Thursday, August 17, 2017

What are you doing, AncestryDNA?!

As some of you may have already seen, AncestryDNA is currently contacting some of its users and asking for feedback. I've filled out many such questionnaires over the years. Every chance I get to tell them how much I want full segment data, I take it. Part of me is still holding out hope that one day they'll actually listen.

Part of me knows it's probably a waste of time.

This time, however, was a little different.  Instead of various general questions about my experience, the questions focused on the cousin match list. It included a sample explanation for a new user, outlining what the cousin match list is and how it works.

I admit, I was pleasantly surprised. I wondered if AncestryDNA was finally addressing how much they oversimplify DNA testing in their advertisements. Much of the overconfidence and confusion the public has regarding ethnicity estimates is directly related to AncestryDNA marketing. And trust me, something has been rotten in the state of Denmark with these ethnicity estimates for a long time.

Meanwhile, their continued product development depends on not only a steady supply of new samples, but trees and family information for the algorithms to analyze. They've done very little to educate or incentivize new customers to create and share their trees with other users. I'd estimate that most new customers to AncestryDNA don't even understand how important those trees are. I doubt they realize the increased functionality they receive when they provide that information. The result is that many people dead-end at their ethnicity estimates, and have no direction for what their next step should be after that. And it's something that long-time customers have complained about to AncestryDNA for many years, without much of a response. (Myself included.)

All of this was on my mind as I took this survey. Then I came to a question that surprised me. No, not just surprised. It left me feeling really concerned about what AncestryDNA might have in store for its current and future customers. 

Here's a screenshot of the question:

Thinking back to my experience as a brand new AncestryDNA user, I would have preferred to be formally introduced to the cousin match list. I would have liked to be educated on how to maximize all of the features available to me. But that wasn't an option I could select.

I mean, I'm just a paying customer. What do I know?

It's that last option that really has me worried. "Do NOT show me my list of possible relatives"? "Do NOT attempt to find my possible relatives"? Is this really where we're going now? Where AncestryDNA is going to measure how many people click this option, and justify some crazy change by saying "it's what people said they wanted"?

So when they asked me why I answered the way I did, I told them exactly what I thought of their question:

The value of DNA testing for genealogical purposes relies on both information and collaboration. By allowing new customers to decide whether to engage with cousin matches, you're placing that decision into the hands of your least experienced customers. You'd be taking that opportunity away from existing customers and more experienced researchers. And as an existing customer, I'm not okay with that possibility. 
If people are not prepared for the information they are being given, or to participate in this collaboration, it's because they don't understand what DNA testing is. We cannot continue to perpetuate the myth that DNA results somehow exist in a vacuum, that you can sequester people from connection. If people have that expectation, it's because they've fundamentally been misinformed, either through word of mouth or advertising, about the potential and purpose of DNA testing. If you want to change that expectation and user behavior, you need to change the messages that you send to people. Because from where I'm sitting, as a customer of AncestryDNA since 2014, that messaging has become increasingly misleading as the service has grown. And it shows in the interactions I'm having with my relatives/your customers. 
If you give people the option to walk away from collaboration, when they don't even understand the decision they're making, you're not helping your consumers to make informed decisions. You're delivering a product to them at full-market price, without giving them any of the tools or education they need to use it fully. It was unacceptable when I took my test in 2014, and it's unacceptable now that AncestryDNA has 5 million customers. And I've been in contact with enough of your customers to tell you that they don't understand these choices. They don't understand the features and potential they're sacrificing. And once I've made some of them aware, and they have the desire to engage more fully, they find it exceedingly difficult to navigate the site to change their settings. This expectation that a user can change their settings any time vastly overestimates the technical ability of the average new AncestryDNA customer. 
For the sake of my own satisfaction of as an AncestryDNA customer, I go out of my way to make these choices available to your customers. I educate them because you don't. But I also don't have the tools to meet their needs, and it's frustrating to me as an existing customer. It keeps me from wanting to buy additional tests from your company. If you focus on giving me, the experienced user, the collaboration tools I need, it will give everyone else a better experience. The very thought that you might be considering doing the opposite is discouraging and disheartening.

I brought this up in my Family Tree DNA review, and I'll say it here in relation to AncestryDNA as well. None of these testing companies give users the tools they need to effectively communicate and collaborate with each other. This is not a problem that will be overcome by shrugging shoulders and saying, "Well, most customers don't want it anyway, so why bother to improve? Why not keep it simple?"

Because when you don't provide the functionality that users require for the task they've set out to do, that is the definition of making something harder. Not simpler. It takes information and collaboration to make family history discoveries using DNA. It takes work. It takes segment data. It takes traditional research. It takes source citations and original documents. It takes everything that good genealogical research requires. No amount of marketing speak about "responding to customer feedback" can change the fundamental nature of DNA testing. And every time AncestryDNA runs a commercial, I can't help but wonder if they've made the mistake of believing their own version of events.

People are not stupid. They know when they've been had. Consumers figure it out when what they were promised is not what they receive. They figure it out the moment they ask themselves what to do with their results, and they come up completely empty. They see it as they comb through page after page of matches, none of whom have trees. They realize that it isn't as easy as spitting into a tube and having the universe unfold before your eyes. And given that many people are pushing back against this problematic narrative of "spit in a tube and instantly discover your origins," this pattern of smoke and mirrors is unsustainable. 

Something needs to change. And if AncestryDNA thinks the change will be to simply hide the cousin match list, they're already looking way beyond the mark.