Ancestry.com is an addicting, engrossing experience

On a whim last week I decided to try out Ancestry.com, after seeing several tv ads about the service. I had always been curious about my family’s lineage, and I thought, what the heck? Lets see how it works.

Now, I can’t stop using it.

The service is fantastic and completely engrossing. It’s very well constructed and designed, with a very easy-to-use UI and a very solid backend. It’s very very easy to find out information about your ancestors and you can very quickly build out your personal family tree to many many generations back. She Who Must be Obeyed and I bet against one another as to who could trace thier family line back the furthest – after she traced her grandmothers’ family line all the way back to Wales and the year 1000, I quickly gave up.

There are several factors that makes Ancestry.com an engrossing experience. Here’s what makes it so engaging:

Instant gratification

Because the process of building out a family tree is so simple, you immediately see the results of your actions. The more you work on digging up information, the more your tree grows. It’s simple, quick and affectve.

Crowdsourcing

With every new branch you add to your family tree, the system looks up that particular person, and often displays a “leaf” that indicates one or more hints exist. Many of these hints are based on public records, such as census data or birth records, and others are based on other family trees that othe users had entered into the system. Because there are so many other family trees in the system, you can take advantage of connections that your distant relatives who are using the system brings to light.

The element of surprise

The hints the service provides are often surprising: I found relatives who fought in both the Civil and Revolutionary War, and my wife found a distant relative who died in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 (his name is even present in Shakespeare’s play about the battle, Henry V). With every new leaf on your family tree, there is the chance to uncover something interesting and unexpected.

User control and freedom

The service is open-ended, in that you can go to any level of detail or flesh out any branch of your family tree that you want – there is no limits to where you go and what you do. This can sometimes cause problems if you aren’t paying attention – at one point I accidentally had someone listed twice, with one of the listings detailing that he was his own grandfather. The key thing is, unless you just “run out” of information on a particular ancestor, you can keep going and exploring.

Fantastic mobile apps and integration

Ancestry.com offers a free iPhone and iPad app that is completely integrated with any family trees you create, and automatically updates and syncs with any changes made. It also offers beautiful full-screen access to the public records that you can link to people, and a recent upgrade made them look even better on the new iPad retina display.

I jokingly called the service “Pinterest with dead people” on twitter and that joke is deserved. Like Pinterest, Ancestry.com is an engrossing personal experience that is completely satisfying.