Making Database Systems Usable
H. V. Jagadish Adriane Chapman Aaron ElkissMagesh Jayapandian Yunyao Li Arnab Nandi Cong Yu
University of MichiganAnn Arbor, MI 48109-2122
Database researchers have striven to improve the capabilityof a database in terms of both performance and functional-ity. We assert that the
of a database is as importantas its capability. In this paper, we study why database sys-tems today are so diﬃcult to use. We identify a set of ﬁvepain points and propose a research agenda to address these.In particular, we introduce a
presentation data model
direct data manipulation
approach. We also stress the importance of
across presentation models.
Categories and Subject Descriptors
]; H.5.0 [
Design, Human Factors
Database, Usability, User Interface
Database technology has made great strides in the pastdecades. Today, we are able to eﬃciently process ever largernumbers of ever more complex queries on ever more humon-gous data sets. As a ﬁeld, we can be justiﬁably proud of what we have accomplished.However, when we see how information is created, ac-cessed, and shared today, database technology remains onlya bit player: much of the data in the world today remainsoutside database systems. Even worse, in the places whereSupported in part by NSF grant IIS 0438909 and NIHgrants R01 LM008106 and U54 DA021519. We thank MarkAckerman, Jignesh Patel and Barbara Mirel for their com-ments on a draft of this paper.
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June 11–14, 2007, Beijing, China.Copyright 2007 ACM 978-1-59593-686-8/07/0006 ...
database systems are used extensively, we ﬁnd an army of database administrators, consultants, and other technicalexperts all busily helping users get data into and out of adatabase. For almost all organizations, the indirect cost of maintaining a technical support team far exceeds the di-rect cost of hardware infrastructure and database productlicenses. Not only are support staﬀ expensive, they alsointerpose themselves between the users and the databases.Users cannot interact with the database directly and aretherefore less likely to try less straightforward operations.This hidden opportunity cost may be greater than the vis-ible costs of hardware/software and technical staﬀ. Mostof us remember the day not too long ago when booking aﬂight meant calling a travel agent who used magic incanta-tions at an arcane system to pull up information regardingﬂights and to make bookings. Today, most of us book ourown ﬂights on the web through interfaces that are simpleenough for anyone to use. Many enjoy the power of beingable to explore options for themselves that would have beentoo much trouble to explain to an agent, such as willingnessto trade oﬀ price against convenience of a ﬂight connection.Search engines have done a remarkable job at directlyconnecting users with the web. The simple keyword-basedquery mechanism allows web users to issue queries freely; thealmost instantaneous response encourages the user to reﬁnequeries until satisfactory results are found. While searchengines today are still far from perfect, their huge successsuggests that
is key. An information system pro-vides value to its users through the ability to get informationinto and out of the system easily and eﬃciently. Unfortu-nately, databases today are hard to design, hard to modify,and hard to query.One obvious question to ask is whether database systemscan simply have a search engine sit on top of them and letthe search engine handle the interaction with the users. Theanswer, we argue, is “No.” While the search engine interfaceworks well for the web, it does not address all the usabil-ity problems database systems are facing. This is due tomany characteristics that stem from users’ expectations forinteracting with databases, which are fundamentally diﬀer-ent from expectations for the web.The ﬁrst characteristic that users expect is the ability toquery the database in a more sophisticated way. While usersare content with searching the web with keywords, they wantto express more complex query semantics when interact-ing with databases simply because they know databases aremore than collections of documents and there are structures