10 questions to ask before you build a database

Access does amazing things.

We can use it to store, analyse, report on, and manage data. We can get it to automate our business processes, to download CSV data from an FTP site and upload it again as a PDF. To allow users to input data and to email them to let them know when they need to do so.

With all the power that Access offers, it’s really easy, when writing articles for a blog like this one, to get carried away with creating endless bells and whistles, while ignoring the basic question…

How do you build a Microsoft Access database?

Over the months to come, we’re intending to put together a series of video tutorials to take you through the whole process, from start to finish. But in this article, I just wanted to share with you some basic ideas – the things you need to think about as you get started.

If you’ve never used Microsoft Access before, there’s good news – this work doesn’t actually need you to use Access. Or indeed any other software – pencil and paper will work just fine. You see…

Planning is everything

The more work you can do in planning the database, in being clear what you want the database to do, and not do, the less likely you are to need to spend time re-designing and re-working the database when you’re half way through.

So, kick off by getting a good, clear understanding of the scope of the database. Talk to all the people who are going to be using it. Talk to those who will put the data in, and to those who will want to get it out, report on it, analyse it and so on. Find out what they need the database to do.

10 questions to ask before starting to build an Access datbase

  • What business process will the database support?
  • How do they currently manage that process?
  • How are those processes likely to change as the business grows or changes over the next 5 years?
  • What existing systems – paper-based or computer-based – will the database be replacing?
  • How many people need to use this new system?
  • Of those people, how many are likely to want to use it concurrently?
  • How much data will the database store? For example, are you wanting to store sales transactions that could run to tens of thousands per day? Or manage a manufacturing process, involving a few hundred items a week?
  • To what extent is security important? Is it simply enough that the data is stored reliably? Or must different people have access to different parts of the data?
  • Will this new database system have to connect to other systems? To your accounts package? To Outlook to send automated emails or schedule appointments? To an FTP server to import data?
  • Forgetting time, and budget, if your new database system could do anything for you and your business, what would you have it do?

So, in short, get a really good picture of what’s needed. And think big! That’s why the last question in the list is important – it’s surprising how often people say “I don’t suppose it’s even remotely possible, but what would be really great is…” and they come up with something that’s actually pretty simple! Of course, the converse is the number of times people will say “We just need a minor tweak so that…” and it turns out to be a major headache! But either way, it’s a significanty easier thing to make design changes at this stage, on paper, than it is to make the changes when the database is built.

Stay tuned for more…

That’s it for now. But, as I said at the start, we are working on a significant series of video tutorials to guide you through the whole process, so do stay in touch and keep an eye out for these.

If you want to make sure you don’t miss out, why not subscribe to our blog – either via the RSS feed, or via email – just enter your address in the box at the top-right corner of this page and click “Sign me up!” And if there’s anything you’d really like us to cover in the video tutorials, let us know – just post a comment below.