Genealogy and UX: Improving usability for patrons of all ages

Here’s how I helped make the family history conference, GenCOMO, more accessible for all patrons through user research, a dash of DIY spirit, and a fresh coat of visual branding.

Overview

GenCOMO 2017 is a family history conference in Columbia, Missouri (known as COMO by the locals) put on entirely by dedicated volunteers. Now in its third year, the 2017 event attracted 250+ attendees. Each attendee registered online.

I knew we could make that experience better for our patrons. So much behind-the-scene work goes on in event planning to make the actual day go smoothly and I wanted that experience to start with a stronger first impression than what we had. In addition to coordinating the press releases and media interviews, I took on “the website project” to improve the design through user research.

Challenges

No project is without constraints. Here were the top three:

  1. Tiny time. I’m balancing raising my three little kids, an intensive grad school program and a full-time job right now, so the time I had to work on this passion project was extremely precious.
  2. Tiny budget. The marketing budget covered posters, other printed publicity materials, and the website hosting fees. That’s about it.
  3. Tiny team. As the all-in-one researcher, designer and developer, I had to be mindful of what I could realistically accomplish on this volunteer project.

Discover

I determined that the goal of the site was to encourage event registrations. Related top tasks were to learn about the sessions offered and how to get to the conference.

My first task was a review of the existing site from the previous year, followed by a competitor analysis. I chose three to compare and asked friends and family to attempt to register on all of them. This quick exercise showed me what others paid attention to when visiting an event site, opportunities for improvement, and areas of unmet user needs. After seeing more than one volunteer tester wonder about who is organizing the event, I added building an About page to the top tasks from this analysis.

To start learning about our patrons, I interviewed volunteers who have managed the registration table. From this perspective at the check-in table, you meet almost everyone who attended, even if very briefly. Since we didn’t collect demographic data in previous registration, this anecdotal information and post-conference surveys from the first year helped me craft what I called “lite personas” as a reference for the design phase. I also relied on my personal experience volunteering and attending the two previous GenCOMO conferences to flesh out the details even further.

I knew that older users might need help navigating this site, but how could I facilitate that?

I researched the internet habits of older Americans, as the age range for this conference tends to be above 50 years old. I found helpful information from Pew Research about how older users of technology rely on others to show them how to use new devices. Would that also expand to include new online activities, such as registering online for a conference for the first time? If so, how could I facilitate that?

Define

Time to make decisions about my resource options. What was within the scope of my constraints? What resources could I rely on that would be volunteer-friendly? I needed a low-barrier of entry (tiny time and team, remember?) and to stick to open source or free resources (tiny budget). Plus, all the site materials needed to be something that I could organize, package and neatly pass to the next volunteer, who may have no experience with designing websites (as was the case with the previous year). I’ve learned from experience that a clean hand-off could go a long way to set the site up for future success.

From the beginning, we established a file organization system using Google drive to help keep the process accessible and transparent. Besides Adobe Photoshop and InDesign, all other programs that were easily accessible and integrated with the hosting service.

Develop

I took the insights from my discovery stage to decide all of the content needs, from words to visuals. Relying on my background in marketing, I crafted clear hierarchies of information, stronger calls to action, and re-wrote presenter bios, session descriptions and informational copy to tell stories and cut down as much as I was allowed to avoid information overload.

One of the challenges at this stage was to make the site more visually polished and we needed a lot more photos. With much wrangling, I procured photos of each of the presenters, although many were poor quality. I manipulated them within Photoshop to remove the most glaring differences and deficiencies.

Ever savvy, the planning group intended to reuse some of the more expensive signage and directional pieces from the first year. I needed to make sure there were certain design elements incorporated for cross-channel consistency. I matched fonts and created a color palette to work across all platforms.

When I presented my first low-fidelity version to the planning committee, I was sensitive to the fact that we were all volunteers, and most of the committee felt mystified and intimidated by the process of creating a website. I needed to be clear in communicating my ideas and specific in my questions. For example, it was far more effective if I proposed options and requested feedback rather than asking for ideas they already (didn’t) have. Their feedback was still important to me because of their expertise in the subject matter and because their age range was much closer to many of the users’ than mine.

Deliver

With stakeholder buy-in on the initial designs, I then took my prototype to users and began testing.

My wonderful usability testing volunteers

The most memorable usability test was with a 55-year-old woman and her 83-year-old-mother. The daughter helped her mother register for the conference online. I observed as she acted as the middle-woman between the site and her mother. The daughter would read things to her mother, discuss, and then take her mother’s response back to the site to look for additional info to answer her mother’s questions.

Seeing how slowly the conversation moved, how reliant the mother was on the daughter to navigate the site, and how strongly she declined to use the computer herself, I decided to add printer-friendly links to PDFs throughout the site. I created a session guide with information about each class and speaker available as a PDF to download. I also added color coding to the session calendar to make it easier to see at a glance repeating sessions, a change based on where I observed users struggle in testing.

Before and after updates to conference printables for easier review

Outcomes

In the post-conference survey, patrons overwhelmingly had positive things to say about the site: 93% said they found the site to be well-organized, and 89% agreed that the site met their needs well overall.

Personal note:

Ultimately, the conference was a personal success because, like every year, I continued to learn something new about my own family history. I learned about Twile, a family history timeline generator. When I imported my own family history, I noticed there were dates for step-relatives I’d never heard of! Those closely-kept family secrets… who knows what I’ll learn at the next GenCOMO.

Bonus short video for making it down this far: A UX+ Genealogy gem