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How I Got into Bento

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As a long-time database user and designer, Jesse Feiler, author of The Bento Book: The Beauty and Simplicity in Digital Organization, shares his experiences with Bento — a very different kind of database.
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I've worked with databases for a long time. It's something I enjoy doing—what a puzzle-addicted friend of mine refers to as "making order out of chaos." When the pieces click into place in a jigsaw puzzle or the words align just right in a crossword, there's a great sense of satisfaction. I've always found that same psychic reward in figuring out how data can be arranged to make the simplest and most elegant structure so that everything fits together in a logical way.

The tools we have for data design in databases are many and varied, but there has always been a somewhat steep learning curve. We know that a full-featured database such as FileMaker Pro can make your life much easier if you are trying to organize a business, a mailing list for a non-profit, or a classroom attendance record. The challenge, however, is to surmount that learning curve so that these tools provide their benefits to small projects. For me, this isn't a theoretical issue—it's one I confront every day in my own life. When I have data to organize, my first thought is almost always a database, because I have the tools at hand and I know how to use them. (It goes without saying the FileMaker Pro is my first choice because it provides a unique combination of database power along with scripting and interface design.)

Still, there are some organizational projects that just don't warrant the full database treatment. Over the years, there have been several attempts at simplified databases, but they haven't really succeeded. I think the problem is that in order to get to the benefits of a database, you have to overcome that learning curve and do a certain amount of database design. And for many people, designing a database isn't fun (maybe they don't like making order out of chaos).

Obviously, FileMaker has been thinking about these issues. They have the know-how and the tools to manage projects large and small, but even from their side, they see that the mini-projects often don't justify a database.

This is what I call the "center desk drawer problem." That's the drawer we all have where it's easier to toss things without worrying about organizing them. You know where those things will be, and if you sometimes need to dump the drawer out on the floor to search through it for that missing mailbox key, it's still easier to do that tedious search on the floor than to label each key and put it in a nice envelope. And chances are you won't need anything from that drawer at all.

From my point of view, what Bento does is to strike a middle course. It lets you organize information with an absolute minimum of set-up. In fact, there can be so little set-up that it is easier to use Bento than the center desk drawer, shoebox, or shopping bag organization tools.

The way Bento does this is to take the very basic features of a database and provide them automatically. One of the best examples of this is what happens when you set up a field in which to store data. In traditional databases, you choose from standard field types—numbers, strings, dates, and sometimes amorphous blobs or containers that just store bundles of digital bits. Then, you can use powerful scripting and formatting tools to present numbers as currency, dates as days of the week, and so forth.

Bento provides higher-level data structures that make this much easier. For example, the Bento Currency field combines the number, the currency symbol, and the rules for showing negative numbers and using thousandth separators. Other Bento fields combine raw data types such as text fields with specific uses so that we have fields such as Choice that combine text with an interface element (in this case, a pop-up menu).

This merging of the data storage and the use of the field makes it possible for people to use Bento without much of the background and preparation for a full-featured database. The challenge of this type of design has always been to handle what happens when you want to move from one environment to another. That's where I think the people at FileMaker have made the right choice. You can move your data between FileMaker Pro and Bento in either direction (and spreadsheets are certainly part of that data transfer paradigm).

Bento is designed for up to five users. To share a database with more than five people, you need to move it into FileMaker Pro, which is a simple matter. In FileMaker, if you want to add some new interface options to what started out as a Choice field in Bento, you can do so.

What I've seen with Bento in the few years since its release is that it makes that boundary easier to work with. Because you can move the data in both directions from more to less complexity, you can see which tools suit you and the data better. I have worked on projects where I've moved data in both directions. Because I like to try to simplify things, I often consider whether or not I can take something that I thought would need a large-scale database and implement it in Bento. There's little risk for me because I know if I choose wrong, I can always go back and move the data.

To me, that's one of the great features of Bento: It removes the colossal risk of making the wrong choice in picking a database design. (Actually, FileMaker Pro itself does the same thing: Because it is so easy to try out a database design, you don't have to make an expensive choice at the start of a project before you know what the real issues are. Prototypes and continual modifications are easy in FileMaker Pro as well as in Bento.)

One of the reasons I wrote about Bento was that I see it as a tool that people who are not (and don't want to be) database designers can use to organize their information. So much of the classical database infrastructure exists in Bento as background and automated processes that you really can, for perhaps the first time, focus on your data and what you want to do with it.

What we've tried to do with Using Bento is to break down still other barriers and obstacles. The combination of text, audio, and video means that you can get the information in whatever way is easiest to you. Another benefit is that for the issues that may be confusing, you can have three ways of getting to it. I know from myself that when I'm learning something new, I often hit an obstacle that is quite obvious to other people. I may need this described several times. I think that building those choices into Using Bento can be particularly helpful for a product like this.

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