Giving the American Ancestors a Voice

How our UX-powered website helped tell an important story

Designing a UX Website for GU272 – a Project With History at its Heart

American Ancestors‘ GU272 Memory Project tells the story of the 1838 selling of approximately 272 slaves.

Founded in 1845, American Ancestors is the USA’s first and most respected genealogical organisation. The nonprofit corporation advances the study of family history. It does this in a number of ways.

Firstly, American Ancestors’ expert staff leads the charge. These specialists oversee study, lectures, seminars and learning opportunities. Secondly, there is the organisation’s Boston-based eight-storey research centre. This is coupled with a comprehensive website. Together, these empower users of all levels to shine a light on their family histories.

Recounting a Story of Connection

The men, women and children recalled by the project were sold to Louisiana plantation owners by Jesuit priests. The subsequent funds assisted in the construction of Washington DC’s Georgetown University. The project recounts the incredible tales and histories of those sold.

Thanks to our web-building experience, American Ancestors asked Hookson to create a UX website for GU272. We were honoured. It would be a powerful tool for connecting those people sold to the plantations with their many descendants.

Creating a Visually Stunning Design

With so many moving stories to tell, engaging images would offer opportunities for a highly creative visual direction and layout. From there, we would go on to use animation to tell an even more compelling story. This development would bring fascinating visual elements to life.

Ensuring Updates – and Enabling UX

Integrating our website with Drupal’s content management system would ensure varied, easy-to-update pages. Using Drupal would also provide a flexible foundation for subsequent American Ancestors’ sites. Boosting user experience, powerful content and search capabilities would offer an array of historical data and facts. It would be important that these were easy to search and negotiate.

Across thoughtful design, our website recounted the past and connected the present

Creating a Layout That Connects the Past with the Present

Above all, the idea of connection inspired our website layout. Elements associated with memory influenced visual direction. These included photographs, documents and maps. These assets combined to form a collage effect. We then applied a hover effect to selected images. This saw visuals changing from black-and-white to colour.

Overall, our layout certainly echoed the visual language of ancestry mapping. When scrolling on selected pages, lines ‘drew in’. These linked boxes and sections. The result was a particularly warm family-tree effect. This was entirely in keeping with the heart of the project.

Presenting Subtle Animation to Bring Stories and Emotions to Life

Site-wide animation was art-directed to stir memories of the Georgetown ancestors. Consequently, our home page featured a striking, animating composite montage. Alongside a photograph of a Georgetown ancestor, a descendant, eyes-closed, is imagining her ancestor’s story. Behind these images an actual sugar plantation map animated. This obviously provided emotional impact. Moreover, it also added further interest and context.

Hookson then created illustrations of figures in historical dress. Contemporary portraits of actual descendants accompanied these illustrations. These visuals were, in turn, presented against an animating backdrop of family names. We then applied a parallax scrolling effect to these names. This undoubtedly invited engagement to this most human element of our story.

Combining UX functionality with emotionally arresting visuals created a useful and memorable website - one receiving exposure from media including ABC News, The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and The Washington Post.

Arresting, art-directed imagery married the historical with the contemporary

Using Drupal to Showcase Elements Now and in the Future

This project was home to a wealth of captivating video and audio content. To fully showcase these assets, we created a suite of components in Drupal 8. This made certain that a wide range of UI and UX-oriented layouts could be created.

Our GU272 site was part of a group of sites offered by American Ancestors. Our client, therefore, required a consistent approach to future site builds. We created a master theme on Drupal. After that, we enabled subsequent sites to utilise the same base. This made future developments a snap. It also allowed plenty of scope for unique look and feel. Most importantly, there was no need for complicated coding or technical know-how.

Enabling Descendants to Easily Connect with Their Ancestors

Our website illuminated lives and stories. High-quality content included a timeline, ancestor-tracing advice and links to further American Ancestors’ resources. In addition, clear menus and calls-to-action boosted UX. These particularly aided navigation, interaction and exploration.

A big part of the project was enabling descendants to research their ancestors. Hookson ensured a powerful search facility eased this task. This greatly enhanced UI and UX.

Our highly creative visual elements complemented the search tool. On the website’s principal menu page, descendants faced directly into camera. These striking portraits further connected the past and present.

In conclusion, by combining UX functionality with emotionally arresting visuals, we created a useful and memorable website. The media evidently agreed. Our UX website for GU272, and the stories it told, received significant exposure from major outlets. These included ABC News, The New York Times, The San Francisco ChronicleThe Seattle and The Washington Post.

Our website for the American Ancestors‘ GU272 Memory Project is a finalist at the GLAMi Awards 2020.