Jeff Seigel, founder of ActiveCaptain, writes…
A couple of weeks ago we wrote a newsletter segment about how we keep databases of projects, logs, parts, and fuel purchases. It generated a lot of emails and responses. So we thought we'd dig into the subject a little deeper and give the next set of ideas about the things we've learned by keeping these databases at our fingertips over the last 13 years.
We're using off-the-shelf database tools to create our solution. While there are many solutions that are laptop or web-based, they have severe limitations. Our databases are used almost every day because of one incredibly important feature – they are fully functional on our phones. Laptops and online solutions aren't good enough because there are too many advantages to having the information accessible and with us all the time.
For example, just recently we found ourselves in one of those "Dollar" stores. The same thing happens in every store we visit – out pops the phone to open the project database. That database is a catch-all place listing the projects we're working on and a reminder list of the things we need. Opening it on this day reminded us that we wanted a couple of those large cellulose sponges for the engine room. There is no better place to buy them than a Dollar store. And there's no way we would have remembered we needed them. But having the entire list of projects in a pocket? Now the sponges are off the list.
Online usage is a problem too. We want full access to all the data when offshore, in remote locations, or in our engine room where cell phones rarely work. The solution has got to be mobile and that means it must run on iPhone and Android, somehow.
A lot of people had the idea to use Google Docs for the platform today. Google Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Forms are a web-based word processor, spreadsheet, slide creator, and form processor. It's collaborative between users or locations. It's free. And there are free apps for Android and iOS from Google that synchronize the data and keep it offline on the mobile devices. We've used Google Sheets for online task lists with other developers and it has worked incredibly well.
If we were starting over with our databases, we'd likely try using Google Docs first. It's something you should be aware of for many different reasons. So let's dig deeper into a couple of the databases to show how simple this whole thing is.
First, that Projects Database currently has 20 projects listed. There are some simple things – we need 5 more hose nozzles because we have no more spares after having 2 go bad in the Bahamas. Then there are longer-term projects – we want a bow eye installed at the waterline to significantly reduce the rode we need when anchoring because of our 10 foot bow.
The project list usually grows to about 50 items in the fall when we typically start our "season" of cruising. The database is a simple list of records. Each record stores fields of data. We used to have about 8 fields for all types of special data collection. But that has filtered down over the years to records with only 3 fields now:
Item – the name of the project. This is used for sorting the list of all projects. Whenever the Project database is opened, the list by item name is displayed.
When – a popup list allowing selection of any month, season, "now", or "long term." This field designates when we'd like the project to be completed. With a couple of taps, the list is sorted by this field allowing us to make sure that all, let's say, Fall and October projects have been completed by the time we start heading south.
Notes – a free form text field where we type notes about the specific project. For things like sponges, there's not a lot of need for notes.
But for the bow eye project we've been thinking about for 4-5 years, it's a great place to store tidbits as we learn new things.
And that's it. It's ridiculously simple. The goal is to eliminate all small pieces of paper. A secondary goal is to make it so easy to use that it actually gets used. A complex record structure with all types of computed fields might seem highly functional. But simplicity makes it highly useful.
Another requirement for the database is Searching. In our database, any field can be searched for text. Having that capability is a time saver by forcing the CPU to look for things in the database instead of manually scrolling and looking. Search "Bennett Brothers" in Projects and up pops the quotes they gave us on two of our larger projects. Search "River Dunes" in the Captain's Log and up pops a list of every time we visited, all personal notes, and what our trip was like to get there. It's pure value to us.
The Projects Database is the simplest one. It's a good one to show how easy this whole thing is to put together. You don't need to buy an expensive yacht management system. Instead, create requirements and build the simplest record structure possible. Usability matters.
In the next continuation of this series, we'll explore a couple of the other databases. They all have more fields while still being simple.
By the end, we'll provide templates of all the databases for HanDBase if you haven't been tempted by Google's apps.