Harsh, yes, so allow me to explain …
As a means of mapping a process, socialising and refining it, and as a visual representation of it, flowcharts are hard to beat. They make processes easier to define, understand and follow.
But as the final documented form of processes, flowcharts aren’t always effective.
It’s not flowcharts, per se, that are the problem. It’s that, often, they’re poorly drawn.
And that’s why I hate flowcharts.
Flowcharts have a place, if they’re drawn well
Did you learn how to draw traditional flowcharts?
Did you learn how to use the tools to draw them?
I learnt to draw flowcharts when I was studying information technology … many, many years ago. Visio, even in its pre-Microsoft form, didn’t exist.
I learnt using an IBM flowchart stencil and graph paper. I learnt that the shapes have particular meanings; that there is a particular way to draw flowcharts. And my assignments were marked accordingly.
I was so excited in the early 1990s when I first used the tool ABC Flowcharter on a PC. Compared to those days, Visio is a dream — if you know how to use it properly.
And that’s the nub of it:
Most people aren’t taught how to draw flowcharts or how to use the tools that draw them.
Flowcharts generally aren’t drawn well
I’ve seen many, many flowcharts, and what I’ve seen is the wrong shapes used, the same shapes used inconsistently, the same shapes in different sizes, text in different fonts and sizes, inconsistent labels, and flowcharting conventions ignored.
What’s more, it doesn’t help when the connecting lines are kinked and overlap and look like spaghetti.
Worst of all is when flowcharts appear to have no obvious path. They point you left, then right, then up, then left again … well, you get the picture. It’s like following a game of snakes and ladders.
This type of flowchart is too confusing to try and understand. And if it’s the only documentation for the process, then there’s a real problem.
A better way to draw flowcharts
Here are five easy ways to make your traditional flowcharts better and friendlier. And better flowcharts mean better-documented processes.
1. Use the correct shapes
Believe it or not, someone decided that the traditional flowchart shapes mean something.
To use them correctly, you need to know what the flowchart shapes mean.
You might think it doesn’t matter what shapes you use for what purpose, as long as you provide a legend. But you’d be wrong. A legend is good, but not when it’s telling me something different than the norm. That’s just confusing and unnecessary.
2. Spend time on the format and layout of the shapes
Keep shapes the same size and align them with equal spacing between them.
While this is purely aesthetic, it makes a huge difference to your reader’s initial response to the flowchart. That initial response sets your reader’s perception of the complexity and follow-ability of your process.
Keeping the shapes equally sized, equally spaced and aligned also helps to keep the connecting lines straight. That means none of those annoying little kinks.
3. Keep all the elements consistent
Now that you’re using the right shapes, keeping them the same size and equally spaced, make everything else consistent. For example:
- Use a single font.
- Make sure the same text elements have the same font size. I’m talking about text inside the shapes, on decision paths, and for annotations.
- Use consistent phrasing for text. For example, in process boxes, always start the text with a verb. That way you have actions like ‘Raise the request’ and ‘Review and approve the request’.
4. Create a clear pathway through the process
Now this can be tricky, as a lot of processes have multiple pathways.
Aim for the chart to flow mainly from top to bottom, or from left to right. Make it clear where it starts and ends. (Remember tip #2.)
And rather than lines pointing back to previous steps and criss-crossing each other, consider using on-page connectors. Again, this is mostly aesthetic, but it makes the flowchart’s pathway clearer and easier to follow.
It also helps to have a consistent path after decisions. For example, ‘yes’ decisions always move right while ‘no’ decisions always move down.
5. Don’t try and fit it all on one page
As desirable as it is to have your whole process on a page, you may need to compromise readability to achieve it.
It’s better to break the process into logical chunks (like optional paths), create separate flowcharts for each, then link to them using off-page connectors.
Breaking up the flowchart also makes it easier to achieve tips #2 and #4!
If you really, really need to keep it on one page, try landscape and portrait layouts. And if A4 is too small, use A3.
I’ve seen many flowcharts where just changing the page orientation or size makes a huge difference.
Consider the process’s audience
So it’s simple really: if you use flowcharts, learn how to draw them properly.
Your flowchart might make sense to you, but it has to make sense to the people who are going to use it.
Using the right shapes, keeping them the same size, and creating a consistent pattern to the flow is really helpful to our little human brains. We follow things more easily when there’s a pattern because our brains like and look for patterns.
But consider other ways of presenting a process. Ways that appeal to different people.
Not everyone likes flowcharts. They’re visual (which is great) but they’re also technical (which might not be so great).
Choose the best diagram for the purpose. That might not be a traditional flowchart. But a simple string of chevrons could work perfectly.
The point is, whatever you do, consider your audience.
Image credit: sezzles