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What is a good database design?

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Certain principles guide the database design process. The first principle is that duplicate information (also called redundant data) is bad, because it wastes space and increases the likelihood of errors and inconsistencies. The second principle is that the correctness and completeness of information is important. If your database contains incorrect information, any reports that pull information from the database will also contain incorrect information. As a result, any decisions you make that are based on those reports will then be misinformed.

A good database design is, therefore, one that:

Divides your information into subject-based tables to reduce redundant data.

Provides Access with the information it requires to join the information in the tables together as needed.

Helps support and ensure the accuracy and integrity of your information.

Accommodates your data processing and reporting needs.

The design process

The design process consists of the following steps:

Determine the purpose of your database

This helps prepare you for the remaining steps.

Find and organize the information required

Gather all of the types of information you might want to record in the database, such as product name and order number.

Divide the information into tables

Divide your information items into major entities or subjects, such as Products or Orders. Each subject then becomes a table.

Turn information items into columns

Decide what information you want to store in each table. Each item becomes a field, and is displayed as a column in the table. For example, an Employees table might include fields such as Last Name and Hire Date.

Specify primary keys

Choose each table’s primary key. The primary key is a column that is used to uniquely identify each row. An example might be Product ID or Order ID.

Set up the table relationships

Look at each table and decide how the data in one table is related to the data in other tables. Add fields to tables or create new tables to clarify the relationships, as necessary.

Refine your design

Analyze your design for errors. Create the tables and add a few records of sample data. See if you can get the results you want from your tables. Make adjustments to the design, as needed.

Apply the normalization rules

Apply the data normalization rules to see if your tables are structured correctly. Make adjustments to the tables, as needed.

Determining the purpose of your database

It is a good idea to write down the purpose of the database on paper — its purpose, how you expect to use it, and who will use it. For a small database for a home based business, for example, you might write something simple like “The customer database keeps a list of customer information for the purpose of producing mailings and reports.” If the database is more complex or is used by many people, as often occurs in a corporate setting, the purpose could easily be a paragraph or more and should include when and how each person will use the database. The idea is to have a well developed mission statement that can be referred to throughout the design process. Having such a statement helps you focus on your goals when you make decisions.

Finding and organizing the required information

To find and organize the information required, start with your existing information. For example, you might record purchase orders in a ledger or keep customer information on paper forms in a file cabinet. Gather those documents and list each type of information shown (for example, each box that you fill in on a form). If you don’t have any existing forms, imagine instead that you have to design a form to record the customer information. What information would you put on the form? What fill-in boxes would you create? Identify and list each of these items. For example, suppose you currently keep the customer list on index cards. Examining these cards might show that each card holds a customers name, address, city, state, postal code and telephone number. Each of these items represents a potential column in a table.

As you prepare this list, don’t worry about getting it perfect at first. Instead, list each item that comes to mind. If someone else will be using the database, ask for their ideas, too. You can fine-tune the list later.

Next, consider the types of reports or mailings you might want to produce from the database. For instance, you might want a product sales report to show sales by region, or an inventory summary report that shows product inventory levels. You might also want to generate form letters to send to customers that announces a sale event or offers a premium. Design the report in your mind, and imagine what it would look like. What information would you place on the report? List each item. Do the same for the form letter and for any other report you anticipate creating.

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