Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What I Want in a Family Tree Program

Many of my readers know that I've been working in Family Tree Maker 2009, Legacy Family Tree 7 and RootsMagic 4 for the past few months. It is difficult to sort out which program is "best" for me. All three do most things well, but one or more programs do some things better than the others.

To help me decide, I made a list of features that I want to have in my software program and I can then judge each program on a rational basis. The list of features:

1. File management

* Able to import and export GEDCOM files
* Able to import from databases created in other programs
* Able to have several databases open at once
* Quickly opens and closes databases (like under 15 seconds for a 20,000 person tree)

2. Data Entry

* Input birth and and death dates/places in one search box
* Input spouse's name and marriage date/place in one search box
* Input additional Facts for each person
* Able to create one or more Sources for each Fact
* Use Evidence! Explained type Source templates for Facts and Media
* Use Source Quality Ratings (for Information, Sources and Evidence)
* Attach Media (image, video, audio, document) to Persons, specific Facts and Sources (from host computer files or Internet)
* Create narrative notes for Person, with basic formatting capability (font choice, font size, italics, underlining, centering, bullet points, symbols, spell check, etc.)

3. Data Views

* Person view (shows all Facts with Source and Media indicators)
* Family view (including parents, siblings, spouse(s), children)
* Relationship view (persons related to the specific person)
* Pedigree view (at least 4 generations, number selectable by user)
* Descendants view (indented)
* Timeline view of Person and Family

4, Navigation

* Intuitive menus, icons and tabs
* Minimize number of clicks to input and edit data fields
* Uses name index to navigate to selected person
* Uses pedigree chart to navigate to selected person

5. Indexes and Searches

* Persons (including birth and death dates, and spouses names and marriage dates)
* Locations
* Search for person names, and person/spouse names

6. Features

* Mapping feature that accepts alternate county/state /country locations (because places changed counties, states and countries over time)
* Relationship calculator for two specific persons
* Problem alerts for names, dates and relationships
* Day of the month/year and age calculators (able to calculate birth date from death date)
* Web search on selected database sites (with ability for user to add more)
* Ability to easily capture images from online sites
* Create web pages (or complete website) from genealogy database

7. Reports and Charts

* Ahnentafel list (names, BMD dates and places)
* Ancestor and Descendant narrative reports (with Register and NGSQ numbering systems)
* Create a narrative book with front pages, Table of Contents, Index (in HTML, PDF or MSWord format with embedded field codes) and basic formatting capabilities
* Place reports (people and events) with sources
* Source reports (with options to show Facts and Media for each)
* Media reports (with options to show Facts and Media for each)
* Custom reports (user selects fields and persons to include)
* Birth, death and/or marriage Calendars for selected persons
* Ancestor (boxes, fan), Descendant and Hourglass or Bowtie Charts (multi-pages if necessary) with basic formatting capabilities
* Charts with scalable background images with basic formatting capabilities

I think that encompasses most of my requirements (wants?). I know that I don't know what I don't know about the current software programs! There are so many bells and whistles on them that they can be bewildering to a novice and often confusing to an advanced user.

There are software comparisons at the Top 10 Genealogy Software Review. There are user reviews of many programs - both desktop programs and online applications - at Louis Kessler's GenSoftReviews site.

After this weekend's discussion of Genealogy in the Cloud here and here, I will also use this list to evaluate the readiness of online genealogy software applications to accept my precious genealogy databases.

If you have other "must-have" or "want badly" criteria for genealogy software, please let me know in Comments to this post.

UPDATED: 6/24, 9 a.m. Added words to some lines - changes in orange.

Thank you all for good comments - many I didn't consider.

Louis - I planned to make a comparison table for my list and then try to check them off for each program.

Tracy - I included the image upload in the Data Entry section.

Darlene - why stop at four colors? I agree with you, but for me it's a "nice to have"

Scott - maybe I didn't think the "multiple databases open at same time" item through clearly. It's a leftover from PAF 2 where you could have only one open at a time, so I have many databases, some with same information. I could merge them all, but would need time to do the merges. If I received a GEDCOM file I would want to have that file open to compare to my own database without merging them.

Scott - I want to attach media to Facts and Sources like Census records, Military records, City directories, cemetery records, etc. I changed the wording in the list a bit. Media to Source to Fact is OK with me - it covers more than one source for a fact that way.

Geolover - thanks for good example of reasons for multiple databases, and will have to check out your cousin marriage problem.

Eileen - good additions. Let me think about them a bit. I have no time invested in attached media because of export issues. This needs to be standardized somehow if we are going to put our databases in the Cloud. Longitude and latitude should be in mapping function output, right? Maybe they just need to be printed out. Or did you mean you want to input a long/lat? Why - a grave location, a birth hospital, or residence?


Susan Kitchens said...

Operating system: Mac OS.

Which means that I will go with the minor league players if/when I get around to using a genealogy app.

Louis Kessler said...

Randy. That's a great list.

It would be wonderful if you might want to make a matrix of those wants versus each of the three programs you've been working with. That would make it easier to see which ones are providing your wants and where they are lacking.
This would also be the start of a very useful comparison between programs, from someone (you) who actually used and worked in detail with the programs.

Something like this hasn't been done since Richard Wilson did his great comparison, but it has not been updated in the last 6 years: http://rwilson.us/comparison.htm

I'm very interested in hearing more about your "wants" for genealogy software.

Tracy said...

I agree with Louis - great list and would like to see which programs perform better than others in these categories as I am preparing to upgrade my software.

I have been a user of the Ancestry.com trees primarily because of the ability to share the files with others. My chief complaint is there are no report options.

What about the ability to upload jpg, pdf, or other types of files?

Unknown said...

And Mumford's Genealogical Software Report Card http://www.mumford.ca/reportcard/ that has not been updated in four years.

