Simple database software with boomer usability
October 26, 2008 2:25 PM   Subscribe

Database software for "what does right-click mean"?

I work for a company that handles a lot of clients. It's run by a middle-age couple who don't really know what right-clicking means. They can use a web browser and Outlook Express. All our data is currently on paper and it's insane.

I'd like to digitize everything, but I'd like to keep it usable for both of them. I myself don't know anything about databases, but I have 1st-year university-level comp sci abilities. I've been experimenting with Openoffice's Base, and it looks like it would do the job, but I'm wondering if there's a way I could do it that:

- has a more warm and fuzzy GUI? (You know those kindergarten GUIs on grocery store displays?)

- is even simpler to manage? (Although Base seems pretty straightforward so not a big deal.)

- does fast searches? I'm worried (maybe totally groundlessly, I have no idea) about how doing searches on an .odb file will perform when there's 1000 entries in it. I need to be able to search it and get results within a second or two. The office computers are decent (average 2007 desktop PCs).

- does concurrent multiple read/write? Another huge bonus would be if there was an easy way to create a database that could be accessed by more than one computer on a local network (or over the internet). I'm not sure how read-only multiple-user stuff would work there. Is it possible for two users to read and modify a single database at the same time?

posted by skwt to Computers & Internet (11 answers total)
If a Mac is available, FileMaker's Bento is designed for exactly this purpose. Alternatively, the regular FileMaker Pro would work on Windows, although your setup might be more complex and it is, of course, more expensive. What is your budget here? A nice advantage to FM is that you can setup networking pretty easily to share access to the database.

It would really help to know what kind of data we're talking about here. Do you want something to handle invoices and bookkeeping tasks? If so, something like QuickBooks or MYOB would be far more useful than anything you can whip up. Are you scanning and searching through paper documents? Just saying "a database" doesn't give us much.
posted by zachlipton at 2:36 PM on October 26, 2008

Response by poster: Okay--thanks zachlipton, I don't know the first thing about databases, so that's helpful.

I want to store a lot of orders that are linked to client IDs. So each order is an item in the database. Each order is basically a short description, a date, and ideally the option to have external documents (such as images, .docs, PDFs) linked to/incorporated within them.

And so it should be searchable and arrangeable by client ID and date, and ideally all text in all fields should be searchable.

No Macs.

Budget is probably a few hundred dollars, up to maybe $400.
posted by skwt at 3:47 PM on October 26, 2008

Response by poster: I see on FileMaker's Wikipedia:

"FileMaker is available for both the Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows operating systems and can be networked simultaneously to a mixed Windows and Mac OS X user base"

-- can anyone tell me if this solves my "concurrent multiple read/write" thing?

"FileMaker is also scalable, being offered in desktop, server, and web-delivery configurations"

-- would the "server" version be necessary to do this?
posted by skwt at 3:53 PM on October 26, 2008

Note that Filemaker Inc makes
(a) the Filemaker Pro app, and
(b) Bento the easier-to-use implementation (which is Mac-only at this time).

Filemaker Pro can be made to be used by those with little experience or inclination, bu unfortunately it must be configured and likely overseen periodically by someone who has a better understanding of computers and some database knowledge.
posted by skywhite at 4:04 PM on October 26, 2008

I'd like to digitize everything, but I'd like to keep it usable for both of them. I myself don't know anything about databases

Then I suggest you hire somebody who does, and get them in to have a look at your business processes.

You reckon your current paper hell is hell? A poorly designed business database will cost far more time and effort in the medium to long term than any reasonable person would think is plausible.

That said: If you're going to play with databases until you know enough about them to make informed choices, and you intend to run whatever system you build in parallel with the existing paper system until you all prefer it to the paper stuff, then you may as well stick with Base. It doesn't really care what database back-end it uses, so if the embedded database lets you down performance-wise you can hook it up to something more industrial-strength and keep whatever user interface you already have.
posted by flabdablet at 5:48 PM on October 26, 2008

They're going to have to learn to right-click if everything's going digital.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:05 PM on October 26, 2008

How about you initially try replacing the paper system with a file server that contains word processor and spreadsheet files, with something like Copernic or Google Desktop or another desktop search engine tweaked for your file server?

If each client ID were a folder you'd be able to scope the search that way and of course you'd be able to put files of any type in the folder. You'd also be able to use normal Windows security to make things safe. If you want to standardize the format of orders, there's probably templating or wizard features in your word processor that you could use for that.

A database could do the things you're asking for, and in some respects might be more ideal, but it seems to me that the sort of setup I describe above might be more manageable and flexible for your situation.
posted by XMLicious at 7:13 PM on October 26, 2008

I'm not sure how someone with "1st year comp sci" abilities became a company's IT consultant, but here's the essentials:

1. Backup, backup, backup. Paper is relatively resilient, compared to the frequency with which computers fail. RAID is not a backup. Even better would be to have offsite backups. Back up the database, and archive any programs used to access it.

2. Test the backup system. Finding out that you don't know how to restore from backups is costly when the time comes, but it's even worse when the backups failed. Test the backup system to make sure it's doing it's job, and make sure it runs regularly.

3. Training. If nobody in the company can right click, there's a problem migrating to a digital system. Any new computer system will need some time to train employees on.

With those out of the way, Base can do what you want. There's a GUI designer, which can be made relatively ossifying, and should handle 1000 entries with relative ease. The only reason a 2007 computer couldn't fit such an .odb file into memory (FAST!) is because World of Warcraft is playing in the background.

Base also says it handles a mySQL backend. That's a bit more complex to set up, but it certainly handles concurrent read/write and networking. Just make sure you have transactions set on, or you risk weird interactions. It'd make backups a lot less risky, and scale far far beyond a thousand entries. I personally prefer postgreSQL, but it sounds irrelevant at your scale.

Once you've got a plan, come up with a budget. Backups cost, training costs, server hardware, and any management overhead. The software's all free, so that's not the trouble. Ideally, you'd demonstrate some efficiency gain over paper process worth the 400 dollars or whatever shoestring budget you've got, to justify recurring costs like offsite backups.
posted by pwnguin at 9:08 PM on October 26, 2008

2nd or 3rding not to approach using databases like it's some simple task. It's not rocket science, but it does need to be done carefully.

This is true even if you think this is "really simple"

When your system is based on people and paper - it's also quite resilient, and quite flexible.
People understand pen and paper. IF they want to scribble notes on something - they'll just do it. If they want to make a custom file folder full of "top" clients - they just do it.
When you try to move this to a technology solution - it's not as flexible. You have to carefully define what data you are keeping, how you are organizing it, and most importantly how are you are going to USE it.

It's tempting to also say you are in over your head - if you have some 1st year experience, and aren't even really confident in what a database actually is - you probably shouldn't be re-organizing someone's business around one.

But if I thought like that, I'd never have learned anything either, so go for it.
posted by TravellingDen at 10:39 PM on October 26, 2008

You don't mention what kind of place you're working, but if they're a retail establishment or a typical services outfit they might be better served by a Commercial Off-the-Shelf package such as Quickbooks or Peachtree.

You can pickup the either package's mid-range product for under US$ 300. They've probably got it in stock at your local office supply mega-mart. There will be some training needed, but it's available at a reasonable cost if the manual won't suffice.

Quickbooks has an online service that runs in a web-browser starting at ten bucks a month and they can try it for free. Peachtree is giving away their "Complete" package" to the next 500 Mom-and-Pops that sign up before Nov. 28th, 2008.

This kind of software is designed to be used by people who've never had an accounting system beyond journals and ledgers.
posted by ob1quixote at 3:22 AM on October 27, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, that was real helpful.

FYI, I became the company's de facto IT consultant because I'm the only other in-office employee.
posted by skwt at 8:51 PM on October 27, 2008

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