Wow factor!

I've built a not too sophisticated front end access database which is very dbl clicky & looks OK, but I'm looking for any features or tips to make it stand out. I think the people I'm distributing it to are a bit snobby about standard Access dbs and would like to show them it can be a (visually, at least!) as good as the custom built .net stuff they're used to.

Any tips for smarting up a database, maybe making it look less like Access and more like something custom built?

Who is Participating?
Scott McDaniel (Microsoft Access MVP - EE MVE )Connect With a Mentor Infotrakker SoftwareCommented:
But you asked about visual items ... to me, a professional application would make use of these:

Robust search features
Compiled Help files, with context sensitive help topics
Professional installation
Menubar-style app navigation system (as jmoss said, nothing says "Access" quite like the Switchboard)
Reporting interfaces (i.e. filter/sort capabilities from a central location)
Wizard-type interfaces in the case of complex operations

Most Access applications are built to solve a business need which is why you find little in the way of visual/graphical help on most professional forums. Don't get me wrong, I like to have my forms nicely formatted and laid out logically, and I'm not averse to using images and such for printouts, but in the end it's about usability, and in many cases "wow factors" get in the way of usability.

I consulted on a project recently where the developer had removed the border around every control in a form, and set the control backgrounds to the same color as the form's background ... it looked like a big piece of white paper with labels on it ... it was difficult to navigate, the user wasn't sure exactly where they were on the form at any one time, etc etc. To top if off, buttons would appear and disappear, based on where the user was on the form and what "state" the form was in, there were buttons and hyperlinks used for the same purposes, sometimes a control would be a hyperlink while other times it would show straight text, etc etc etc ...  another form had a background graphic, and again the dev had removed the borders and set the backcolor to transparent - in some cases, you couldn't even see the text as you were typing since it bled into the background picture  (but on the dev machine you could, since that machine's Theme was different than the one where I was testing).

I asked the in-house developer why they used this design and they said because it looked "modern and cool" and (in the case of the big white form) they wanted to simulate a paper-based process ... almost to a person, the users didn't like it (I took an impromptu email survey at one point) and said it was counter-productive, difficult to learn, frustrating to use (since you never really knew where you were in the process) and not at all easy to deal with. One of my first steps was to take away all the "cool" formatting options and deploy a form with a boring old gray background with bordered controls, buttons that showed as enabled/disabled, etc etc ... users immediately were able to grasp the concept, and were able to work with the form right out of the box. Yes, it wasn't as nice looking but it did what it was supposed to do, and management loved the increased productivity. We eventually did some minor visual tweaking and a lot of codework, but removing those visual "cool factor" enhancements took a program that was headed for the trash bin and turned it into something users could actually figure out and use.

bandrieseConnect With a Mentor Commented:
What is the purpose of your database? Just in general, Here's some ideas you might try, if you haven't already:

1. Hide the Database window, and specify a Form to appear when the database starts, and consider removing built-in toolbars: "Tools | Startup"

2. Use a customized switchboard. Spice it up a bit to meet the needs of your DB: "Tools | Switchboard Manager". For example: I have a database that keeps track of repairs. On the switchboard, I have a total count of all repairs by status (one query for each status code) such as Received, In Progress, Closed, Shipped.

3. You can customize or create your own toolbar or menu: See

4. Add some reports to the database if they don't already have some. Use a custom menu for the reports (See attached). This sample allows you to put Reports and Queries in the same list with an English name with or without the use of a date range. Note: Your report or query should look at the date fields in this form to filter the data.

5. Many developers like to use Tabs in forms. Some applications have one main form with several tabs. Each tab has a subform that allows users access to the primary functions of the database. It's a little more work, but possibly easier to use.

6. Make sure you pay attention to whether scroll bars, navigation buttons, record selectors, and Minimize / Maximize buttons are needed. These settings can all be found undert he properties of the form. Normaly, I remove record selectors and frequently navigation buttons. You can use the wizards to create buttons for New Record, etc. I also normaly use the boarder style of "Thin". This prevents users from resizing the form and makes the boarders look cleaner.

Is this along the lines of what you're looking for?
My clients seem to prefer them to run fast and don't care as much how they look.
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Scott McDaniel (Microsoft Access MVP - EE MVE )Infotrakker SoftwareCommented:
<My clients seem to prefer them to run fast and don't care as much how they look.>

Agreed ...
<My clients seem to prefer them to run fast and don't care as much how they look.>

Well, okay: but I think that statement is an oversimplification. One size does not fit all. Speed is always important, but depending on the complexity of database, what it's used for, and how many people are using it, a little effort in the area of standardization, interface usability, and access to information can go along way, especially with users who are not Access or Tech Savvy. For example: an Access DB built as an application used by 10, 20+ people. If it's not necessary, because one or two people use it just for this one little thing, then who cares; but if the effort can be beneficial, then it's well worth the time and effort.
RodgerSystems AnalystCommented:
My clients want it to run fast as well, but if it looks like a 1st grader built it then they would never want to use it.

I like to build my apps that have the companies logo on my "switchboard" I also tend to have my buttons transparent and use labels that have some color and will change color when the user hovers the mouse over them.  I like to believe that if the app look professional then the users will tend to treat it as one.  
Jeffrey CoachmanConnect With a Mentor MIS LiasonCommented:

I think what we all are trying to say is that you should concentrate your energy on optimizing the Databases "Functionality" First.
Then worry about the "Wow" factor.

Terms like "Wow" factor sound a little on the "cheesy" side, when talking about things like professionally designed Databases.
It sounds like you are trying to sell the sizzle without the Steak.

