How to design an effective relational database

A well-designed relational database will ensure your team’s data is accurate, consistent, and reliable. Get the most use out of your database with these design tips.

If you need to streamline your team’s operations, ensure that multiple teams in your org are working from a single source of truth, maintain a canonical inventory, or perform any other data-related responsibility, your team can benefit from a relational database.

Big and small organizations alike use relational databases to more efficiently store, manage, and analyze critical information, for purposes as disparate as customer relationship management, content production, product planning, UX research, and many more.

Not all relational databases are created equal, however. A poorly designed database might make it more difficult to access the information that you need or jeopardize the accuracy of your data; in contrast, a well-designed database provides several benefits:

You can avoid redundant, duplicate, and invalid data. Problematic data can undermine the validity of your database, but you can design your relational database to minimize the risks posed by low-quality data. You can avoid situations where you are missing required data. If you can identify ahead of time which types of data are most critical to your workflow, you can structure your database in such a way that it enforces proper data entry, or alerts users when records are missing critical data. The database structure is easy to modify and maintain. Workflows rarely stay the same forever, and as such you will likely have to make some adjustments to your database structure in the future. Fortunately, a well-designed relational database ensures that any modifications you make to fields in one table will not adversely affect other tables. The data itself is easy to modify. In a similar fashion, a well-designed relational database ensures that modifications made to the values in a given field in one table will not adversely affect other fields in that table. It’s easier to find the information that you need. With a consistent, logical database structure (that avoids duplicate fields and tables), it’s much easier to query your database. You can spend less time fixing your database and more time doing other kinds of work. The best database is one that you don’t have to worry about.

You could build a house without first finalizing the blueprints, but in doing so, you might end up with a house of questionable structural integrity; similarly, taking some time to think carefully about the design of your relational database before implementing it can save you a lot of trouble in the long run.

All this might seem daunting if you’ve only just begun learning about relational databases, or even if you’ve already built a couple of databases and encountered some challenges. Fortunately, there are several design principles you can follow that will help you build better databases.

What is a “well-designed” database?

So clearly, good database design is important when trying to build a database that works for you. But what does it actually mean for a database to be well-designed?

A well-designed database enforces data integrity

Data integrity refers to the overall accuracy, completeness, and consistency of the data in your database; a well-designed database maintains data integrity by implementing the processes and standards proposed during the design phase.

Data integrity includes three specific technical aspects of a

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