Getting help from genealogy software: rating the “Big Three”

Documentation -- Desktop Dilemma

Genealogy’s “Big Three” — Family Tree Maker®, Legacy Family Tree®, and RootsMagic™ — offer many  tools for our research. How well, though, does each guide you in figuring out how to use the product? Do they help you get started? Describe the screens and fields you see? Guide you to deeper uses of the software? Do they help  you? In this next installment of the Desktop Dilemma Series, we continue our analysis of the Big Three side by side, looking at genealogical software online help.

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

Getting help from the Big Three: verdict in a nutshell

In choosing software to support our genealogical research, we should be able to assume that the developers adequately documented the product.  As I compare the help documentation of the Big Three products today, I am comparing only what each included with their software for free — the documentation they consider to be a part of their product.

Family Tree Maker (FTM), Legacy Family Tree (LFT), and RootsMagic (RM) all offer reasonably good documentation. In some ways they are remarkably similar. But each has made particular choices in this investment of their time and resources.

I found FTM to be the superior help system, overall, with the other two trailing only slightly. Each, however, exceeds the others in specific categories.

 * * * * ¼ * * * ¾   * * * *

Online help and documentation — scores by aspect

This table gives a high-level score to each product for various aspects of its documentation. Read on below for a fuller explanation.

Feature Aspect FTM LFT RM
Quantity of Online Help * * * * * * * * * * * * ½
Quality of Online Help  * * * * * * * ½  * * * * ½
Getting Started  * * * * * * * * ½   * * * ½ 
Context-Sensitive Help  * * * * * * * *  * * * * ½
 Going Deeper  * * * * * * *  * * * * 

Online Help: The Quantity Factor

The basic online help system has become an expected part of any software package — usually the first selection on the last menu option. Many software developers assign the keyboard shortcut <F1> to access it. And while most software programs offer other forms of documentation, this is the essential core.

In comparing the Big Three on their online help, can we assume that the biggest online help system must be the best? Not necessarily. It can mean:

  • The software is harder to use and requires more instruction.
  • More words were used than necessary.
  • Redundant help information bloats the system.

Duly noted. It can also mean:

  • The online help system has more of value to offer.
  • The software has more features to describe.

So we will evaluate the quantity of help available with the knowledge that other factors must also be considered.

That said, judging by the sheer volume of online help available, LFT takes the lead by a long shot. It has more than four times the help topics of FTM and eight times that of RM. Add to that the Tips that display when a user opens the software, and LFT offers a substantially greater volume of help text than the other two.

Sign up here to be notified of new posts to the Golden Egg Genealogist.

 Online Help: The Quality Factor

In looking more closely at the quality of the help topics and organization, let’s start with style. LFT uses a more conversational form of writing. This explains some of its expanded girth. Some will prefer the conversational tone. Others will opt for the more sparing to-the-point writing of FTM. RM has a style in between the two, which is my personal preference.

I congratulate LFT on using a larger font in its help system — vital to aging eyes. Its overuse of the bold and italic fonts, however, and a decision to make many subheadings the same color as links can confuse and tire the eyes.

A person can enlarge the text in both LFT and FTM, if they know to press <Ctl>+<Num-+>. Nothing on the screens offers that hint, unfortunately. RM does not appear to offer any tool for making the font larger, for those who need it.

LFT has left something to be desired in its organization of the help topics. It provides no Contents tab, as the other two do. If you come into LFT at its dashboard, you hit on a topic with a structured menu, but as you dig into the menu, you find no way back to the main one.

The LFT index also needs some clean-up. Two topics under “Pictures,” for example, sound the same: “Add” and “Adding.” One describes adding images through the Picture Center, the other through the Family View. Under the term “Child,” it shows three variations of the concept half-child, with no way to know which one you are looking for, except to open each and read it.

FTM, in its sparing style, has left out some things that would be of help. In its topic labeled “Entering Names,” for example, you would expect  to address or link to a subtopic that talked about nicknames and other alternates. It does cover these in other places, but does not tie them to this very logical place of access.

FTM also falls into technological language now and then. In the topic I just mentioned, “Entering Names,” it says that the user can “check how Family Tree Maker has parsed the name.” It sounds as though programmers might have written some of the help text, generally not the ideal scenario.

FTM and RM both offer nicely organized tables of contents in their online help systems.  RM looks the cleanest of the two, a situation helped by the choice of RM to minimize the number of topics.

RM includes print screen images in many topics. I find this very helpful, rather than trying to flip back and forth to see the screen being described. FTM and LFT do not appear to use print screens much, if at all, in their online help.

RM’s help topics freeze at times, for reasons I have not been able to diagnose or consistently reproduce. It might be tied to a dialog box being open when help is called. The help topic is not freed up until the screen that called it is closed.

All three help systems, despite the imperfections noted, appear to do a serviceable job. RM has done the best job of creating a clean, organized, and professional help system. FTM runs a close second. LFT appears to have sacrificed quality a tad to amass its impressive quantity.

Sign up here to be notified of new posts to the Golden Egg Genealogist.

 Getting Started

All three systems offer material to help new users get started in the installation, setup, and basics of the given software. They vary in the ease of access to these topics, but are similar in substance.

FTM’s help system opens to its Welcome message, which includes a link to a “Getting Started” topic. The Welcome topic sits at the top of its help contents — always easy to find. FTM also offers a PDF version of a traditional software manual, The Companion Guide to Family Tree Maker, which steps a user into installation, set-up and the basics of using the software. FTM further bolsters its “getting started” instruction by offering video tutorials created with a high quality of production, which guide users through the fundamentals.

Family Tree Maker TutorialLFT’s online help system, when opened from the its dashboard, presents a Welcome topic that guides a new user to another topic helpful in getting started. Once in the program, users will only see this Welcome topic if they access Help through the menu bar — not by pressing <F1>. Depending, then, on how a user accesses Help, they might not see the Welcome screen at all.