Sadly, People who think Access is a second class Development Platform will probably never accept your database anyway, regardless of the "Wow" factor.
Trust me, they will pick apart you database based on Function long befor thei worry about it's looks.

"Real" developers will be more impressed by your databases functionalty anyway.
The will see through you attempts to "Wow" them with fancy interface tricks.

Besides if you want a "Newer" look for your Database, why are you still using 2003?, ...upgrade to 2007.

Does you App have Roust Error handling?
Do you have a Help file system?
Is your code fully commented, documented, and easy to read?
Do you have awful looking Parameter prompts, or professional Menus.
Make sure you database contains as little "Version" specific elements as possible, to avoid embarassing errors when users upgrade to 2007 or Windows Vista.

This all being said, Access (In it's present form) will never be "Like" .Net.
They are two different patforms, meant for different purposes.
And as such, they have different features and limitations.


Merch_OpsAuthor Commented:
Cheers all, sorry for the very open ended post!

Just thought that using Wow Factor as a title would bait you in, and it seems to have worked ;>

App is to be used by approx 10-15 people and isn't too heavy so speed isn't an issue, I've already got the functionality fairly tidy.

Just wanted to know what sort of features you tend to add to your apps as a 'final touch'. I'll have a play around with some of the suggestions and get back to you.

Thanks again...
Parax77Connect With a Mentor Commented:
I like to name the application in the 'Startup Options' I also use a custom icon, remove the access splash, (you can use a custom splash see 'Set Access run-time options' in access help)  hide DB window, Use an 'Autoexec Macro' to launch a backround form with image (use code to size to fit window) and replace access menus with custom menu's....
After all that Its very hard to tell that its access at all!


(details on each quoted bit above are in Access Help.)
Jeffrey CoachmanMIS LiasonCommented:

"Just thought that using Wow Factor as a title would bait you in, and it seems to have worked ;>"

Perhaps, if we were all 13 year olds, that might be true.

Sorry to burst your bubble.

In case you did not know, we are all professionals here and dont fall for those types of tricks.
The replies you got were normal, having absolutely nothing to do with your question title.


Besides, your title probably steered a great many experts "Away" from your question, thinking that you were a simply a rank amateur kid who thinks Wow factor is more important than proper database design.

Had your question had an "Intellegent" title, you would have gotten at least 10 hits within the first 5 minutes.

You actually made yourself look a little "green" by posting that type of title.

Please give us the respect we deserve an dont insult us with "kiddie" or flashy Question titles.

Merch_OpsAuthor Commented:
Wow, Jeff - that's a lot of quotation marks...
Sorry if I've upset you, wasn't my intention. Post was supposed to be fairly light -I tend to answer on this site because I enjoy the challenge, I thought that's what this kind of question would stir up- maybe I've missed the point.
Thanks again to everyone for their suggestions.
jmoss111Connect With a Mentor Commented:
For test boxes in forms or datasheet view, I use conditional formatting and a complementing back color so the the user always knows where they are in navigation of the form by looking.

I use as light a weight form as possible which means there isn't much if any code behind the form so that it loads quickly and use labels heavily with hyperlinks and call code from its on click event. Also, most if not  all the extraneous mostly useless functionality that Access adds to a form by default is removed.

Nothing says "Access" like the Access switchboard. And you can also change the "splash" screen at startup.

And Jeff is correct about the version info stay generic as possible; don't use a specifc version when automating Excel.. it'll break sooner or later. While talking about versions in another sense, include version info in your app; it's not only useful for the user. Include a version info table in the app and use it.

Always keep it simple.

Merch_OpsAuthor Commented:
"Keep it simple, stupid" was the resounding response! Wise words indeed.
I like the tips about hiding the standard Access features, splash screens, removing clutter & conditional formatting.

Big hugs to all! (though Jeff may prefer a handshake...)
Jeffrey CoachmanMIS LiasonCommented:
Great comments!

"nothing says "Access" quite like the Switchboard"

I am the last person to ask about fancy looking applications, but I try not to violate the basic rules of usability.

Like LSM, I have heard some pretty weird interface requests that violated basic user interface standards.
-Right click on the record selector to delete Records.
-Triple click on buttons.
-Mouse-Over a combobox to drop it down.
-Labels that act like buttons, and Buttons the look like labels.
-Scrolling text
-Flashing Text
These are design elements you never see in a professionally designed application.

Some things that will surely mark you as an amateur:
Bigger that average Command buttons.
Buttons with images only instead of Text.
Non-standard colors on Form objects and the form itself.
Parameter Prompts


Sadly, with the advent of Access 2007 it is far too easy for a new developer to be "Seduced" into creating a slick looking interface without considering if it is a good design.

We see it all the time here.
  "I created this form and, it does not work the way I want."

Users will respect a simple design that works, over a fancy looking design.

Trust me, the average user just wants to: get in, do their work, and go home.
Most users want an interface that is "simple" to use, not fancy.

LSM has an interesting story of how he went into a place and they scoffed at Access in general.
He was able to build an Access app that exceeded there preconceived notions.

That being said...
I have seen some pretty "dinky" looking .NET apps.
New developers sign on to .NET thinking that simply by using .NET, they will miraculously create better applications.

Just look at the world of websites.
Some of the best "Looking" sites are the hardest to navigate!

Merch_OpsAuthor Commented:
Good advice Jeff, thanks again.
Seems I'm dipping my toes in some murky waters!
Jeff, I guess I'll remain semi-pro, because i'm not giving up my label/hyperlink buttons :>

Jeffrey CoachmanMIS LiasonCommented:

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