Italian Genealogical Group

Agency: Savvy Marketing Group
Role: Research, Strategy, UX Design, Visual Design, Web Development, Project Management

Helping family researchers preserve their heritage for generations.

The Italian Genealogical Group (IGG) is a world-renowned research organization that has compiled over 16 million entries of municipal, naturalization, and other genealogical records. These records are free to the public and available on their website. The group also conducts monthly, in-person meetings where they provide workshops, speakers, one-on-one coaching and a wealth of other resources and information.

An image of the site in early 2019, pre-redesign
An image of the site in early 2019, pre-redesign

The IGG relies heavily on membership dues to fund their research and activities. However, their website did little to encourage visitors to sign up and provided nothing in the way of added value for members. As a result, membership was dropping and the board worried that their organization might not survive.

The board president, a friend, approached me for help. With the Savvy Marketing Group, I took on the role of project lead. This included research and strategy, information architecture, user experience design, visual design, and front-end development. The agency team included an account manager and a web developer, and the stakeholder team included about 10 members of the IGG board and committees.

Our main goals were to:

  • Encourage website users to become registered members
  • Streamline and automate the membership process
  • Update the research database with new data that had been collected

Understanding the problem

We started out with a comparative study of genealogical research communities, collecting observations on each group’s website. I then collected these observations in a comparative brief, with recommendations on best practices for the new design.

Comparative research of three similar genealogical research organizations
Comparative research of three similar genealogical research organizations

I conducted interviews of the IGG board and committee chairs to understand their business goals and gather information about how the group served its members. Particular attention was given to their membership management process.

Direct user feedback came through contact form submissions, many of which contained complaints about lack of content or difficulty managing their membership.

Finally, I reviewed the list of current members for demographic data, to better understand their user base.

Based on this research, we discovered that:

  • There was an even split between members who lived close enough to attend monthly meetings, and those in other locations. This meant that half the user base had access to resources that the rest did not.
  • Most new members expected access to additional website content or features once they signed up and were disappointed to find this was not the case. This resulted in many immediate cancellations.
  • The current membership management workflow required a great deal of manual work, putting a strain on the group’s aging volunteer committee members.

Defining the solution

Based on the research, I hypothesized that a user-centered strategy would help solve many of the site’s problems.

  • Comparative research and user comments both indicated that users needed help getting started with genealogical research. This help was available at in-person meetings, but not on the website.
  • Paid members expected instructions and additional content following their registration. The current workflow sent users from the Join page to PayPal, then redirected them back to the homepage after their transaction. A manually-sent welcome email provided additional information, but the process was too slow and set users up for disappointment.
  • Comparative research also made it clear that we needed to explain the benefits of membership. Listing each benefit, especially those available online, would be a strong selling point.
Call to Action at the bottom of each page - IGG members have access to additional content.
Call to Action at the bottom of each page – IGG members have access to additional content.

Next, we needed to address the membership workflow itself:

  • Automating the registration workflow would eliminate many of the tasks currently being completed manually by the membership director, making the organization faster and more responsive to new registrations.
  • Allowing users to manage their own membership would provide convenience and eliminate even more manual tasks.

Early challenges

We still needed a strategy to update the research databases, which presented two big issues:

  1. The research data was not properly integrated into the current WordPress site. Rather than using a system of categorized posts to contain each record, the data been imported directly into the website database. This is against best practices and prevented us from safely updating the WordPress software or plugins.
  2. Through interviews with the board president, I learned that many of the IGG’s research databases had been built and maintained with a sister organization, with a shared codebase used on each group’s website. About two years prior to the project, this arrangement was ended and all records were taken in-house. However, new admin tools needed to manage database records were never completed. This cut off an important source of research data updates and left them without a method for adding or updating records.

So, in addition to redesigning the UI of the research pages, we needed to extract the records from the WordPress database and store them elsewhere. I also needed to see if we could find a way to mend fences with the sister organization so we could go back to sharing data and get IGG’s records up to date.

Expanding the site with new content and features

We created a Getting Started section, which included a step-by-step guide to genealogical research, an FAQ section, and several worksheets and charts to help new researchers. All of these materials had been provided at in-person meetings, and would be made available on the website for the first time.

A detail the new Getting Started section
A detail the new Getting Started section

The board was well prepared to add value to the website. They provided over 25 years’ worth of monthly newsletters, videos and handouts from presentations, member stories, maps, and photographs, as well as exclusive research databases. All this content had to be named, meta tagged and organized into a password-protected Members Section.

Additional pages were also needed for member registration, account management and a shopping cart. The Join Page was redesigned from a PayPal link into a sales page with a complete list of member’s benefits.

