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a blog by ken pardue

Mac Family Tree (6.0.10) Review and Feedback

With the opening of the Mac App Store, many titles that I’ve contemplated buying for some time have been on sale for deeply discounted prices, and thanks to a Christmas iTunes gift card I decided to jump in and get Mac Family Tree from Synium Software.  This blog will serve as both review and feedback for the developer.

What I like:

  • The bread crumbs in Mac Family Tree are probably the best implemented in any genealogy program I’ve used.  As I’m sure most family researchers are aware, it’s very, very easy to get completely lost in a family file.  Having a consistent way to travel back to a point, regardless of whether or not the context changes by clicking on a source or image, is extremely ideal
  • Source Handling is fantastic.  In the left pane, the source window tells how many sources there are, and the source list describes how many entries the source is assigned to.  A researcher can get to any of the entries to view its detail, and then use the aforementioned fantastic bread crumb trail to go right back to the source.
  • I like the way media is handled much better than how it was implemented in the previous program I was using.  The file is a central place for all of the media to be located, and a researcher can review all media in one place.  This makes much more sense than having the only way to review media to be browsing through individuals’ information pages and happen to notice that a picture is attached.
  • Tight integration with FamilySearch is a nice thing to have.  Although I haven’t personally used it, I can appreciate that FamilySearch feels much more purpose-driven than profit-driven, unlike its competitor.  But, a researcher isn’t limited to that, since the Web Search option allows searching across Ancestry, Ellis Island, Find A Grave, Footnote, Google, My Heritage, World Vital Records, etc.
  • The app has a fresh, fast appearance.  I count that as something I like only to counter it with the thought that it’s too focused on pizazz and not enough on substance.  The interface is pleasant to look at but clunky to use.

What I don’t like–and there are a lot of these but they’re mostly very minor:

  • One of the more interesting draws for the program, at least as far as screenshots go, is the 3D Virtual Tree, a representation of one’s family tree where you can navigate up, down, and around a network of individuals represented by blue or pink avatars.  While this is gorgeous to look at, it’s gimicky, and so cumbersome to navigate that it’s almost completely useless.  The Family Tree view accomplishes the same result and is much, much more practical.  It’s a real shame that the developers spent so much time making this utility and not enough refining the rest of the interface.
  • The fonts feel very non-standard.  It would probably make for a much more native feeling application if the fonts were less bold. They appear out of place next to other Mac apps.
  • Although Places is a wonderful utility allowing the user to plot an ancestor’s location on a 3D virtual globe of the Earth, it requires too precice of data.  It’s impossible to add just a county/parish or state through the search interface, for instance.  The search interface only allows one to tag specific cities, although you can manually enter latitiude and longitude for a location.
  • It would be very useful if the Places dialog was more granular and allowed a separate entry for county/parish.
  • The 3D world map doesn’t provide enough detail and is a fairly low resolution representation of the earth.  It would be much more useful if it showed state and parish/county lines.  The options to show day/night lighting and stars in the background are relatively useless here for researchers… unless of course your relatives come from outer space–a question I’m sure many family researchers wonder about!
  • The location of the search box breaks convention by being oddly located in the bottom right of the screen rather than the upper right.
  • The application doesn’t retain search results when navigating using the bread crumbs.  For example, a search for Union Parish brings up some 15 results.  I can click on one of those results to view its details, but when I go back, instead of showing the 15 results I see all of the places in the database.
  • The Person detail screen feels cumbersome and clunky.  I think most of this is because it suffers from Tab overload.  More on this in a moment.
  • When navigating the Family Tree view, the pane on the right side highlights the selected individual in a list of all of those in the researcher’s file, sorted alphabetically.  A much better use of this pane would be to show useful information such a birthdate and death dates, notes, etc. about the selected individual.  The current solution is useless, because there is no context for simply showing the individual’s name in a list of this sort.
  • The lines connecting spouses/children in the Family Tree View get very confused when complex families are introduced (e.g. families where both the husband and wife have multiple spouses, especially when there are children with each.  I’m not sure how this can be made visually distinct, but it’s cumbersome as is.
  • Perhaps it would be useful in the Family Tree View to have a way to set a default individual, e.g. the researcher, and have some sort of visual cue while navigating the family tree as to which relative to move to in order to get back to that individual?  With complex family trees, it’s very easy to get lost.  Having a visual cue leading back to a default individual would serve as an excellent bread crumb trail for context.
  • When assigning photos to individuals, if one photo is assigned to more than one person (e.g. a family group photo) MacFamilyTree shouldn’t make multiple copies of the photo in the Media Browser.  I should be able to view the photo and from the photo’s information see all of the people it is assigned to rather than a separate photo for each assignment.

