#TSQL2sDay 003: Maslow and relational design

Rob Farley is hosting the third installment of TSQL Tuesday, and it’s a fun one: relationships (in honor of Valentine’s Day).   While I’m not currently in much of a mood to opine on the virtues of love and databases, I did think I wanted to post something a bit more esoteric this time.  Not many of you may know that I don’t have a formal background in Information Technology (some of my more sarcastic friends just held their tongues at that one); I actually have a Master of Arts in Communication, and a Master’s of Education in Instructional Technology.  I tripped into IT when I failed my comprehensive exams for the doctoral program in Speech Communication at the University of Georgia.  Awful time, but ultimately one of the best things to ever happen to me.

Anyway, why is this relevant?  Because the goal of this post is to attempt to extend one of the more famous models of social psychology and communication to database design; bear with me (I’m assuming that many of you either have no background in social psych or slept through it), but I’m hoping that this extension to the metaphor will benefit you in terms of your application design.

Maslow: the crash course.

The following is a BRIEF introduction to the theory; if you want more details, Wikipedia is your friend. In a nutshell, Abraham Maslow proposed that humans, as a social animal, were driven to fulfill certain basic needs in a quest for self-actualization or enlightenment.  He proposed a pyramidic model of five sets (or stages) of these needs, with the four lowest ones being required to achieve before attempting the fifth; few people ever attain the fifth level, but the quest to reach that is part of our collective experience.  I’ve defined the five stages below:

maslows_hierarchy_of_needssvg Physiological:

The basic requirements for human existence; food, water, etc.


This often translates into security, but it’s different than the term we use in information technology careers; safety is the ability to acquire and maintain goods for ongoing existence.  The Physiological elements are immediate needs; Safety elements are the ability to fulfill those immediate needs at a future date.


Where do we belong?  How do we interact with others who need us (and we need)?  What is our role, and how does that affect our definition of the self?


Esteem stems from the social need; once our relationship with others has been established, we can truly begin to define ourselves and the virtue of our importance in the world.


Self-actualization is the ultimate fulfillment of one’s potential; to be what one is, without need for constant reinforcement from other beings, yet able to exist in harmony with purpose.  Few people have ever attained this stage, but as stated before, the quest to reach the top of the pyramid drives human development.

So what does this mean to the database designer?

Why is all of this important?  This is not a perfect analogy, but if we extend Maslow’s model to the area of database design, some interesting questions arise (particularly in the third and fourth stages, which is why I felt like this point would be relevant to the TSQL Tuesday challenge of relationships).  Let’s take each stage, and step through them again.


While applications don’t have physiological needs, they DO require certain basic elements for long term survival.  Questions to consider at this stage are things like: How much space will I need?  What are the server requirements?  Can my database live in cloud or a mobile device?   What sort of I/O concerns do I have?


Recall that safety is NOT security (in terms of who has access to the data), but it is security in terms of long-term survival of the application.  Is the database you’re designing intended for a long-term project, or is it “throw-away” code?  Have you designed it in such a way so that it’s easy to replace without impacting the dependent application?


Speaking of dependent applications (and herein lies the relationship aspect of this post), is your database application designed so that it is loosely related and decoupled from the application?  Does the database fulfill the needed role within the relationship (data storage), without treading too far into business logic?  Can the database handle multiple relationships with various applications (UI/reporting/business services).


Closely related to the social nature of the database within the application stack is the need for self-esteem within the database; can the database meet the the needs of the dependent applications WHILE retaining enough information to establish new relationships?  A classic example of this is the lookup table; a database with low self-esteem will only store the enumerated values provided to it by some other application. 

Without the enabling application, the database lacks sufficient internal definition to validate meaning; in practical terms, this means that the database is not decoupled from the application enough to enable the development of alternate accessing applications.  For example, my day job is to reverse engineer vendor databases; few things in the world are more disturbing than a table full of numbers without any sort of category associated with that number.  The application designer decided to store that enumeration in the application; security through obfuscation IS a method of securing your database, but not a very effective one.

A high-self esteem database will store all of the appropriate lookup values (complete with constraints) in order to provide complete validity within the structure.  The database can then be reused by several different applications, without requiring a complete set of business rules to determine those relationships.    The data layer is definitional; the business layer should be procedural.

hal[1] Self-Actualization:

I have to admit that discussing self-actualization in regards to application design makes me think of HAL.  “I’m sorry, Dave….”

To try and stay on track with this metaphor, self-actualization is the basic premise of BI; when your database can start providing you knowledge instead of just data, it has attained the highest level of potential.  Few apps make it that far without requiring substantial redesign, but the ones that do are invaluable to the enterprise they support.

So where are we?

Dunno.  I hope this little exercise made your brain hurt just a bit, and opened up a new metaphor for understanding database design issues within the application stack.   If you have more questions than answers, that’s a good place to be.

February 9, 2010 · stuart · 3 Comments
Posted in: SQLServerPedia Syndication, TSQL2sDay

3 Responses

  1. T-SQL Tuesday #003 (Relationships): The round-up - Rob Farley - February 20, 2010

    […] Stuart Ainsworth’s piece was on Maslow, drawing parallels between the hierarchy of needs of a person with the hierarchy of needs of a database system. It’s thought-provoking, and something that I feel could be made into a poster for database developers’ walls. […]

  2. Karyn - April 26, 2010

    This is beautiful – as a former psych student, and having worked in the health field this resonates perfectly with me. It’s also how I’ve also seen my databases but had no idea until you tied them together.

    Thank you.

    Karyn DBA

  3. T-SQL Tuesday #003 (Relationships): The round-up – LobsterPot Blogs - October 19, 2017

    […] Stuart Ainsworth’s piece was on Maslow, drawing parallels between the hierarchy of needs of a person with the hierarchy of needs of a database system. It’s thought-provoking, and something that I feel could be made into a poster for database developers’ walls. […]

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