How we Created Twiggli

In 2017 one of my customers was looking through the client report I’d prepared for him. Although he was pleased with the research, there was clearly something wrong. It was plain that he just wasn’t ‘feeling it’. He needed something more visual than a dry folder of text and charts. After looking at a number of possible solutions over the next few weeks, I decided to design a family tree poster, which he could display on the wall and share with his friends. When I delivered the poster, the difference in his response was astounding. He beamed with joy and pride, pointing out the different ancestors and commenting on their occupations. “Now I know why I like talking to the farmers in the pub!” he commented.

My client with the Twiggli prototype

Soon, other genealogists were asking me how I made the family tree, and whether they could have one too. Unfortunately it was a long manual process, and completely impractical to replicate commercially. However, when I showed the tree to my husband, Mike, he could see that it had potential. I already had a fair bit of experience in basic web design (this blog is my own work), but we knew from the outset that this was going to be a really complex project. Mike’s positivity gave me confidence, and I knew that his project management background was going to be a huge asset.

We immediately got in touch with my old friends at Trivand Technologies, who had worked for me when I was a magazine publisher. It wasn’t their usual area of expertise, but nevertheless they were keen to give it a go. Their office is in Thiruvananthapuram, also know as Trivandrum. This city is in the beautiful state of Kerala, near the southern tip of India.

In June 2018 we prepared a list of requirements, and before long the project was underway. Over the first few months the work was all about getting the key concepts in place. I created some wireframes for the site, Mike came up with plans and flow diagrams, and the team at Trivand came up with some excellent ideas for the structure and design. Although we were making progress, sometimes it could be a bit of a challenge to explain what we wanted, especially as the development team’s first language is Malayalam and I don’t know a word of it!

This early output includes the basic elements but there’s clearly a long way to go!

At the same time as I working with the developers, I had to commission illustrations for the ancestors’ portraits, the frames, and the flowers and leaves for the trees (although I designed the actual branches myself). I wanted to offer Twiggli’s users a variety of contrasting styles, so there would be something to suit every taste. I used freelancing platforms to find some talented artists around the world, but I also invited my stepdaughter Rebekah to contribute some of her amazing artwork. We were always conscious that we might want to extend the sets of avatars later, so it was important to find designers who were efficient and easy to work with. We gave each of the designers a group of reference images, representing different periods in history. It was always very exciting waiting to see the results, as they were all so different!

As the months rolled by, the team started to work on the detailed functionality of the website. With a five and a half hour time difference to contend with, I was sleepily logging onto Skype at 7am almost every day. It was sometimes rather tricky to cope with the twin demands of coding logic and advanced genealogical concepts, when I was barely awake. The biggest turning point came when my lead developer, Jiju Francis, opened his own Ancestry account. Suddenly someone in Kerala really understood what I was trying to do, and things started to fall into place. For a while Jiju and I were on fire, making loads of progress, testing deployments almost daily, and resolving a constant stream of issues, from serious bugs to niggling details.

Our development team at Trivand Technologies. Their office is in Thiruvananthapuram, also know as Trivandrum. This city is in the beautiful state of Kerala, near the southern tip of India. From left to right are Praveen โ€“ user interface developer, Jiju โ€“ our lead developer, Anju โ€“ junior developer, and Aswanjith โ€“ user interface designer.

Over the last few months I have probably tried Jiju’s patience to the limit, but he has remained patient and dedicated to the project. On one notable occasion when he was working from home in the evening, I gently scolded him because he really should spend some more time with his wife. Jiju replied that it was ok, she was a developer too, and she understood! On another occasion he was Skyping from a hospital waiting room while he waited for his mother to finish her appointment, and on another he was at a church festival at midnight, and still logging onto Skype! Our working relationship throughout the project has been excellent. Mike and I owe Jiju and the rest of the team a huge debt of gratitude for their skill and patience. From the most senior developers, to the most junior ones, we thank and appreciate them all. At the time of writing, in March 2019, we are on the final straight, with beta testing in progress, and the big launch planned for Family Tree Live at Alexandra Palace in April 2019. We can’t wait to share Twiggli with you all!

Remember the snow on Feb 1st 2019? On the same day, our developers sent us this photo from their office window. It was 35 degrees in India, and they were all baking!

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