Modern Software Experience

2011-04-07

genealogy software features

When you think about genealogy software features, the first things you think about are genealogical features, such as GEDCOM support or ancestral reports. However, these non-genealogical features may be even more important; an application that meets all these features will be a joy to use, while one that does not meet any of these features is one you should actively avoid and warn your friends against.

1. install and uninstall

The application should come with an installer and an uninstaller.
The best installer is an unremarkable one, one that simply does what it is supposed to do. It should simply follow all the operating system guidelines and conventions, and not present any surprises.
An application may demand a minimum operating system version or patch level. It does not have to patch your operating system for you, but it should clearly communicate which requirements aren't met, and how you can fix that.

An application may require the installation of some run-time module. However, any run-time it needs should be distributed with the application and the application installer should offer to install it if it has not been installed it. An application should not demand that you manually install half a dozen third-party packages before you can begin to install the application itself.

The vendor should offer a real installer, not yet another vendor-specific download program that does nothing more than download the actual installer. The installer should be complete; the application manual, help file or language files should not be separate downloads, but be included as part of the single installer.

The installer should not phone home. The installer should not contact the Internet at all. Once you have the installer, you should be able to install the application on any desktop or laptop without an Internet connection.

The application installer should not mess with your system or browser settings. Many products include third-party libraries, but the installer should not install third-party applications without telling you. The installer should not install browser toolbars or any auto-start components without asking for your permission. That is malware behaviour.

The installer should come with an uninstaller. Once installed, the application should show up in the list of installed products, and you should be able to uninstall it in the usual way. The uninstaller should not leave any mess behind.

2. separate program and data directories

The program should be in a program directory, the data should be in data directory. Nowadays, Windows expect applications to be installed in subdirectory of Program Files and to keep their data in a subdirectory of My Documents.
Data should not be stored in the program directory. You should be able to delete the entire program directory and all its subdirectories without losing any data.
All the data should be kept in a single directory. You should be able to back up that directory without missing any of your data.

3. documentation

The application should include documentation. The traditional trio is a Getting Started document, a User Manual and a help file, completed by a README file that contains only the most essential information and last-minute changes.
Printed manuals may be available at an additional cost, but electronic versions should be included with the application. Additional books may be available from the vendor or third parties, but the included documentation should be all you need.

A help file and User Manual are two different things. A user manual is an explanatory conceptual introduction designed to read from start from finish. A help file provides, often context-sensitive, reference to product details. There is considerable overlap, but having a user manual does not obviate the need for online help.

The user guides should be in some widely supported format such as RTF, HTML or Adobe PDF. The online help file should be in the system's help format. An online help site fails in three important ways; it is not in the system's native help file format, it is not included with the application, and it demands an Internet connection.

4. documented application requirements

Applications require a minimum OS version, some amount of hard disk space and a minimum amount of RAM. Installation from CD-ROM requires a CD-ROM drive and download from the Internet requires an Internet connection. Some applications may require a run-time such as the Microsoft .NET Framework.
No one should not have to ask what the application requirements are. The requirements should be documented clearly and conspicuously.

5. reasonable application requirements

Nowadays, few applications demand more than the typical PC has to offer. However, many vendors of genealogy application are less than honest and forthcoming about the actual memory requirements of their applications. Many genealogy applications demand far more memory than the vendor's official application requirements suggest.

Applications do not need to be as frugal with memory as they had to be several decades ago. Alas, some genealogy application do not use memory, but waste memory. These applications act as if memory is infinite, and manage to run out of memory at the slightest provocation, say someone trying to use the application.
Some genealogy applications seem to gobble several kilobytes of RAM for every individual in the database - and that is before you ask the application to draw a diagram. Some genealogy applications are so astonishingly inefficient with memory that they cannot even import an 30 MB file on 4 GB system.

Genealogy software should make genealogy easier, not harder.

6. easy to use

This should be no-brainer, but experience with many genealogy applications shows that it isn't. It also shows that not all vendors care about ease of use. Some vendors even tell themselves and their users that having an unnecessarily hard to use interface is a sign of professionalism. Truth is that, although powerful software may be complex to write, it should still not be complex to use. The user interface should not be so complex that it gets in the way of doing genealogy. Genealogy software should make genealogy easier, not harder.

A lot of genealogy software is easy enough to use, but there are a few real stinkers and there is plenty of software that varies from somewhat idiosyncratic to truly awkward. Luckily, most vendors offer demo or trial versions that allow you to experience the software for yourself, using your own data.

