Database?! But I just want to analyse my data!

SOFA aims for ease of use as part of its “ease of use, learn as your go, beautiful output” mantra. But it confronts users with having to think about databases, even if just working with simple spreadsheets of data or some data entered by hand.

This was the usability problem brought to my attention by a member of the community, Jan Dittrich. Jan (, is completing a Masters in Media Arts and Design at the Bauhaus University in Weimar/Germany. He mainly does user research and usability, but has an interest in statistics as well. When using SOFA he noticed that a “database” needs to be selected for most of the activities but that it might be a rather technical concept for some of those who use SOFA. He wrote me an email addressing the problem and we subsequently exchanged ideas.

So how to address this without removing one important ability of SOFA – namely the ability to connect directly to people’s data when it is in a database (e.g. MySQL).

We explored a few options …

Initial GUI ideas from Jan

… but ended up following the principle of “the least we could do” as recommended in the fantastic usability book “Rocket Surgery Made Easy” by Steve Krug.

Rocket Surgery Made Easy

As Krug notes, tweaking is usually better than redesigning because 1) it actually gets done; 2) larger changes are inevitably going to break some things (think months of squashing all the bugs out again); and 3) redesigns annoy a lot of existing users who have gotten used to the status quo (actually Krug has 9 reasons but these are my favourites).

Anyway, I had no enthusiasm for a major GUI overhaul but it did not make sense to leave a known usability problem in place. What Jan and I came up with was rather simple and elegant. SOFA only shows the Database label and drop-down if the user has configured SOFA to connect to any databases. Expect to see this change in the next version (1.3.5).

Database details only displayed when needed

Users who have database connections will notice no difference. But for everyone else the interface will be simpler and easier to use. Sometimes, less is more.

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