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Newsletter: Perspectives on Power Platform

Company: Niiranen Advisory Oy

Relational data on Model-driven forms, part 1: Main Form Dialog

How to improve the user experience of Power Apps forms that reference data from multiple related tables in Microsoft Dataverse. In the first part we'll explore the use of Quick View Forms together with Main Form Dialogs.

Model-driven Power Apps are built on top of the relational data model of Microsoft Dataverse (formerly CDS). Planning how you split your business data into different tables is a crucial step in ensuring that your app’s user experience (UX) is optimal for the data entry, consumption and update tasks that the users will need to live with. This is because unlike with Canvas Power Apps, the data model defines much of the user interface behaviour as well.

The key thing to keep in mind is that you’re not supposed to build the most normalized data model possible, where every concept in your business process is spun into its own little table. Yes, you do want to leverage the power of relationships (one-to-many, many-to-one, and on some rare occasions also many-to-many) to make the data more manageable than a single flat list structure would offer. No, you don’t want to make your users have to think about the Entity Relationship Diagram (ERD) of the system to know how to navigate within your app.

Despite of the tight coupling of the data model and the UI, there are plenty of things you can configure on Model-driven forms to improve usability. I’ll be drilling into a few recent features that can make it easier to work with related tables from within a single form.

The scenario: Rental Car app

I’ll be using an example app that I’ve built for my own purposes: Rental Car App. It contains functionality that allows me to track and analyze information about the rental cars that I use, by adding new Rental records for each reservation I make and then tracking the process all the way until the final invoice and related costs. At the heart of the app there’s the Rental table, which has relationships to both the rental car company information (Account table) as well as the Car table, which again links to a few supporting tables like Manufacturer and Model.

The rental process stages are modelled via the Business Process Flow feature of Power Apps Model-driven apps. We start with 1) the reservation, then proceed to 2) pick-up at the chosen location, 3) use the car we’ve been given, 4) return it and 5) finalize the process upon ensuring we’ve captured all the required data and that the invoice was what we expected to pay.

Each rental event will have one car associated with it. However, at the first step of the process, meaning reservation time, we won’t yet have any idea what specific vehicle that will be. (You’ll only know the ACRISS code that describes the level of the vehicle features, like “IWAR” for Intermediate, Wagon, Automatic, Air Conditioning.) Once we get to stage 2 of the process, the pick-up, we’ll be given a specific car that we can describe with properties like Manufacturer, Model, Model Year, Trim Level and so on.

Car is the parent table of Rental, since there can only ever be a single vehicle for one rental event (for now, let’s ignore the possibility of the car breaking down and getting exchanged during the rental period). A single car will of course be used in many, many rental events. However, since the app user is the customer who’s consuming the rental service from different car rental companies, we won’t have the fleet of vehicles defined in advance for our database. The data entry of the car’s details is therefore always a step within the context of the rental process.

So, we know that logically the car is a different type of object than the rental event, which is why it should have its own table. From a user experience perspective, though, filling in the details of the car should be just a similar task as describing the duration or price of the rental car reservation. Just a set of fields on the single form. Yet by default what the Model-driven app form will give us is a single lookup field to the related table’s car record, with the expectation that we’d go and work with the Car data on a different form than the Rental form where the rest of the details are.

Despite of the underlying 1-to-N relationship in the data model, we can improve the user experience by leveraging a couple of neat features in Model-driven apps.

Quick View Forms

Model-driven Power Apps have evolved from the XRM platform that Microsoft first used for builing a CRM product of their own in 2003. Around seven years ago when Dynamics CRM 2013 was launched, it introduced this new and exciting “flat UI”. Before that, the experience of using CRM was often a maze of popup windows since opening a new record always gave you a new browser window you now had to juggle on your desktop.

The boundaries of different entities (which is what tables were called for the first 17 years of the platform we now know as Dataverse) were therefore very tangible indeed. While form subgrids were launched in 2011 to offer some relief, it wasn’t until 2013 when we could start to make the users worry less about the data model and focus more on the business process and actual business data involved in it. A key element in this was the Quick View Form.

