Websites Who Want To Remain Bad

from the um.--why? dept

Sometimes you have to wonder what certain companies or organizations are thinking. A few years ago, when Ellis Island put their records online, they had a dreadful interface. A genealogist with the skill and the time, created a new, much more user friendly front end that quickly became the preferred way for many genealogists to search the site. Of course, Ellis Island then threatened to sue him to shut down the site. The same thing seems to be playing itself out over in the UK, where someone who had problems with Odeon Cinemas’ website built a better version (one that would actually work in non-IE browsers). For his troubles in helping them completely for free and bringing more business to them, he received a cease and desist letter. No wonder no one wants to help anyone out any more. You might get sued.

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Comments on “Websites Who Want To Remain Bad”

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Burt says:

Ellis Island Database

The Ellis Island database flap was a classic. What Steve Morse did was brilliant. He made a clean interface (doping it out with some clever blind reverse engineering), then requested the needed data from the Ellis Island Database and then gave it to the requestor in a clean format. Ellis Island had put up the website and database with no contact or assistance from genealogiists. The result was user hostile. Aside from being insulted that everyone loved the Morse interface, Morse was doing “deep linking”, effectively bypassing their front page where they told who they were and asked for donations. The world’s upper tier of genealogists finally got the Ellis Island foundation’s attention and the foundation backed off. Should be a case study in how not to make a widely desired database available and helpful.

daniel harvey (user link) says:

Re: Ellis Island Database

I actually worked on the initial launch of You’re wrong on more than a few points. Genealogists were instrumental in the pre-productions stages of the project. Much of the initial database work came from such groups connected to the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Secondly, your depiction of “the front page” is inaccurate as well. All that happened as an indirect result of Morse’s work was a radical redesign that gutted much of the visual design. You can follow the link in my post to see the original design versus what came later (which you can see at the

Daniel Harvey (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Ellis Island Database

Oh, absolutely. Not because of Morse’s work though but because the sight was such an overwhelming success (it had over 43 million visitors on the day of launch and those numbers were maintained for a remarkable amount of time) that the client got so anxious about site traffic, bandwidth costs, etc that they streamlined a lot of the look and feel and some of the user experience so much that things looked hacked, dithered, and broken and still do to this day.

Our initial designs were more along the lines of what Morse did but we ended up with the wizard approach in part because of politics and to allow for overlap between the site user experience and the kiosk user experience. And that’s a pragmatic reality that usability vigilantes don’t have to deal with. It’s easy to design when you’re also the client.

Anyway, like I said, it’s not the vigilantism I personally have a problem with (in fact I was flattered/intrigued by Morse’s work)… it’s with commentary about vigilantism that isn’t informed by practical realities of the workplace/project dynamics/client management/etc. or even familiarity with the specific site that’s being discussed.

Kip Voytek says:

Re: Ellis Island Database

(I worked with Daniel on this project.) A mistaken premise of this thread is the audience. was NOT intended to be a tool for professional genealogists. The key audience was museum goers and families: kids, parents, grandmas, grandpas.

We were all versed in genealogy research, but the critical goal was to make this database easily accessible to anyone who came to the museum. (Literally, anyone, and that was probably the key design issue.) Some even hoped that people who came over would use the tool. (This did happen at the Center on opening day. An 80-something and her young grand-daughter went through the search process and found the boat. The woman wept as the memories came flooding back . . . a moving experience that made the grueling 18 months I worked on the thing worthwhile.)

Does that mean that the wizard approach that was launched was the right one? Not sure. Was the goal to make it accessible to computer newbies and illiterates a worthy one? Absolutely.

But this is a dilemma: how broad an audience should we design for? At what point do we lose the first 80% while going after the last 20? We had discussed, but never acted on, a dual approach: step-through wizards for newbies, and single form advanced mode for those with some experience. No point in re-hashing why it didn’t happen, it didn’t and Steve Morse’s interface proved that there was a substantial audience (if not the majority audience) that wanted advanced tools.

Nevertheless, Burt, I think your other point was right — Morse’s work and its success was something that should have been welcomed and learned from rather than rejected out of hand. In the case of educational, non-profit software, there’s still a lot to learn about design.

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