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Databasics III: Data entry design

Itís staggering how many shareware and commercial database applications have appalling data entry screens. Many developers seem to think that well-oiled inner workings are all thatís needed to sell an application, when any user knows that, when you get down to it, the interface is the app.

When youíre designing a database application, youíre taking on the role of a developer. As you do so, remember to keep the soul of a user. While the brain work in building a database comes during the design stage, the hard slog comes when you Ė or other people Ė start adding data to that structure, especially when there are copious amounts of data to add. You can alleviate much of the tedium of data entry by ensuring your data entry forms are logically organized, easy on the eyes and efficient.

A sample main menu for a database application

Figure 1. Think of your users when designing everything from data entry screens to a main menu for your database application. (Click the image for more details.)

Data entry guidelines

Exactly how you design your data entry screens will depend on the database program youíre using, the amount of data youíre dealing with, the needs and likes of the data entry personnel, and any application-specific requirements that may exist.

If youíre designing a database purely for your own use itís still worth designing well-thought-out data entry screens. After all, why should you make life harder for yourself when a little effort in the design phase will make using your database easier for all time?

The following guidelines will help you design data attractive and easy-to-use data entry screens.

i. Organize fields logically

Group related fields together and use boxes or color coding to make it easy for users to zero in on information quickly.

ii. Donít clutter

Space fields on the screen so users can easily spot the field they need to edit.

iii. Donít force users to scroll

If possible, make sure all your fields are visible simultaneously, so users donít have to keep switching between the keyboard (for data entry) and the mouse (for scrolling), and so users can see all information at a glance. Itís also worth avoiding scrolled data entry screens as people have a tendency to forget about those invisible fields lurking off the bottom of the screen and leave them blank.

If you have a large number of fields in your database and you donít want to create clutter but still want to avoid scrolling, try using a tabbed interface (see Figure 2). With a tabbed interface, you can separate fields into logical groupings, with each group on its own tab. This approach avoids clutter while keeping everything on the screen.

Use a tabbed design to handle large numbers of fields

Figure 2. Using tabs for multi-screen data entry. (Click the image for more details.)

iv. Go easy on the fonts

At the most, your data entry screens should use three fonts Ė one for the headings, one for field labels, and one for the field contents themselves.

For best readability, use sans serif fonts such as Arial, Verdana and Trebuchet MS (sans serif fonts lack the little Ďfeetí or extra small lines at the end of characters that youíll find in serif fonts such as Times New Roman). If large amounts of text will be entered in text fields, you may wish to use Times New Roman or another serif font for the fields. Choose standard fonts, especially if your database will be used on a variety of computers. Make sure all text is of a readable size. 

v. Go easy on the colors

Avoid lairy colors. Instead choose soft colors or those that provide good contrast for the fields and captions. If a number of people will be using your database application, keep in mind that some of them may be color blind or suffer from other eyesight difficulties.

vi. Abandon the defaults

Dump the default data entry screens created by Approach, Access, FileMaker and most other databases. They are usually poorly organized and either look boring or hard to read. Access is particularly bad in this respect, while FileMaker offers the best standard screens.

Use these default screens as a starting point and tweak them or, if you donít mind the extra work, build your screens from scratch.

vii. Check your tab order

Ensure that Tab order is correct. During data entry, you move from field to field using the Tab key. Itís important you ensure the Tab order is consistent, so that the insertion point moves from the first field on the screen to the last without jumping about. Incorrect tab order will not only frustrate your users, but it may cause them to enter data into the wrong field.

You can change the tab order in Lotus Approach via the View Menu, Show Tab Order option when in Design Mode. In FileMaker Pro, you can change the tab order in Layout Mode via the Layout Menu, Set Tab Order option. In Access, open the form in Design View and choose Tab Order from the View Menu.

viii. Be consistent

If you application has more than one data entry screen, use the same look and the same organizational principles for each screen. If, for example, you place a Close button on one data entry screen so users can close the screen with a mouse click, include the same box in a similar location on other screens.

ix. Include help

Add descriptive help where possible. Your data entry forms should be as self-explanatory as possible, with commonsense labels on each field.

You can make data entry even easier by providing help for each field. In Microsoft Access, for example, you can add a pop-up field tool tip which will appear when the user lets their cursor linger on a field (see Figure 3).

Provide help via onscreen directions and tooltips

Figure 3. Add help via the use of Access's tool tips. (Click the image for more details. )

If your database doesnít support such tool tips, you can include instructions directly on the data entry form itself. For instance, if you want people to enter phone numbers without including any special characters (such as hyphens or parentheses) you can add a message to that effect beside the phone number field, thus: Enter numbers only, eg. 0291237745.

x. Provide shortcuts

You can speed up data entry dramatically by providing shortcuts such as drop-down boxes with predefined choices, auto-filled fields, multiple choice fields and so on (see Figure 4). Some of these features you can add during the database definition stage, although we kept things simple in the previous tutorial and avoided such options. Others you can add when you design your data entry forms. Still others you can introduce by using lookup tables or related tables, which let users Ďlook upí related information and have it entered automatically.

Weíll look at all these options in the future.

Drop-down lists and pre-filled entries speed up data entry

Figure 4. Drop-down lists make light work of data entry. (Click the image for more details.)

xi. Validate data as itís entered

You should design your forms so they check for invalid data and give users a chance to correct mistakes theyíve made. Much of this validation can be done during database definition; some youíll add during form design.

Weíll look at data validation in more detail in the future as well.

Experimenting with forms

Each database program provides different tools for designing data entry forms. Most are very fiddly to work with, so it pays to practice. One of the best ways to do that is to use the standard data entry form created by the database and then mess around with it. Donít do this experimenting on a Ďliveí database. Create a sample one from scratch, if you like, and work with it.

If youíre using Lotus Approach, you modify the data entry screens by clicking the Design button on the toolbar. Then click the Properties button on the toolbar (its icon is a yellow square overlaying a blue square at an angle) and then try clicking different objects on the screen and inspecting and changing the contents of the Properties box for that object.

In FileMaker Pro select Layout Mode from the View Menu. Right-click an object to adjust its properties.

In Access, select a table in the Tables section of the database objects window, click the New Object: Autoform button on the toolbar to create a new form, and then click the View button on the toolbar to switch to Design View. Click the Properties button on the toolbar and select different objects on the form to adjust the settings.

Weíll do some hands-on forms design in the next article in this series.

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