Above is a screenshot from seven years ago of a case entity form that included data from not just the child entities like activities, but also from the parental record of the customer, via a Quick View Form. We can see the email and phone number of the customer, event though they are physically stored on the account entity. It’s not limited to just that N:1 data from “case:account” either, as we can reach down to N:1:N of “case:account:case” by showing all the related cases that this customer has recently opened with our support department.

Quick View Forms were a seriously powerful feature back when they were released. I did some blogging to demonstrate the possibilities, like building a similar opportunity analytics feature that resembled (well, remotely at least) the concept of an ecommerce recommendation engine that shows “customers who bought this item also bought these other items”.

The scenario in our Rental Car app is a lot more straightforward. We want to display the key properties of the Car record associated with the Rental record within the form that drives the rental process. By having a lookup field for Car on the form, this allows us to add a Quick View Form control to show the Car table fields embedded on the Rental table form:

From this static screenshot it would seem like everything is in its right place and the user couldn’t be happier. Right? Well, the challenge here is that the Quick View Form really is just a view. It doesn’t allow editing any of the field values on the related parental table record, let alone creating new records. In short, it’s not as actionable as the data living natively in the Rental table.

Main Form Dialog (MFD)

A much more recent entrant into our Power Platform low-code toolkit for designing Model-driven application UI’s is the Main Form Dialog feature. What this allows you to do is to launch a modal window from the lookup field on a Model-driven app form. The user interface doesn’t actually move you fully away from the original record, rather it just renders the (Main) Form of the chosen record from a different table in a Dialog window. It’s not like the CRM 2011 era popup windows, since you remain within the same browser window/tab. Once you’re done with looking at the related record, clicking “X” will return you to exactly same state where you were before clicking in the lookup field. It’s not as jarring an experience as if you’d have fully navigated away from the original form.

Originally launched as part of 2020 Release Wave 1, the MFD feature was initially available only via the API. At this moment that is still what the documentation says, but I recently discovered that the modern Power Apps form designer now has graphical tools to configure this feature:

When selecting a lookup field in the form editor, the properties dialog on the right now contains new options to check:

  • Use Main Form Dialog for Create
  • Use Main Form Dialog for Edit

Oh yeah! We now have the power to keep the users from unintentionally navigating away from the “home” form that acts as the anchor for all relevant details concerning the business process. In the rental car example, the user can now safely click on the Car lookup, examine the available options for properties of the car, change the values, click “Save & Close”, then end up right back to where he or she started from:

This also works for the experience of adding a new car record. Instead of having to offer a separate Quick Create Form experience for this step that would behave differently from any other occasion where the user interacts with car data, we can launch the full record form in the Main Form Dialog:

The key benefit with this modal window approach is that there’s almost zero chance of the user wondering into the wrong menu or page of the application after they’re done with creating, editing or just viewing the related record. There is no visible page load that would change the mental context away from the primary record, in this case the Rental event.

Considerations

Should you enable the Main Form Dialog feature now on all your lookup fields? Probably not. There will be times when the user may prefer to actually move along in the process and change the context to the parental record. There is no navigation path available in MFD that would support this context change. The user has the option to launch the dialog in full screen mode, but that just expands it to cover the whole screen, rather than doing a page load that would change the navigation position in the sitemap.

There is currently no way to select which form specifically should be opened in MFD. Presumably the form will be determined by the table’s main form order, as well as the specific form the particular user has last viewed. Depending on the number of scenarios where the same table is leveraged, the forms shown by MFD can therefore be unnecessarily complex for the task at hand.

In part 2 I will explore the possibilities of how we can streamline this process even further and make the experience of working with related parental table data almost transparent to the user. We’ll be leveraging the brand new Form Component Control to essentially combine the features from the earlier Quick View Forms and Main Form Dialogs.

3 Comments

  1. Hi Jukka N. great post, I don´t know about these MFD features. Now I´m waitting for the sequence, because sometimes I need the data from the parental entity in the main form, hopefully without JavaScripts and Flows with a save action #SaidNoOneEver 🙂

  2. Main Form Dialog (MFD) is a great alternative to the static forms options but it seems to have some side-effects. After implementing MFD on Accounts, Contacts and Opportunities I found that we could no longer use Mass Edit or Merge functions. I have a ticket open with Microsoft, maybe they can resolve the issue … not holding my breath 🙂

  3. Great post! So much detail and consideration. Should win the Pulitzer prize of MVPs!

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