Detail of the redesigned Join page - "No matter where you live, membership has its benefits!"
Detail of the redesigned Join page – “No matter where you live, membership has its benefits!”

Building the framework

One of my priorities for the project was making sure the website maintenance would be efficient and affordable. This meant choosing well-managed WordPress themes and plugins to ensure that updates would be available to keep the site running for years to come.

I selected the Genesis theme and Outreach Pro child theme as the foundation for the site’s UI, and the MemberPress plugin to manage member registration, accounts and paywall-protected content.

Wireframes and Prototyping

I wireframed full page layouts, incorporating design patterns to help build familiarity throughout the site. These wireframes were shared with stakeholders to gather feedback, then built up into low-fidelity interactive prototypes.

Initial iterations of the UI involved slide-in menus on either side of the page, creating consistent navigation for desktop and mobile. Later iterations replaced the slide-ins with page-specific navigation, such as jump menus and tabbed sections.

A view of the prototype from Adobe XD
A view of the prototype from Adobe XD

Visual Design

Initial visual designs were presented as Style Tiles; a one-page style guide / mood board that includes colors, typography, images, textures and button styles to demonstrate a general look and feel. The approved look was applied to the interactive prototype as I built it up from low to high-fidelity.

Vintage photos provided by the board were used throughout the site and given a stacked treatment to give them a consistent look throughout. This helped provide a feeling of authenticity on each page, and many came from the board’s personal photo albums.

A vintage Coney Island photo used in the Getting Started section.
A vintage Coney Island photo used in the Getting Started section.

Additional Challenges

During development of the membership features, there were several discussions about payments. Several board members were adamant that despite their requests for subscription renewal features, users also have the option to register for non-renewable, one-year memberships. I revised the strategy to offer four membership options:

  • Online Only (Auto Renew): an annual subscription with monthly PDF newsletters via email
  • Online Only (One-Time): same as above, ending after one year
  • Printed Newsletters (Auto Renew): an annual subscription with monthly printed newsletters, in addition to email
  • Printed Newsletters (One-Time): same as above, ending after one year

I then configured the membership plugin to send email notifications one week before a membership was to expire, providing a path from a one-time membership to a renewable subscription. This provided the flexibility the board wanted for their members, while maintaining an automated process.

One of the most challenging parts of this project came when it was time to import and test data. I imported membership data from Excel spreadsheets converted to CSV files, but to ensure quality assurance, I had to check each of the over 2,000 memberships by hand to be sure the imported data matched the spreadsheets on file, and that all active members would have full access to Members Only content.

While this work was going on, I was still trying to restore data sharing between the IGG and their sister organization. I had built a relationship with the other organization’s webmaster, learned much of the history behind the split and got her to agree in theory to a new co-hosting arrangement between the two groups. However, slow communication forced us to move forward without a firm agreement in place. The research data was moved to Amazon Web Services, and plans for a proper data management tool were pushed to a to-be-determined next phase of the project.

Final design and launch

After development, data import and testing, the website was tested with board members in the development environment, then soft launched to the public.

About two weeks after launch, a formal communication was sent to all members announcing the new website with instructions for accessing their new member account. There were a few initial hiccups regarding memberships and subscriptions, but soon all was running smoothly.

Early data showed that registrations were up, and cancellations had dropped to nearly zero. This was a huge win for our team and the IGG board. I received calls and emails from board members to share positive user feedback on the new online registration process. I also received word that the number of calls and emails they received with complaints and problems had dropped significantly. They began planning a marketing push to win back past members with all the new features that were now available.

The final design guides visitors each step of the way along their journey, providing real value to people who need inspiration and help with their research. It also takes a great deal of pressure off the stakeholders by automating their membership process for the first time.

IGG Final Desktop View
IGG Final Mobile View


Looking back at this project, I can see several things that I would do differently:

  • I would take a different approach to the project discovery process. In retrospect, I needed more time and deeper research to identify the problems to be solved, and to get the stakeholders on the same page regarding project goals. Spending at least a day with the entire board could have helped to get everyone in agreement on the scope of work, so that we could provide more realistic estimates of cost and time to complete, and better manage stakeholder expectations throughout the project.
  • I would engage our web developer from the beginning and involve him in much more of the decision-making process. Our developer was a contractor, and I planned to use his time sparingly until we needed him for coding. In hindsight, it would have been money well spent to involve him more in the early stages, especially discovery, to help ensure that the scope of work was realistic and achievable.
  • Lastly, I would tie the project goals to KPIs and use data to support my recommendations. Identifying specific KPIs and sticking to them could have helped us avoid scope creep and reduced our overall time to complete the project. It would have put me in a stronger position to convince stakeholders to approve design decisions. It also would have helped me define success, knowing that we had met or exceeded expectations related to a specific KPI.