In 2011 Ancestry.com joined the mobile revolution and I was given the opportunity to work on a new app that would bring our rich genealogical content to iOS and Android devices. The original app was called ‘Tree To Go’, but a really funny thing about this name was that the app did not have a visual ‘tree’ anywhere in the user interface; it provided only a list of all of the people in a user’s family ‘tree’. We joked that it would have been more appropriately named ‘List To Go’ instead. We knew that providing a tree experience for visualizing their family data would be an important feature to quickly bring to our customers. Our small team went to work brainstorming ideas and quickly came up with some rather unique ways to visualize familial relationships. We were challenged to ‘think outside the box’ by our team lead who asked us to envision the best way to put this data in front of our users taking advantage of the uniqueness of mobile devices with touch screens, accelerometers, limited real estate, and clumsy fingers instead of a mouse. We needed our design to be very intuitive. We wanted users to quickly pick up the device and start browsing the tree without reading any instructions. This was a fun challenge and some of the ideas that we came up with ended up getting described in various patent idea disclosure documents where we had to explain why our solutions presented unique ways of solving the problem.
One night, while pondering on this problem, the idea came to me that a user who is visualizing only a small part of his family tree on the mobile device would be inclined to want to swipe his finger on the device in order to navigate further back into his tree. If we could continually prepare and buffer ancestral data off screen then we could give the user the impression that he could swipe further and further back in his tree forever until he reached his chosen destination. And so the idea was born.
We iterated on the idea as a team trying to figure out:
- what is the correct swiping action to look for?
- how many generations of people should be displayed on the device and how should they be laid out on the screen?
- what were the most optimal algorithms for buffering and preparing the off screen data?
- how would we make the swiping gesture and the animations feel natural and intuitive to the user?
- should the user be able to navigate in both directions (back through ancestors as well as forward through descendants)? and if so, what would that look like to the user?
- could this idea handle both tree navigation as well as pinch and zoom?
- would this idea lend itself to different tree views concepts?
- what would it mean if the user tapped on part of the tree?
After lots of work and some great user feedback the idea finally became a reality. The new ‘continuously swiping’ tree view became a prominent feature of the 2.0 version of the newly renamed Ancestry iOS mobile app and has given us a great platform to build on. I’m pleased to announce that Ancestry.com was recently awarded a patent for this pedigree idea on July 1, 2014 (http://www.google.com/patents/US8769438).
If you’d like to experience the app for yourself, you can download it here.
About Gary Mangum
Gary Mangum is a principle engineer and development manager at Ancestry.com currently working on iOS apps. He has worked for Ancestry.com for the last 7 1/2 years. Prior to joining Ancestry.com he held several engineering roles with IBM, Coresoft Technologies, United Internetworks, and Digital Harbor. He holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Brigham Young University. He enjoys hiking, wood carving, and spending time with his wife and 5 kids.