to wait for all the new super whizzes to download and display.

If however your browser is not what the new “clever” developers view as “standard”, you may find that the “new super-website” is “too clever by half” and you have to allow numerous scripts, fonts, cookies and flash or java elements before you can see the new site.

This is infuriating and I am afraid that I am not prepared to run a particular browser set-up just to please a particular designer who has sold their ideas to one of the websites I visit. I would rather visit a different site.

Sometimes quick and simple is best! There is as much (or more) skill in developing a quick and simple website than one with all the latest gizmos.


My first thought is Ancestry also.


My first thought was FindMyPast … which is still awful, despite the user forum suggestions.


I had a number of websites as my first thoughts of which Familysearch, Findmypast, Ancestry and the London Gazette were the main ones. However to slightly correct Dick’s “this too will pass” it will pass but in the meantime we will have become so fed up that we have learnt to use the new site. In other words we have been trained to follow what they think we should do OR have developed workarounds.

Findmypast however seems to have totally lost its way and is a source of concern here in the UK due to its lack of documentation of sources, and the fact that trying to find out what exactly a record set covers is difficult if not impossible. There is no point in searching a database if the records for the years you are looking for are not there yet. That can cause a brick wall for years!

That is without the current fashion for giving you thousands of potential results and expecting you to use filters to whittle down what probably was only 3 relevant results anyway! So you spend a long time fiddling with the filters to find that out. And sometimes you forget to remove filters and re-search to find you have no results! If you don’t then reset and start again you may have set up another avoidable brick wall.

And don’ t get me started on the quality of transcriptions and crowdsourcing! The Prerogatory Court of Canterbury Wills previously digitised on the National Archives website are now available on Ancestry and the quality of the imaging due to newer technology is great BUT finding your will is the problem as whoever has done the indexing often could not read the name of the person making the will. So there are many examples of just a christian name in the name field and there is no certainty that you will find the will that you know is there because it is catalogued in the TNA website. You eventually end up paying for the TNA download just because you can find it.

I know you have seen it all before Dick as have I but this debate about functionality of genealogy databases needs to be aired. Not just as individual user gripes but as a general debate about the usability of genealogy websites and their credibility as accurate sources. After all it is no use adding all this material online if it cannot be traced back to its original (paper or parchment) source and the context and accuracy checked.


Two things.

1) K. I. S. S. [ Keep It Simple Stupid ] The first rule to get thrown out the window.

2) If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.


my first thought was familysearch! I guess we all have different disappointments.


Ellis Island is my thought.


Dick, Great analysis and spot-on observations. I hope the folks that run the big websites subscribe to your newsletter and heed your points!


One of the approaches I have tried in the past is to force the web developers to actually have to use their product. Humbling experience for many arrogant developers who insisted they knew how to develop web sites.


I also thought you were referring to the new “and improved” Ellis Island site. First of all, they changed the address, which is generally a no-no, since site specific cookies and bookmarks will not work with a different url. While making the site prettier, they have made it virtually impossible to navigate, making you click in several tabs before you find what you are looking for. Hint: There is no search feature on the new front page. The Steve Morse site is still the best way to access Ellis Island records.


David Paul Davenport September 8, 2014 at 12:41 pm

Here’s my take on this. Someone who is business savvy, but not a genealogist (or any other kind of researcher) sees an opportunity to make money. He or she finds investors, hires someone to design a webpage for them and an “army” of indexers who are not genealogists/researchers. The company sells itself as a “friend of genealogists” and we, the genealogists, are eager to try this new company because it will allow access to documents we might otherwise have to travel thousands of miles to see. After failing to find we we want we get smart enough to stop using the “search” feature of the website and begin to “browse” the databases. We find what we want, and determine that the name is incorrectly indexed, or in the case of wills (for example) the names of witnesses and not the testator has been indexed. So we get the work done anyway. We make suggestions to the “vendor” but we never receive a response from the vendor and worse yet the corrections are never made. 9 year olds should not be allowed to index, and novice researchers should not be encouraged to use their computer at home to do research. Not a day goes by that I don’t see egregious errors on “professional” websites, the latest is a “relationship” chart for an LDS member who is allegedly related to Brigham Young. The problem is that the common progenitor on the chart is a man who died 17 years before his wife was born !!! I remember the adage from my first FORTRAN class in college in 1973, “Garbage in, garbage out.” It’s really too bad that there is so much garbage being generated.

Liked by 1 person

As a retired technical writer for a Fortune 500 computer corporation, I had to submit and work with the “usability team” whenever we made a major update to our little corner of the corporate Intranet or created a guide that would be used by customers as well as employees. I learned pretty quickly how not to make usability errors so I had to make a major redesign.

We studied Jakob Nielsen and attended usability seminars and our Webdesign was pretty darn good. Somehow I think usability has taken a back seat to Flash scripts and pretty rotating pictures and text in light grey that can’t be read by anyone over 60.

IMHO, all “Website designers” and database designers should be required to pass a course in usability. And the feedback comments should go to an independent manager who is empowered to make changes and doesn’t care if someone’s feelings get hurt.

Liked by 1 person

I have a problem resulting from a genealogy website change – not a re-design as mentioned here, but an integration. I put a tree on Geni. Geni was bought by MyHeritage, and now my full name with birth surname attached, can be found on Google with a reference to the MyHeritage site. MyHeritage seems to have been careless about my privacy, and I would imagine that there are many others in the same situation. What can we do about it?


    It’s gotta be ELLIS ISLAND. Huge exterior improvements, bells, whistles, CAMs from various views, gift shop items marked “made in Taiwan,” photos galore, ticket sales, and all the bravado that makes a website LOOK appealing. But, it does not function!
    Hello! It’s kinda become the stereotypical dumb blonde of online search engines.

    Shame shame on the designers, You invented a new broom, but it doesn’t sweep.
    And, this for a website for an American Historical LANDMARK. You’d think the Board would hire the best, most experienced designer, who understands the product!!!

    Lastly, Who is THE Audience? American citizens, probably over 40, who know WHAT they’re searching for. Not kids who fall for the bells and whistles, or illiterates who need pictures to identify.

    This new fangled website is an insult to the intelligence of its users. Any smart, savvy designer would have had genealogists in to test drive the model before its release.

    But, that just makes sense!


The site IS Ellis Island. They are asking for comments but give no way to leave them on the site LOL They are reviewing comments on their facebook page so please go try to use the site and make your comments on their facebook page. I have been in touch with management and they seem open to fixing some of this mess, but most of it is going to stay the same. The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. is but the old address will get your there for now…They are watching comments on their facebook pages to see what things they can fix. The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc.


You MUST be talking about the Australian site – New South Wales BDM.
They released the “new, updated, easier to use, quicker …..” site on 22 June 2014. It is certainly new but not any of the other adjectives.
They are still making “improvements” and in a press release this week they indicated that all changes should (note: SHOULD) be completed in 4 to 6 weeks.
We live in hope………


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