Your Family Story – reflections of an HCI Project

Posted by on Apr 9, 2012 in Ethno Thinks | No Comments


The brief for this project asked us to do research for brightSolid, an online technology business specializing in ancestry and genealogy. I am personally very interested in the idea of memory storing and collaborative sharing of (personal) information on the web, so I was very engaged in this project from the beginning.



Through our initial desk research of the client’s competition and the concept of memory sharing we moved into the user-testing phase, which lead us to the concept development phase. From our research, we came up with two options for the project to move forward, one was to keep the existing interface but make improvements based on the results from our user-testing sessions and the other was to create a new concept for the client based on our initial research and findings from what our users said about expectation and wants. We decided to move forward with our new concept because we believe that this allowed us to think of the broader challenges instead of just coming up with “band-aid solutions” to cover up current interface problems.



Our new concept is called “Your Family Story”, which would be a private network that allows users to tell their family (hi)stories from their perspective and collaborate with other members, while sharing and viewing stories placed in context. Humans share memories through stories. We are used to telling each other stories as we sit around a fire in cozy chairs, maybe sipping a cup of tea, gathered comfortably in the family living room. Our concept is based on the idea that there should be a “digital” version of a family living room – a comfortable place to tell our stories in the digital world.



We began our research by looking at the current family tree market, which consists of three different offerings: standalone software, online family trees and new apps that allow users to upload data from an existing family tree. We also did some in-depth research into the client’s main competitors.

This lead to some initial questions such as:
How can we rethink the family tree concept? How can we enable collaboration? Why can’t users view and tell their story from their perspective? Why aren’t these stories and relationships rooted in the context of time and place? Why can’t users import stories from existing networks and have a choice in how they share them?

From there we started considering some of the larger issues such as:
How can we communicate meaning in the digital world? What makes users come back to a network? How can services focus more on the quality of digital memories? How can we make (hi)story sharing more enjoyable?

In the next phase we conducted user-testing sessions, using the think-aloud method, followed by informal ethnographic interviews. The aim was to discover usability and functionality requirement for the use of the tree and to understand and compare where stands in terms of family tree making experience. This led to the development of our basic concept and the first two low-fidelity prototypes.


The second physical prototype was used in the focus group session. The focus group consisted of a role-play and a follow-up discussion. The aim was to evaluate our concept of “Your Family Story”. We also wanted to find out what makes it exciting for people to learn about their ancestry and share stories.


We revisited the prototype and made changes based on the participant discussion and focus group feedback.


All of our participants fit within our defined user group and were new to ancestry research. The Participants are all University students and between 18 and 25 years old.

We had multiple ethical considerations for the user testing sessions.
We ensured that all participants were over 18 years old. We explained the project and what participation entailed. In the user testing session, we offered participants the use of an alternative email instead of their own and in both sessions, participants had the choice to use their own name or set up a fake account. Also, the family information they entered could be real or fake.

We faced some challenges during our research. During the user-testing session, there were two different versions of the family tree live (original and new beta version 3.0) and we didn’t have control over which version our users would be using, so it was difficult to prepare for the session. We also had some problems with the think-aloud protocol where users described all their actions in the beginning but became less engaged and vocal throughout the session.

We were also very aware that because we as researchers prompted the participants with specific tasks, the participant’s motivations and therefore actions might have been influenced. During the focus group, we found that it is hard to explain our abstract concept in a short period of time without giving all the details.

We also felt that the participants weren’t as engaged with the physical prototype as we had hoped, however, after the discussion the participants were much more engaged.
From these challenges, we took away some lessons for the future. We believe that engaging with the participant, while avoid influencing their actions should be more of a focus during the user testing sessions. This also includes being more aware of the limitations of our research methods and to consider supplementing the research with additional methods. We also think we need to make sure to always communicate the concept clearly to avoid participant confusion. 



Through our development of the “Your Family Story” concept, we developed three opportunity spaces, which we think could be areas of interest for further research and development for brightSolid.


In order to ensure that our concept would become a profitable part of their business offering, the network must have longevity and ensure that users will come back to the site. Our participants shared that “if a family member added a story it would give (them) reasons to come back.” To assure that users are engaged, we believe the language of the interface is especially important – In the focus group, the users shared with us that receiving updates sounds “clinical” and that they would much rather receive a notification saying “Someone has shared a new story with you.”

We are aware of the fact that the digital world offers many different ways (Facebook, Flickr, Path, HistoryPin, Instagram, Blogs, etc) for users to store and share memories online. However, according to our users, many of the current offerings are “for friend and not family sharing” and often focus on “quantity over quality.” We believe that the focus for this network should be to create a service, which focuses on the quality of digital memories and offers users a private, engaging space to share family memories. Our participants made clear they prefer a private network and a way to share their stories through different channels, as friends and family everywhere have different preferred methods of communication. The participants in our focus group told us that family stories are “more personal, I don’t want to share this information on Facebook.”

In recent years the concept of “everyday devices being given the ability to connect to a data network has become widely known as “the Internet of things” (Gershenfeld, N., Krikorian, R., & Cohen, D. (2004). The Internet of things. Scien- tific American, 291(4), 76-81. Springer). Throughout the concept development phase of this project, we believe that this is something that the client must consider. In an increasingly globalized world, the user will want to find new ways to communicate meaningfully in the digital world. Our participants pointed out that “objects have a way of holding stories and carrying meaning and associations.”

In order to bridge this gap we believe the “Your Family Story” site can include physical versions of the stories the users create as part of their offering. The participants shared with us that they would like to see a function with which they could build a family tree, tell the stories and then share a physical version of the “family story” in a storybook with their granny for example.

We believe the “Your Family Story” concept can help families build their family story and share it with each other in a meaningful way.


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