Discover Our Multisite Drupal Platform For American Ancestors

How We’re Helping Bring 1.4 Billion Names to Life

Creating Connections – our Super-Searchable Sites are Placing Hands on History

American Ancestors is the website of the New England Historic Genealogical Society (NEHGS). Through the site, the Society offers a far-reaching and searchable resource for those researching family histories. Currently, the organisation brings 1.4 billion names to visitors keen to connect with their past.

Hookson has worked with NEHGS for a number of years. Projects have included an extensive website design and build for the organisation’s moving and fascinating GU272 resource. So when the Society’s flagship website required a major overhaul, we were delighted to hop aboard.

Searches. Sorted.

Robust Enough For 1.4 Billion+ Names


Several Sites. One System.

A Multisite Platform Built on Drupal

Although the American Ancestors site is the Society’s principal online presence, several separate-but-related sites focus on prominent signature projects. These include that Hookson-designed GU272 site and also the Jewish Heritage Center website we created.

With more sites on the way, the Society required:

  • Consistency across the managing, curating and editing of sites
  • Granular control in terms of which teams performed these tasks
  • An efficient way to share among sites functionality and content when required

Establishing a Consistent Legacy for American Ancestors

A fundamental part of this new job therefore was to establish backend consistency across NEHGS’ roster of websites. This saw Hookson migrating these websites to the Drupal content management platform. Doing this would completely streamline the backend and allow central control of site management.

In practical terms, this would simplify the regular tasks of in-house maintenance and updating. For the organisation’s staff, harnessing just one CMS, as opposed to keeping on top of several systems, would deliver significant efficiency savings. And for a truly granular approach, editing permissions would be a cinch to apply to either one team or several, as individual tasks demanded.

Beginning with Users

We began this challenging project with a programme of user testing. It was vital to understand what visitors expected from their experience.

To this end, Hookson conducted one-to-one testing workshops with site users. We designed these workshops to reveal expectations including:

  • What defined visitor objectives?
  • What would these disparate visitors like to see on the homepage and related pages?
  • Which on-site tools would be most useful?

Within workshops we set real-world tasks like event-booking and by using two prototype workshops across two separate test groups we were able to avoid bias affecting outcomes.

Our Multisite Drupal Platform combined beautifully created images and assets with outstanding UX

Hookson’s multisite-site Drupal-built approach made content a snap to share and manage across any number of the organisation’s project sites.

Family Planning: Ensuring Awesome Content

Intimately connected with user testing was a deep dive into content inventory planning. Here, Hookson presented users with a detailed view of proposed site content.

To arrive at the most engaging website experience possible our site-planning activities offered options across page content and assets. These included the behaviour and makeup of features like menus and sliders, the design of tools like calendars, and how best to express key content like call-to-action phrases.

Further to this, we presented interviewees with two wireframe options. These visuals expressed potential layout, and user behaviour. They also greatly helped establish user flows – the logical journeys visitors would take.

Balancing Objectives

It was important also to balance visitor objectives – often a single-minded search or event booking – with those of the Society. For the latter, broadening out wider content like membership and donations, publications and projects differentiated it from competitors. As these assets would potentially be of interest to both casual and more experienced visitors, it would be important to give them prominence.

Keeping Content Current – and Corralled

It was crucial that reusable site content was a snap to both upload and update.

Where content – be it videos or calendar events, articles or products for sale – existed across multiple areas of the site, or where they featured on American Ancestors’ sister sites, we ensured management of these assets from just one go-to location. It was now quick and easy to create content just once, then upload and share. This guaranteed that content remained current and fresh across all pages, resulting in a richer UX.

Designed for Lives

From day one, our site-design activity focused on both excellent UX and on reflecting American Ancestors’, and the wider Society’s mission to educate, inspire and connect.

To achieve these we designed a top menu providing simple access to key pages: Search, Events, Membership and Give. Added to these, accessible secondary menus featured drop-downs and ensured clear access to signature projects, site tools and expert help.

