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What Makes You Like A Genealogy Program? - Tue, 11 Jan 2011

I just tabulated my GenSoftReview Users Choice Awards for 2010. There were 8 programs that had enough votes and an overall user rating of at least 4 out of 5. There were another 7 programs which had garnered at least 4 but hadn’t yet got the 10 reviews required. They are potential award winners next year given they stay well liked and get a few more reviews. (See the Rankings page for the details).

So there are quite a number of programs that are well liked by their users. But what does a program need to make it well liked? I’m very interested in that, and I myself have had trouble over the years finding a program that I like and being able to stick with it.

Reading through the reviews, it starts to become clear that the most-liked programs are not necessarily the most powerful, or the ones with the best reports, or the ones ones with the fancier interfaces. And they are not the online programs. There is not just one or two programs that are well-liked, but there are many.

I think I’ve figured it out. Each of us works in different ways, and you’d think we’d choose the program we want amongst all those out there. But we don’t. Most of us pick one because we find it in the store, or a friend recommends it, or we happen to go looking online and find several, download a few, try a couple and choose one. And 9 times out of 10, the program does the job for us well enough to make us stay with it.

Once we become familiar with the program we chose, we work more efficiently, learn shortcuts and tricks, start to find out about some of the neat features and feel very comfortable with it. We actually start to grow attached to the program. While that is going on, all the nuisances and features we would like but are missing, all become less important, and we learn to work the way the program works and ignore what it doesn’t do.

And stay with it we do. We become one with our program. As genealogists, we spend hours and hours on our computer entering data and trying to make sense of it. And most of that time is with our haphazardly-chosen program open in front of us. By now we love our program and wouldn’t think of changing to program X. Why would we?

So if we are called upon to review and rate that program that we have spent so much time with, we have to rate it a 4 or a 5, because this is our program, the program we know and love.

Here’s a similar example. Ask a Mac user how he rates his Mac? Ask a Windows user how he rates Windows? Maybe the Mac guy would be a 5 and the Windows guy a 3 or a 4. But would either of them switch? Very rarely. Most often, what they started with, they’ll continue to use, as long as it serves them reasonably well.

Okay, then why do some programs get up there and are well-liked, and others are not? That’s simple, too. First there are the programs that are hard to use. Forget them. They’ll never get up there. Those are not the programs I was talking about.

The well-liked easy to use programs only need to do one thing to stay our friend. They need to be able to be relied on. They need to continue to serve us “reasonably well”. That means that we have to have confidence that the program is going to be around a long time, and can be assured that it will work in a similar manner for us 5 years from now as it does today (abeit hopefully with many small improvements and being kept bug-free). We are putting all our data in as well as our blood, sweat and tears, and we want assurances that we’ll be able to get it out again, not have the database get corrupted, not have the company go bankrupt, and always have have some way to get support when we need it.

The programs with the 4 and 5 ratings are the ones that provide this stability. Many have been around for a long time and have old interfaces, but they are interfaces their users are used to. They are not transformed every version, but are tweaked here and there as improvements that their users can accept and adjust to.

The one case-in-point that everyone thinks of is Family Tree Maker. Up to Version 16, most people were reasonably happy with the program, and it scored a respectible 3.86 out of 5 and just missed winning a GenSofrReviews User Choice Award. Ancestry.com took a big chance and decided it was necessary to rewrite the program with new technology. They released it and gave their existing users no choice but to upgrade. After using the old program for many years which many users were familiar with and very happy with, they now had to change everything. They felt betrayed and let down. They knew they had lost support for their old program and all was lost. Not a nice feeling.

Will Ancestry.com recover from this? I actually think they will. They made a lot of their original customers hate them and probably lost many of them. But it’s now been several years and they have slowly been improving their new version. The rating of the new version of Family Tree Maker is creeping up. It was a horrible 2.15 out of 5 in 2009 but improved to 2.49 in 2010. It will probably make another jump in 2011 as new purchasers start to go through the use-the-program, get-used-to-it, get-to-like-it cycle.

Familiarity is the key. Stability is the rock. Pick your program. Use it for a few years. If you last that long with it, you’ll like it. Guaranteed.

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