The ‘Person Detail’ screen is where a researcher will spend many hours over the course of his or her research.  It also happens to be one of the clunkiest parts of the program, with a lot of unneccary and redundant information.  Here are my thoughts on how the ‘Person Detail’ screen might be improved:

  • Why is there a tab for “Additional Names?”  Not only is this a relatively rarely used field, but would actually be better placed under the Facts area.
  • “Person’s Families” is a very necessary item, obviously, because it provides quick access to a person’s parents, spouse(s), and children.  However, “Oldest Ancestors” seems like something that would be more appropriately found in some sort of report, or perhaps added to a Useful Information dialog that provides this and other useful statistics, such as the information in the “World History” tab.
  • In the “Person’s Family” tab, if I’ve already added parents and a spouse, why are “Add Parents” and “Add Partner” still visible, but grayed out?  Perhaps there’s some kind of bug with my data import, because I see the parents, a grayed out indicator saying “Family without Parents,” and the grayed out “Add Parents…” button.
  • “Person Context” on the right side seems to be somewhat redundant.  While I can see it useful to see an individual’s uncles or aunts, what this really does is replicate the “Person’s Family” tab, which is where all of the pertinent information is.
  • At the bottom of the screen, on the “Personal Events” tab, there are three separate columns covering the Place information (Place, State, Country).  This could be combined into a single field which leaves much more space for the information in the Description field, something that could very well be long enough to need it.
  • Also on the “Personal Events” tab, what is the point of having an extra column to display an icon for the event type (e.g. star for birth, a hammer for occupation, etc) if this same icon is repeated later under Event Type?  Instead, wouldn’t it be far more useful to be able to quickly see an icon indicating whether or not the given event has a source?
  • The “Sources” tab contains sources related to the selected person in a general sense. Why not just put that in with the “Personal Information”?
  • The options in the “Label” tab seem like they’d be more appropriate on the main screen.  Not only is it a small bit of information, just three check boxes, but it’s also information that’s extremely useful to have at a glance.  If I’m browsing through individuals, I’m not likely going to click on the “Labels” tab to see whether or not they areIncomplete or Important.

I realize most people who complain about an interface rarely come up with ideas to make it better.  While I’m far from being a user interface guru, I did take the time to at least put some of my thoughts to the screen with Photoshop:

Mockup for Mac Family Tree

Behold!  In one fell swoop I’ve eliminated the Additional Names tab, Old Ancestors tab, Notes tab, Sources tab, Label tab, and World tab, while presenting all of the pertinent information to the user by adding an improved Notes tab, combinging functions from the “Family View” into the individual view, and more efficiently locating Source and Label information.  I’m sure there would be a problem with reflowing content when it becomes too large on this screen, but at the outset, as a researcher, this looks much more useful to me.  Let’s consider:

We have the labels always visible on the screen.

We have expanded the area containing basic information about a person to include general source information.

We have a more robust Family Information screen that allows the user to add a new Father or Mother (since, as is the case for one person in my family, there may be conflicting information about who a person’s parents were–a person may have more than one father or mother listed), and we also have an indicator linking married parents.

We have a “Family Events” tab which, if thought through properly, could probably completely replace the Family view.

We have more useful “Person Events”, losing the redundant Event Type icon and replacing it with an indicator for whether or not an Event has Source information.  We also have a more compact and useful Place description, and a larger area to put in a Description of the event.

Finally, we have a new Notes tab which allows the researcher to type in notes about our Mr. John Q. User, as well as aggregate notes from other events attached to him.

Although I didn’t make a mockup for it, I envison the More Info tab here to contain the information such as the World History information, a listing of the person’s Oldest Ancestors, etc.  This may also be a good place to point out other useful information to the researcher, such as an improper birth and death date indicating the person died at the age of 147, or perhaps that there’s another John Quincy User in the database that might be a duplicate.

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