LFT’s getting-started topic gives minimal help anyway, but Legacy also offers a “Beginner’s Video,” a better way to start. It includes a menu that allows users to  choose what portion of the training they want to cover at a given time.

RM offers getting-started material through the online help system and through its Magic Guides (available from “Learning Center” on the Help menu). RM has buried the material a bit; it is not the first thing you see, as you would expect. In online help, it  is a subset of “Introduction.” I suspect most users have more difficulty finding the material in the Magic Guides — buried as they are.

FTM does the best job of offering easy-to-find-and-follow instructions on getting started with its software. In all fairness, though, I have installed, set up, and used all three software programs, and found that RM needs the least instruction in getting started.

Sign up here to be notified of new posts to the Golden Egg Genealogist.

 Context-Sensitive Help

All of the Big Three offer context-sensitive help at the screen level. By this, I mean that you can press <F1> on any given screen and bring up the help topic related to that particular screen. While I much prefer help that is offered at the field level, it is rare to find that in today’s software. And certainly there is a value in discussing all the fields on a screen in one coherent topic.

When technical writers handle online context-sensitive help at the screen level, it is vital that they design topics to make it easy to find the descriptions of each field. Fields should be consistently laid out in the same way, everywhere they surface. It is the best alternative to field-level help.

LFT’s users will have to discover the <F1> access to context-sensitive help by their own experimentation (or by reading it here). There is no hint on the screen or in the Help menu to guide them that way.

If a user presses <F1> in hopes of finding an explanation for a particular field on the screen, they might also find it difficult to get a quick answer. LFT unfortunately has created a rather messy structure of its help topics. The topics are particularly hard to read when it describes a screen with multiple tabs. LFT’s more conversational style might mean that it describes a field while in the midst of text about another field. Both are bold, but so are subtopics and other things. There is not a clear structure separating the fields that appear on one tab from those on another. So finding the field that made you call help in the first place can be difficult.

RM, on the other hand, offers a very consistent topic layout in its online help. Each topic begins by describing the action options available at the top of the screen. Then it describes the fields. Each element appears with its label in bold text, so it’s quite easy to scan to find the field you want to understand. Unlike LFT, RM shows the <F1> shortcut on its Help menu.

Family Tree Maker HelpFTM also displays the keyboard shortcut and has created my favorite structure, using tables. It takes a consistent approach to documenting all screens. And the tables make it much easier than LFT or RM to scan for your desired information.  The tabular format eliminates the need to bold the name of every field, making this interface the easiest to take in visually.

Sign up here to be notified of new posts to the Golden Egg Genealogist.

 Going Deeper

Given that all three products offer context-sensitive help, virtually every special feature is described somewhere within the help system. In evaluating this aspect of Help, then, I am looking for how the Big Three promote the deeper features of the software. How do they make us notice them?

FTM takes a serious hit in this category — an effect of the transfer of this product from to MacKiev Software without properly ironing out the details. For those of us who bought the product when it was still owned by — and perhaps for those who have bought it since — the “Online Help Center” option goes to a sales page, not a support page. Finding the real support page ( requires creative effort and, even then, is sparing in its help.

On the other hand, The Companion Guide to Family Tree Maker describes the deeper layers of FTM — if a user takes the initiative to open it. Its chapters cover the map feature, the creation of reports, charts, and family history books, and describes the various tools available.

RM offers three tools in its “Learning Center,” accessed on its Help menu: Webinars, RootsMagic TV, and the Magic Guides. The Webinars are dated between 2011 and 2013, though often still of value. RM produced most of the video programs two and three years ago, but have created some that talk about the new features in RootsMagic 7.

They have also created some about the importing of FTM files, no doubt the reaction to the premature announcement by last December that FTM would be discontinued. The Magic Guides offer very new material, almost all concerning the installation of RM and conversion of FTM files and post-conversion clean-up. These materials are of value, but do make me question whether RM is committed to their upkeep, given the dated nature of most and the obvious quick creation of the new material to lure FTM users — not to serve the existing base.

LFT has bolstered its help system with bonus topics, like one that offers standard nicknames and their associated given name. It is a helpful topic, if someone knows to look for it. I found no links to it from other help topics that mention nicknames. Unfortunately the tabular format is a mess and needs to be aligned. I would suggest that LFT lift out the help topics that are more general to genealogical practice, like this one, and create a separate place for them — perhaps on-line. Then make sure we know they’re there.

RootsMagic TipsLFT also scores on its “Tips Window,” which opens as the program launches. Tip windows were standard in software created a decade or so ago, but they appear to have gone out of fashion. When it comes to making a user aware of deeper layers of value in the software, though, this tool can be of great value. We tend to get too comfortable with the few fields we use to do the basics in software. Special fields become wallpaper we do not notice, once we’re in our routine. The Tips become a tickler that there might be more to the product than we’re using.

Sign up here to be notified of new posts to the Golden Egg Genealogist.

 Online Help Wrap Up

The Big Three are the big three because they tend to be the best available genealogical software products available. It should come as no surprise then that all three are above-average in their online help and other documentation.

As you can see from the scorecard, they are not markedly different in value from one another. But if required to choose between them,  I would choose FTM’s help system as the most consistently useful.


I have not read every help topic or watched every video and webinar offered by the Big Three. I am spot-checking them, evaluating the same things on all three. As a former technical writer, I apologize to my colleagues at the Big Three if my spot-checking, by bad luck, has hit on non-representative failings the help systems contain. It is a hazard of this level of review.

Sign up here to be notified of new posts to the Golden Egg Genealogist.

GEG_Single Wrap

Related posts:

Share this in your circles...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *