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Background

This system was developed for the Fremantle Migrant Resource Centre in 1992-93. They had a number of Macintosh computers with the 512 by 400 pixel black and white screens (the old poodle tombstones). Staff included volunteers and migrants receiving work experience who had little computer experience but the system also had to allow for rapid entry of coded data by skilled users.

The data was also very sparse with only a few codes being entered for a typical record. The coding was mainly user-driven with a metadata table defining the available codes for each field. The user interface only needed screens editing if new fields were introduced.

One thing which made this system work extremely well was the Summary of sparse data.

The diagrams below are from the Query-by-Example search interface but are nearly identical to the data entry screens.

User Interface Styles

Maximal Whitespace

There have seldom been clear Macintosh user interface guidelines on databases (Pete Bickford published one article which was later included in his excellent book Interface Design: The Art of Developing Easy-to-use Software, ch16).

The guidelines at the time for data entry were oriented towards dialog boxes asking for a few values. These dialogs rapidly became very heavy looking if there were more than 3 boxes on a single dialog. The most commonly used examples were the sample databases supplied with FileMaker Pro, 4th Dimension and FoxBase itself.

Based on user feedback, the non-standard dotted underline style shown below was used (remember this was in 1992 so still the land of flat black icons) in usually a two-column layout.

Coded Data Entry

Remember that the system had to cope with users with slight computer skills who were not using the system often enough to remember codes and also people wanting to rapidly enter well-known coded data. The solution was to place a Pick button with list icon at the end of each field which allowed coded data.

Whilst the number of buttons might seem to clutter up the screen, it provides an unambigous prompt that a given field allows for coded data entry and rapid clicking to trigger the coded entry.

A subtle hint is the field size. Fields which allow only a single code are much narrower.

 

Summary Page

The user can choose Summarise at any time to see a popup summary of the query (or data entered) in a text editor window as shown above.

This is a full text editor - they can copy, print and save as a text file.

The addition of the Summarise page made a huge difference to the usability of the system, allowing for very sparse data to be handled but to produce simple reports which could be pasted into other documents.

Given more flexibility in a different programming environment I would probably show the summary in a spreadsheet or browser table but would definitely recommend a summary feature for any multi-screen, sparse data entry interface.

 

Complete List of QBE Entry Screens

Note that there's a Cancel/Find button pair on each screen. That allowed a user to enter just a couple of values then initiate the find from that screen rather than having to go to the last screen (as a wizard approach might require).