FileMaker 17: Portal Excitement

Yeah, I know. How can you really be excited about something like FileMaker portals? And what is a portal anyways? Well, maybe YOU can’t get excited about them, but we at AppWorks can, and I’ll tell you why: Because portals are used all the time in FileMaker development, and there are two huge new time-saving options in the FileMaker 17 portal creation dialog box — “Show records from Current Table” and “Show records from New Add-on Table”. Each of these options on its own can save us an hour or more of development time, up front, which makes the initial setup of a new file much, much quicker, especially considering how frequently portals are used in FileMaker projects. Which means we can spend more time on the fun stuff, like improving the UI, adding features, and refining the user experience, and all for the same end cost.

For those of you not familiar with the concept of a FileMaker portal, it’s essentially a “window” into data that’s related to the screen you’re currently on. So, for example, if you’re looking at a person, you might have a portal with a list of that person’s addresses, and another portal with a list of that person’s phone numbers. The person record is in one table, and the related address and phone numbers are stored in different tables. You look through the portal “window” at the related phone and address records.
The steps to make portals work involve creating all the tables from scratch, adding all the fields to store the data, connecting them in the relationship graph, and then manually creating those portals on a screen layout. There are also scripts that have to be written to interact with the related data (add, delete, edit, etc), and UI widgets that need to be created. None of these tasks is particularly complex in and of itself, but taken together, they can add up significantly to the amount of time spent building basic functionality.

In FileMaker 17, when you go to add a portal, the first choice you are presented with is which table the portal will display. In prior versions of FileMaker you had to choose from pre-existing related tables that you had already set up. In FileMaker 17, you can choose New Add-on Table. Version 17 provides the user with a number of common table types that can be “bolted on”, like Addresses, Phones, Action Items, Attachments, Notes, etc. FileMaker 17 will then automatically create the table (with all the required fields), create a relationship to that table, and create all the basic UI widgets, field layouts, and scripting to interact with that table in a portal. This is something we FileMaker developers do on every project, multiple times, by hand. And now it takes a matter of seconds.

That. Is. Huge.

The other new portal option that makes a huge difference for us is the option to “Show records from Current Table”. This, in effect, gives us easy access to a very common UI pattern that everyone is familiar with, called “Master Detail”. It’s the “List-on-the-left, Detail-on-the-right” user interface for much of the software you use every day — Gmail, Slack, iTunes, Spotify, Photos, even websites use it. You click on an item in a list, and the details about that item show up on the right. While we could build this UI pattern from scratch in FileMaker (and frequently do), it required some special tricks to work elegantly, and still had some limitations. But with FileMaker 17, it’s trivial to create a basic setup that works just like that. And by trivial, I mean a matter of seconds again.

Easy, time-saving implementation of the most common UI patterns in custom software means we can spend more time improving our software, which is exciting for us!