First impressions: the Desktop Dilemma series

Looks Sometimes MatterIn this first post evaluating our shared Desktop Dilemma, I look at first impressions. Which of the Big Three genealogy desktop software packages has dressed for success — Family Tree Maker, Legacy Family Tree, or RootsMagic? And does it matter?

To view the comprehensive scorecard as it develops, see The Desktop Dilemma Series: features in a nutshell.

Starting with first impressions

First impressions. Shallow, right?  When it comes to computer technology, here’s the elephant in the room: looks can matter.

The look of a product tells me something about what the software company values. In choosing a company, I want one that is likely to be in business for the long haul. Its survival depends on selling the software, and the curb appeal will make the difference more often than we care to admit.

It’s not really that we’re looking for fashionable software, for its own sake. We are drawn to the “fashionable” look because it suggests — rightly or wrongly — that the product is up-to-date. If the software and its logo look dated, I find myself asking: Does this company care about winning new users? Will this product survive? So, in that sense, looks do matter.

First impressions: verdict in a nutshell

* * * * * * * * * * ½

Branding: The Logos

At the most basic level, let me mention the logos first. Branding matters, if you’re building a customer base. And as I’ve said, I want the company who plans to survive.

Genealogy Desktop Software Dilemma--Product LogosFamily Tree Maker® (FTM) makes the best appearance when it comes to logos. The new logo from MacKiev obeys the new style of logos with a very simple design and the interaction of colors. It says, “We’re up-to-date.”

RootsMagic™ (RM) has the best product name, I believe. I would encourage the company to register its trademark to show that RM is neither new nor temporary. This company has created a logo that is distinctly its own but is a bit bland in color. They could easily sharpen it (with a splash of black?) to bring it up to a more modern look. While it doesn’t say up-to-date, it does say professional.

Legacy Family Tree® (LFT)’s logo immediately damages the product’s curb appeal. I have to be honest. First, the software’s name, Legacy, has a nice genealogy connotation, but carries baggage in the technology world. There, a “legacy” system is the obsolete one — the dinosaur a software company carries until it can get new technology established.

The LFT logo disappears in its swirls and is made worse by the backgrounds and shadows that are usually put behind it. And for some reason, navy blue just looks like black. This needs a pop of color. This logo says “1990s mom and pop shop.” I’d encourage LFT to rebrand, if it is in this for the long haul.

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Genealogy desktop software: looking smart

Getting past logos to the look of the software, I can’t say that any of the three looks state-of-the-art. But state-of-the-art changes every three months. It’s a moving target, but here’s a simple rule: avoid looking dated. The Big Three have varying degrees of success at this.

Of the three, I like RM best. It keeps the screens simple, with plenty of white space. The color and design are restful for the eyes. While there is nothing striking about it, does there need to be?

It allows you to control font sizes and to alter the background colors to your preference. I do wish it would make use of the Windows elements that make a screen look more three dimensional. Its tabs and fields tend to look flat on the screen. Still, it’s the best of the three.

RootsMagic. Family ViewI find FTM a reasonable second. The dashboard and tree views hold far too much information, becoming rather intimidating to the newcomer. Once you get past these, though, the main working screens offer a good use of space.

I don’t care for what appears like old-fashioned typed columns in the main space of most screens. I’d rather see this looking more like a spreadsheet. Outside of that, though, it makes the best use of Windows screen elements — things like tabs and drop-down lists.

Family Tree Maker. Relationship ViewI have to be hard on LFT again, unfortunately. The screens don’t appear to have been designed for optimal Windows operation. Instead, they look to me to be the relic of a legacy system — perhaps the result of screen scraping off of an old green screen version of the software. This product looks dated.

While it is common for software companies to have multiple designers over the years, they should create a product that appears to have been the work of one.  Various LFT screens look too different from one another to be part of the same product. Some elements on the screen — the tags, for example — look pasted on, but not integrated into the original look.

Legacy Family Tree. Family View. Genealogy Desktop Software.One of the greatest flaws in LFT’s design lies in the use of colors. I’m not crazy about the red, white, and blue look. Fortunately, there are options to change the color scheme (which unfortunately do not carry over everywhere, creating a mish-mash).

But here’s the real issue: most genealogists are aged 50 and older. Aging eyes require ever sharper visual contrast. The text should be black on white, wherever possible. Instead, LFT uses color behind text. As I get older, this will be a challenge, because I’m already starting to strain to read text with busy backgrounds. There will come a day when blue text on a light blue background is just a blueish blur to me. It matters.


So it appears that LFT has taken the brunt of the criticism today. It needs a makeover. But it is cosmetic, and perhaps can be overlooked if other features are superior. I do fear, however, that LFT has lost many potential customers in recent years because people decided other software options looked more up-to-date. The failure to work on this could push LFT out of the Big Three within a few more years. That’s why appearances matter a great deal in my analysis.

My friends who use Legacy have assured me that it is the best product for handling citations. In fairness, I will evaluate citations next.

How you can help

You can enrich this journey a great deal by adding your own opinions and experiences with these three products — or others, if you’ve taken a different path. All I ask is that you comment with an open mind and civil discourse.

Also, please let me know what features matter most to you, and I will try to escalate the evaluation where it will be most valuable.

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4 thoughts on “First impressions: the Desktop Dilemma series”

  1. My biggest concern for a software is how much I can customize it. There are pieces of data I’m interested in that apparently the software designers weren’t too concerned with. I ended up getting Clooz because of the ability to do document abstraction and analysis that is too cumbersome for FTM’s column format. Even though I like Clooz, I would like to be able to customize it as well, with book and page numbers and other recording data.

    1. I also like to be able to enter data in a structured way — and to create a customized structure where needed. My early look at the citation features of RootsMagic impress me with the ability to create your own data entry structures. I believe I’ve heard that Legacy does, as well. FTM is very limited on citations, and it’s part of what sent me on this product-comparison mission. I’ll talk about the citation functions in my next Desktop Dilemma column.

      Also, I’ll soon be talking about Zotero, which is currently my software of choice for extracting information from sources before I know who I want to attach them to in my tree. It is one free product I expect to be around for the long haul. I’m not sure if it has the customization you would want, but it got me through my graduate school dissertation research.

      I’m not familiar with Clooz, and would be curious to hear more about it in comparison as we discuss the Big Three features.

      Thanks, Carolyn!

  2. I didn’t read the comments to see if it’s been mentioned, but typos distract me so I jogged right down here to let you know that there’s a typo in this paragraph of your logo descriptions:
    “The FTM logo disappears in its swirls and is made worse by the backgrounds and shadows that are usually put behind it. And for some reason, navy blue just looks like black. This needs a pop of color. ”
    FTM should be LFT?

    1. THANK you, Donna, and where have you been? As an editor, I know how much I need an editor. So feel free to let me know any time you find a glitch. In fact, feel obligated….;) And this goes for all of you!

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