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For each user preference I would have a record with structure: "user ID" - "preference ID" - "value".
problem with this is that the type of value in the "value" column will depend on the contents of the "preference ID" column My question: Which approach is better?
Is there a standard schema solution to this sort of web application?
I don't think anybody can answer which approach is *ABSOLUTELY* better. The biggest advantage of the second approach is that you can add new preferences at any time without changing the schema.
You yourself pointed out the biggest disadvantage: The VALUE data is, almost of necessity, free form.
I think the final answer will depend on how you use the data.
What kind of queries you will make against the data.
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I'm creating a Facebook web application which functions in a similar way to a dating website, by getting users to provide information about themselves and information about their preferences in a matching user.
I am creating the database for this and have the following design in mind: Members Table: Contains the information about the users using their FB ID as the primary key.
Preferences Table: Contains the information about the preferences that the user wants.