Kelvin Hulet is principal product manager for MyCanvas (formerly AncestryPress). In this interview, he explains how Ancestry’s online publishing service has evolved — and how you can make the most of it.
Q. AncestryPress was just relaunched under the name MyCanvas. How will the change from AncestryPress to MyCanvas affect current AncestryPress users?
What the user will see is a new site called MyCanvas, so you’ll see the MyCanvas logo. When you order a book, you’ll see emails coming from MyCanvas. But the application itself — the functionality — is basically the same. It’s presented a little bit differently, so users will need to get used to the way it works, but they can still create a book in the same way they did before by selecting a tree, selecting a starting person and picking the type of book they want.
Another thing that’s different is that there are a lot of new photo book themes that aren’t family history related, on topics like weddings, photography and family.
Q: What was your vision for Ancestry’s self-publishing application when you started developing it two years ago?
We felt that we had a great site for people to come and research their family history — to find ssdi records, to connect with other people, to build a family tree — but we didn’t have any output options. People had all this information that they’d collected over the years, but they couldn’t really show it to anyone. So the vision was to allow users to put their research in a book format that they could share with their family.
Usually in a family there’s one person who does all of the work and they’re really excited about family history, but the rest of the family has a hard time getting excited about it. So we thought if Ancestry users could put their research in a format that’s more visual and that brings these ancestors to life, the rest of the family would get excited as well.
We wanted a format where it would be very easy to create a book from an Ancestry tree and the records attached to that tree. Users could auto-generate the skeleton of a book, and then beyond that we wanted to allow them to completely customize it. The auto-generated book would pull all that information from the tree, organize it, and then let the user add photos, text and embellishments to make their family history come to life.
Q: Why did you build an online application instead of expanding the desktop book building tool in Family Tree Maker?
The reason we went with an online application is so that users can easily take advantage of all of the records they’ve found on Ancestry and attached to their tree. That way they don’t have to download all the records and then build from an application on their desktop.
We also wanted to take advantage of the ability to share and to collaborate. With the Internet, you can share your book digitally and allow other people to come view it. On a desktop application you’d have to upload the book to share it with other people.
In addition, there are people who are interested in family history but haven’t done a lot of research. On Ancestry.com they can easily start a tree. We wanted to encourage them to search and find records and upload photos to their tree. We felt like an online application was a great place for them to do that because they could do it for free and not have to purchase an application and then download and upload.
One advantage is that maybe they’re in a library doing research and they don’t have their computer with them. They can go find records and attach things to their tree even when they don’t have their own computer. It’s very mobile, so there’s a great benefit there.
Another advantage is that if they had a hard drive crash, the online application works great as a backup. If they had everything on their computer and didn’t have it also stored on the web, they would lose all that information. So we wanted to allow the collaboration, the backup and the mobility of having an online application.
Q: You get dozens of enhancement requests from users every month. How do you decide which features to implement?
I read every single request that we get through the “Feedback” link. We actually create spreadsheets and categorize the information we get, and then we look at the volume of requests for a particular feature. We try to determine how many users will be impacted by a change, and we also bounce the requests off of our existing plans for future features.
Q: What new features can MyCanvas users look forward to in the next few months?
One of the major things we’ll be working on is a custom calendar. Users will be able to pick a starting month and then the calendar will go a year from that month. It won’t be fixed to a calendar year from January to December. What we would like to do eventually is tie the calendar to their online tree so that it automatically pulls the births and marriages of individuals in the tree.
In conjunction with the change to MyCanvas, we just released a number of new features. We have a new line of premium bindings and covers. Users can now modify their book cover from within the Project Editor. Before this change, they would enter the title when they ordered their book. Now they can do it while they’re editing the book. In addition, we now offer custom covers, so users can add photos and text and whatever else they want. There’s also a new book format — the 8×8 photo book.
Q. So the cover becomes another page to design.
Yes. If you look at the page thumbnails at the bottom of the main workspace, the first page is actually the cover. It’s got the front and back in one page.
Q: Tell me more about the new binding and cover options.
We used to have only two cover options: bonded leather and nuba (leatherette). Those both have stitched bindings. Now we also have genuine leather, nubuck, velvet and silk covers. As far as the bindings go, we have a new board book binding for the 8×8 format. Those are really stiff, heavy pages that lie completely flat. If you wanted to, you could actually have images go across from one page to the other — so that’s an exciting, very upscale binding. In addition, we have what’s called a hinge binding for the 8½ x 11 landscape format. That one also lies fairly flat. We are also offering a padded leather book in the 8½ x 11 format.
Q: What binding and cover options might be appealing to a new MyCanvas user?
I think padded leather for the family history market. We’ve gone to trade shows and people have really liked the padded leather book because it’s less expensive than the velvet or nubuck books, but it looks nice. For people who are just interested in a photo book, I think the 8×8 custom cover will be very popular.
Q: What advice would you give to Ancestry customers for making the most of their MyCanvas projects?
Don’t be afraid to try things. There’s an undo feature. Try something — you can always undo it. You can always start another project or make a copy of your project, so don’t be afraid to experiment. We found out that some people have no idea that you can resize a picture, that you can crop off the black edges from census records, that you can add text, or that you can move things.
Every MyCanvas project is totally customizable and editable. I would suggest taking a few minutes to understand the capabilities of the software. Browse the Help section — it’ll give you an idea. We also have a number of help videos. Take the time to watch those and look at the sample pages on the site to get a vision of what you can do.