7. user-friendly

User-friendliness is more than easy of use. It includes status messages, hourglasses and progress bars when operation takes a bit longer. It includes features such as saving each edit when you make it, so that you never have to worry about saving your work - a simple, basic feature that comes free with every database system, yet some genealogy applications still don't have it!
User-friendliness is more than having a graphical user interface. It includes log files that can help you figure out what went wrong when something goes wrong. It means not forcing users into some straightjacket, but letting you user enter data in any order they like when there is no real reason to demand a particular order. It means having a help file that is helpful, instead of one that merely has images and brief descriptions of all the dialog boxes.

8. stable

It may seem somewhat odd to mention stability as a feature, but it is a sad fact that quite a lot of genealogy software currently on the market crashes way too often and too easily. Many vendors, not just small overconfident one-programmer outfits, but even big-name companies with large development budgets, apparently still think it is okay to release hurriedly written software without testing it first.

9. responsive

Software should be responsive. There are notable exceptions, but a lot of genealogy software is incredibly slow, even when run on a fast PC.
A lot of genealogy software is slow to import and export data (and may crash when you try to do so, so that you have to try their slow procedure again). Some dishonest vendors try to make their product look better by falsely claiming import times that are significantly lower than the actual import time.

Some genealogy software is so unresponsive that it does not even deserve to be called interactive software anymore; it makes you wait for the simplest of operations, making it practically unusable. Some software displays an hourglass cursor when you try to do something as basic as adding a source to the individual you are editing. Some software takes minutes just to start up.

In these days of multi-gigahertz PCs, even most badly designed genealogy software will seem to perform acceptably with small genealogy databases of just a few thousand individuals, but performance with small databases means little. However small your database is today, it is not getting smaller. Your genealogy application should handle medium size and large genealogies with ease.

10. ad-free

Software should be ad-free. Most desktop genealogy software is ad-free, but a lot of web apps and mobile apps are not. Typically, the vendor offers an ad-supported free edition, and an ad-free premium edition. Feel free to try the free edition, but get the premium edition if you decided to really use it. You'll be glad you did.
Advertisements are not only distracting, they take up valuable screen estate as well; space needed for the application itself.

11. no-hassles pay-once license

You may opt for subscription service, but if you do not opt for one, be sure that you are not tricked into one. Not all vendors of subscription services do so overtly, several do so covertly.

At least one vendor offers ostensible free software as if it the only edition they offer. When you try to use it, however, you will find out that it is actually a lite edition of their premium edition, and that most of features they advertised are only available in the premium edition, which requires a subscription.
At least one other vendor treats their software as a subscription; they change the major version number once a year, as if they are releasing a major new version, however small the changes are compared to the previous release, and then stop releasing patches for previous versions.

You should be able to buy a no-hassles pay-once license. It should install and work without problems on the current versions of the operating system. The vendor should provide service packs and patches for several years. It should last you through several operating system upgrades.

Your license should be tied to you, not your machine. You should be able to install the software on both your desktop and laptop. You should be able to install it on a new machine without needing an Internet connection. You should not have to ask the vendor for anything.

12. support

You cannot expect all phone support to be toll-free or all email answers to be immediate, but there should be some support from the product vendor. The support options should be clearly documented, in all the manuals, in the help file and on the website. Vendor support times should be clearly documented, and when you call during the support hours, the phone should be answered - you should definitely not discover that no one is answering the phone because the company has a vacancy for a receptionist.
One-on-one vendor support is only part of the picture. Many of the more popular products have users clubs. The collective knowledge of the community of users around a product may well exceed that of support personal.
A vendor-supplied forum is another place to find others who may have had the same problem, and know a solution - but only if the vendor provides such a forum.

final remarks

All or most of the above may seem obvious, but every single issue mentioned above relates to at least one current genealogy application, not just some historical product. Every remark relates to a current genealogy application that some vendor is peddling today. Even worse, most of the remarks are inspired by new or well-known genealogy applications.
Pop quiz: do you recognise the products behind each issue?

updates

2011-04-20 Genealogy Application Icons 2011

Application icons are far from the most important application feature, but they are a very visible feature. Back in 2009, Vista Genealogy Icons had a look at large icons in genealogy applications. More than two years on, Genealogy Application Icons 2011 consider the issue again.

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