My personal requirement that is not on your list: colors. I have to have my four grandparent's colors. Roots Magic & Legacy both do colors but I went with Legacy bc it was the first to do colors since version 4 or 5.

Scott Mueller said...

Excellent list, as the creator of AppleTree.com I love to see what's important to power users as I develop my cloud based genealogy application.

Can I ask why the ability to work on multiple databases at once important to you? Why not combine databases that you frequently work in conjunction with one another?

Another question is the desired featured of attaching media to specific facts. Would attaching media to sources, which are then linked to facts, satisfy this? What use cases do you have mind for attaching media to facts directly?

Geolover said...

Scott wonders why not combine databases one works on simultaneously?

My cent #1 - Some have similar databases with mostly same people, one that is or will be public, one that will not (because contains details on living persons and/or contains myriad research notes on unresolved issues).

My cent #2 - I have some parallel sub-databases because most sites do not display relationships correctly where cousins have married, even when the cousins were in different generations from their common ancestors. Descendant charts from genealogy programs do not show the links correctly. They merely show the spouses in different places without making the connection. I have not figured out a workaround for this. Ancestry charts also do not show the links correctly; they duplicate the common ancestry.

A fix for this latter problem would be on my wish-list for a genealogy program.

Scott Mueller said...

Geolover, thank you for you 2 cents. First cent makes sense :). Would exporting the data (through GEDCOM or visually) based on a filter like only living people obviate the need for this? It seems very inefficient in many ways to have 2 separate databases with mostly the same people.

Second cent, what exactly do you want shown for cousins that are married? A curvy line across the chart linking the copies of the duplicated spouse? Or some kind of bubble in the duplicated spouse's nodes that you click and can go to the various copies? This is something I've given a great deal of thought. I think I've come up with a pretty good solution at AppleTree.com to all visualization issues and am able to display everyone all at once. But I could certainly use extra input as to how to make it better or point out issues...

Eileen said...

Great list an reflects most of my wants as well. My additions:
1. Either upgrade the GEDCOM spec to handle media or have the ability to import in native mode from the more popular software. I use FTM 2009 and have much invested in attached media. Currently, only TMG can import my database with media. Roots Magic only goes to FTM 2006.
2. Ability to enter longitude and latitude for places.
3. Ability to enter DNA data.

Anonymous said...

Eileen, GEDCOM does support multimedia already (and entire articles can be written about that).

You already indicate a major problem with direct import; RootsMagic can import FTM directly,
but when Ancestry.com changed the FTM database format in version 2008, they broke that capability.

The GEDCOM specification allows the database to be exported from FTM and imported into RootsMagic despite the database changes.

You can also try exporting to FTM 16 and then importing that into RootsMagic.

- Tamura

Louis Kessler said...


In my opinion, one of the worst things you can do is to combine other people's databases into your own. Unless you meticulously record what was each of theirs and what was yours, you'll eventually forget and not know anymore.

A program that will "virtually" combine them for you will be a godsend. You avoid the hours of work of matching people and selecting fields to use. And you avoid having to redo all that everytime your relative sends you their update.

It boggles my mind how so many programs have sophisticated merging algorithms that promote the wrong thing.

Scott Mueller said...

Louis, regarding combining other people's databases into my own, are you referring to what I'm doing at AppleTree.com? I record every change anybody makes, including merges of people, events and media. So everything is undoable and trackable. Clearly that is mandatory if people are going to be collaborating on a massive family tree.

I'm curious what you mean exactly by "virtually" combining data and the wrong thing being promoted by so many programs.

Geolover said...


Re my cent #1, the living-person-filtering does not always work; sometimes the living person is still searchable, sometimes the data on them still viewable. Better not to trust filtering in general.

Also on cent #1, one might have a database Version B with a trial of believed-ancestors and/or some believed-descendants who are not proven but still in a finding-proof mode.

On cent #2, in a descendancy chart some colored broken/dotted line connecting A's spouse-cousin B from A's slot with B's "descendant" slot. In one of my family groups (descendants of a given couple) there are quite a few cousin-marriages, so a different color for each link would be helpful.

Still on cent #2, in the aforesaid greater family group, I doubt that showing the common ancestors only once can be done intelligibly in 2 dimensions, where there are multiple cousins from different branches marrying (analogous to the 4-color map limitation).

If the cousins are 2 ways from a common ancestor, it gets more interesting.

If the cousins are from different common ancestors as well as from the principal ancestors that the dB began with, it gets even more interesting, where there is intent to establish a universal tree.

Have fun!

Louis Kessler said...


I think most of us here are thinking about desktop genealogy programs and our own databases. In that case we shouldn't go through the counter-productive work involved in merging other people's data into our own. It pollutes and corrupts our own research.

However, in online programs, there is a different goal - and that is to connect. On GenSoftReviews, I now count 70 full featured online genealogy sites. The concept you have for AppleTree is unique in that you make everything public and editable by everyone.

I wish you good success with it. Not all people will be enamoured with making all their data public, but it might work. You do, however, have a lot of competition, and the rest of them have a head start.

I hadn't heard of AppleTree before, but I've now added it to GenSoftReviews.

If you'd like to continue this conversation, please email me: lkessler at lkessler dot com, instead of using Randy's blog comments.

Scott Mueller said...

Louis, great informative genealogy app review site @ www.gensoftreviews.com! I'll definitely email you to continue our conversation as I disagree about online apps necessarily having a different goal than desktop, there are just more possibilities to easily collaborate, avoid duplication have more accurate data and penetrate brick walls.. There is competition in the online Geni-like sites, but not much competition in the approach I've taken.

Anybody wanting to meet up, I'll be at the Jamboree tomorrow and the weekend. I'm at scott at appletree.com.