Exclusive: findmypast responds to website redesign criticism

By Jon Bauckham, 8 April 2014 - 6:00pm

While some researchers have been able to access findmypast’s new web platform since the beginning of March, the majority of users were not moved over until last week.

However, rather than being hailed as an innovative step forward, the new platform has sparked widespread criticism.

As well as complaints about the general design of the user interface, members have pointed out that certain search tools no longer work properly or are missing altogether.

One thread on the findmypast feedback forum has racked up well over 1,000 comments, while other online channels – including Facebook, Twitter and the Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine Forum – have seen calls for the old site to be reinstated.

We contacted findmypast and asked them to respond to our readers' criticisms. Here are the answers we received, put together by staff across the findmypast team.

Question: On the whole, the old findmypast platform was very popular with the family history community. Can you explain why there was a need to change it at all?

Answer: Findmypast is now over 10 years old and technology has advanced and changed. In order for the site to improve, we need to embrace new technologies and by moving the website on to a new platform, we will be able to provide better features and release new records more often.

Among the many great features are: a striking, new family tree that enables you to upload a GEDCOM file for the first time and new record releases every week. If we do not move, we will always be limited feature-wise, and we will not be able to speed up the process of releasing new records.

This is just the beginning - our members will see many more new search improvements over the coming weeks and months.

Q: Even if you needed to bring findmypast more up-to-date, why has the new website removed popular functions (for example, the ability to save newspaper images) altogether? In the case of census records, a ‘search by address’ option has survived but it doesn’t appear to work.

A: As we were unable to release new records and give our customers access to our new family tree on the old site, there was a judgment call on how quickly we moved customers to the new site so that they could access them. The remaining features have been prioritised and the team is working to deliver them as quickly as possible.

With regards to the census search by address issue, this appears to be a bug and is being investigated. Based on customer feedback we are also revisiting the address search functionality to bring it in line with the old site.

Q: Why did you not offer customers the chance to use the old and new versions in parallel with each other? This would at least have allowed members to get used to the new version, point out the flaws, but still be able to get on with their research unhindered…

A: We ran the new and old site in parallel for over 12 months with our International customers using the new site and our UK customers using the old site. The complication we faced was trying to allow UK customers to have access to both sites and managing their account, purchases and records viewed on both. If it had simply been a case of new search functionality being launched it would have been far simpler.

Q: People are complaining that the new ‘look’ itself (the larger fonts and spacing) also makes the website difficult to use. For example, simply getting to search results now involves a lot of scrolling and extra keystrokes. What was the thinking behind this?

A: The layout of the search interface aims to balance making the information easy to read, and making it easy to scan large amounts of data. We are constantly looking at how different types of people use the website, and we will tweak the layout over the next few weeks, as well as steadily improving the overall search interface in various ways.

Some of these improvements include adding ways of quickly filtering through datasets, editing the search without having to return to the form, better location functionality, and many other small and large changes that should improve our customers workflow significantly.

Q: Obviously for a major project like this, there must have been testing. Did this testing involve professional genealogists and ordinary users of the website? How were customers consulted during the development?

A: We put out a call to users who have previously expressed an interest in helping test and feedback new features. This group comprised several thousand customers who span all segments of our user base. They were invited to test the new platform earlier in the year, and provide feedback. Along with this, our search team runs user testing sessions regularly, where we ask customers to come to our London office and feedback on new designs and prototypes.

We also regularly split test alternative design options with live customers across our International markets, and combine those learnings into future development work. This, combined with giving all our customers access at Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2014, formed the backbone of our user testing.

Q: What is being done to improve the speed of the new site? There seems to be a consensus that searches are taking much longer than before.

A: We have a team working around the clock on site performance. We have already made a number of infrastructure investments and will not stop until the new site is at the least as quick as the old site.

Q: The feedback forum has had well over 1,000 comments. What are you doing to make sure customers’ responses are acknowledged? There were also complaints that some comments were removed. What was the reasoning behind this?

A: We’re doing our best to respond to all of the comments we receive. We’re also monitoring the most common feedback, generating help and advice pages for customers based around it, and ensuring we surface those wherever possible. In terms of comments being removed, we only remove comments that are duplicates and being posted multiple times around the forums. This is actually something that happens automatically to avoid spamming.

We’ve also been keeping track of every separate ‘Idea’ posted by users, and where duplicates of existing ideas are created, we merge those in with existing ideas. Whenever we merge ideas, all the votes and comments associated with it are kept as well. We want the forum to be an open and honest dialogue with our customers. This is our customers’ forum to tell us what they think, in an open and public way. Given the very broad range of comments being left, it’s clear we’re not deleting or censoring what people are saying.

Q: There has been a general criticism that customers have not been kept in the loop since these changes went ahead. When Annelies van den Belt [findmypast CEO] wrote an apology, why was this only posted on Facebook and not elsewhere? 

A: We are very sorry to hear our customers do not feel they were kept in the loop. We followed a communication plan to try to ensure all customers were informed. Annelies’s update was posted on Facebook in answer to the many posts we had received. In future, we will try to ensure our customers are better informed.

Q: Some customers may have only just taken out a subscription, only to find that they have been presented with a site that is not fit for purpose. Are you in a position to offer refunds? If so, how can your customers obtain these?

A: Our new site is not unfit for purpose. A number of features may now look very different and may not be instantly recognisable to all our users, but all of the essential functions of the old search are still there. We acknowledge that there have been some technical issues that have affected some areas of the search and we apologise for any inconvenience these may have caused, although the ability to search for records has remained functional throughout.

We admit that we still have some way to go before everything is perfected and we now have dedicated teams and a system in place to analyse all of our customers' feedback and make the necessary improvements as quickly as possible. We are following our standard refund procedures; these are explained within our terms and conditions on the website.

Q: Finally – will you be bringing the old site back in any capacity? Is it technically possible?

A: We will not continue to host the old findmypast site once everyone has been moved over. All our customers’ research and information has been moved along with all of the records and features they previously had access to, so once all the development and improvements are complete, there should be no need to go back to the old site.

We know there have been problems which have inconvenienced our customers and understand that some of the changes may take a while to get used to, but we are here to help every step of the way.

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