The look of your database is as important as its structure, because it’s the interface that affects how people work with it. Aim for a cleanly structured, consistent look with complimentary colours and few distractions, as in this sample main menu for a banjo tablature application.

It’s 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 that’s needed to sell an application, when any user knows that, when you get down to it, the interface is the app.

When you’re designing a database application, you’re 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 – or other people – 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 organised, easy on the eyes and efficient. If you alleviate the tedium and keep the users of your system happy, you’ll automatically increase the accuracy of the data entered into the database.

Data entry guidelines

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

If you’re designing a database purely for your own use it’s 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 to use for all time?

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

i. Organise fields logically

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

ii. Don’t clutter

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

iii. Don’t force users to scroll

This database uses a tabbed data entry screen to group fields logically and avoid clutter. Note the tabs across the top (Title, Product Details, Requirements, etc.); data entry instructions included on the form; the use of asterisks to mark fields where data entry is compulsory; and the navigation bar at the bottom which is consistent between tabs.

If possible, make sure all your fields are visible simultaneously, so users don’t 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. It’s 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 don’t want to create clutter but still want to avoid scrolling, try using a tabbed interface. 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.

iv. Go easy on the fonts

At the most, your data entry screens should use three fonts – 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 ‘feet’ or extra small lines at the end of characters that you’ll 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 those 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 colours

Avoid lairy colours. Instead choose soft colours 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 colour blind or suffer from other eyesight difficulties.

vi. Abandon the defaults

Dump the default data entry screens created by Access, Alpha and most other databases. They are usually poorly organised and either look boring or hard to read. Access is particularly bad in this respect, while FileMaker offers the best standard screens. This is particularly important if you’re using an older version of any of these database programs; more recent versions tend to provide a bit more spit and polish.

Use the default screens as a starting point and tweak them or, if you don’t 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. It’s 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.

In Access, open the form in Design View and choose Tab Order from the View Menu. If you’re using Access 2010, switch to Design View, click the Design tab and click Tab Order in the Tools group.

viii. Be consistent

If you application has more than one data entry screen, use the same look and the same organisational 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

On this data entry form, help is provided both on the form itself and in the form of pop-up tooltips. Microsoft Access makes it particularly easy to add this sort of help to data entry screens.

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 tooltip (called a ControlTip in Access 2007 and 2010) which will appear when the user lets their cursor linger on a field.

If your database doesn’t support such tooltips, 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. 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 ‘look up’  information – such as the postal code for a city – and have it entered automatically.

Drop-down lists and pre-defined choices speed up data entry. These choices can be defined either during database definition or when you design the data entry form itself.

We’ll look at all these options in the future.

xi. Validate data as it’s entered

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

We’ll 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. These tools are sometimes 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. Don’t do this experimenting on a ‘live’ database. Create a sample one from scratch, if you like, and work with it.

To do this in Microsoft Access 2000, 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.

If you’re using Access 2007 or 2010, select a table from the Supporting Objects list, click the Create tab and click the Forms button to create a default form. Click the View button to switch to Design View, click Property Sheet in the Tools section and then click different objects on the form to see their properties.

We’ll do some hands-on forms design in the next article in this series.

Read the next article in this series: Databasics IV: Streamlining data entry