Across the site, our colour palette contained a mix of subtle shades. A parchment-like tone provided the principal background for text. Upon this, headlines announced themselves via a classic-looking serif typeface. Body text, meanwhile, relied on a modern sans-serif font.

Super Drupal

Handled This Multisite Build

Captivating Content

Shared In A Snap

Classic and Contemporary

These design decisions assisted legibility: a key consideration for the older demographic the Society counts among its visitors. The combining of classic and contemporary typefaces spoke also of an organisation curating the past in the most up-to-date manner possible.

Gracing pages, tones of blue and green, gold and brown pointed gently to the trappings of genealogy, history and study: parchment and books, documents and maps. Our design made use also of the Society’s oak-leaf logo, ghosted subtly within the blocks we employed to offer an appealing and easy-to-navigate layout and user journey.

Striking a Balance

Further balancing contemporary design with classic imagery and motifs, we populated the website with striking images. These combined large people-focused shots with assorted visuals of art, period photographs, maps and documentation.

Key to site design also was ensuring this dominant website related closely to the Society’s growing list of signature project microsites. Achieving this, use of complementing colour schemes, typefaces and a top menu instantly connected these numerous sites as belonging, appropriately, to the same family.

Digitised Descendants: Bringing the Database to Life

With the American Ancestors site placing such an emphasis on research and discovery, enabling powerful database searching was a priority.

An extensive digitised database had been third-party created, and Hookson carefully applied design credentials to this. It was important to offer a database that, although home to daunting amounts of information, was intuitive, friendly and able to provide a terrific user experience.

The database search functionality enabled searches to shift from broad and general queries to very specific searches that drilled down into granular detail.

Simplifying Searches

Related to this was an exciting new feature that added even more to UX: federated search. This search technique enabled multiple data sources to present at one location. For users it was now possible to search all sites, databases and resources in the Society’s family of resources from the flagship site itself.

Solr Power

We powered our search functionality with Solr: a hugely reliable, scalable and scorching-fast search platform. By integrating this innovative, market-leading platform – built specifically to search vast resources – those searching the Society’s sites, articles, digital collections and assorted databases would experience a near-instantaneous response, and consequently superb UX.

Furthermore, we ensured that content, which the Society had tagged for relevance, would be weighted in order of importance. This resulted in very high-quality topline search results. Additionally, this offered users the option to review a wider sweep of results that would otherwise have remained undiscovered on the Society’s sister websites.

In short, by integrating the very best searching technology available we ensured searches were both super-quick and, crucially, super-accurate.

Solr-powered search functionality searched the entire family of American Ancestors sites from the flagship website. Accurate, near-instantaneous results delivered superb UX.

A Date with the Past. A Date with the Future.

American Ancestors is an active organisation. With people and their rich, fascinating stories at its heart, it’s home to regular events like exhibitions and talks, seminars and tours.

Employing the market-leading React asset, Hookson built out an interactive calendar enabling a one-stop-shop for viewing upcoming and past events.

Led by UX, we ensured extensive filtering options, so visitors could search events by criteria. These included date and topic, free and paid-for events, and event type – including in-person and virtual events.

Our asset went way beyond its core function as a calendar though. Clicking on an event’s beautiful and bespoke tile led visitors to that event’s dedicated page: a location for extensive information and an invitation to register.

Lastly, where access to site content was reserved for paid-up members, this material remained secure behind a member-login wall. Rather than simply locking out non-members, though, our login wall invited new membership subscriptions from those looking to access this content.

Looking for Outstanding Digital Products For Your Business? Let’s Work Together.

Our Drupal multisite platform for American Ancestors has delivered a consistent experience for both users and administrators.

If you’re thinking about transforming your organisation with innovative digital products, we want to hear from you. Connect with Hookson today and let’s begin a conversation.