As I had suspected,early investigations into the elusive nature of the database suggested storage as a key function. But of what? 'Names and addresses mainly,' said Someone Who Knows These Things; 'sales contacts, clients, personnel records, stock files, that sort of thing.'
What databases add to this passive process of storage is a better way of getting large quantities of such information in and out of the system. Unlike a spreadsheet, databases have ingenious ways of storing and accessing hundreds of data items to minimise effort and maximise usefulness.
So, if setting up forms on the screen for data entry is the quickest way to get data in, how do you get it out again? 'Ask it,' said my tame expert, which, it turns out, is what 'Querying' is all about. That is just about it: databases store data in a structured way which allows a real person to enter new records and retrieve them at will - plus a little editing, formatting and reporting.
Enter the Real People. Solicited on the basis of their non-technical skills from my file of test subjects - stored, ironically, in a spreadsheet - each one of the team of three has come to tell me about databases. There is a software training consultant, the manager of a small business and a freelance design consultant.
Nervously, they enter the usability lab at 9am to find a place laid for each of them: Microsoft Access, Lotus Approach and Borland Paradox, the big three in the database world. At each desk lies a script - a series of 'real' tasks for them to complete, each of which covers the areas identified as important. 'In your own time,' I tell them, as they begin.
Quickest progress was made within Microsoft's Access, which bombards users with help and tips to get them past attacks of technophobia. Access is the birthplace of the Microsoft 'Cue Card', small but detailed tutorials which describe specific sequences to achieve specific goals - like creating a new database file. 'Very helpful,' my team informed me. Others dipped into the 'comprehensive' manuals.
Approach, a product launched before Access and designed specifically to be easy to use, did manage to live up to its reputation. It calms nervous first-timers with its minimalist data entry screen and simple form-filling design with an almost childishly large font, managing to give the impression that there is not really much to databases after all.
In fact, with Approach that is true: it makes no pretence to be a development tool, but deals well with the data management needs of business people. It is also easy to query and not at all coy about telling you what you want to know.
By far the most powerful and offering the most features, Paradox does demand that users display a deeper awareness of database technology. Even so, after ploughing through 'so many features]' the testers were surprised at how straightforward the final data entry process was.
'Paradox seems to be flexible and powerful,' enthused one, adding cautiously that it was 'quite complicated'. Help is less proactive than in the other programs, although our testers 'did find it (the tutorial) later', and described the content of the Help program as 'relevant and informative'. You do not so much query Paradox as interrogate it, but with the right kind of attitude it soon come up with the goods.
So what is the answer? In the debriefing room, the testers glanced at one another. 'I did like Approach and Paradox is obviously very powerful,' said one, 'but they didn't always seem to know what I wanted to do.' So is Access the most usable, useful database? 'I suppose so,' one admitted, grudgingly, 'though I don't like Microsoft taking over the world like this.'
Joanna Bawa is Usability Editor of PC Magazine.
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