What is a Flowchart, and Why Is It Important?
Flowchart Overview and Definition
What Is a Flowchart?
Flowcharts are visual diagrams that use symbols to outline the separate steps of a process in sequential order. They are a tool that business users and programmers rely on for various purposes. For example, a programmer may create a flowchart or process map to help a stakeholder visualize how data enters computer programs, different transformations within the program, and how the data converts to an output. A business user may the flowchart for "business process modeling" to assess the performance of an existing or new business process. This helps pave the way for process improvement.
Why Are They So Popular?
One reason for the popularity of flowcharts is that they make it easier for users to communicate how they plan to implement business requirements for a new process or application. They also help you analyze a process from start to finish. That way, you can help ensure you don’t forget to account for steps covering critical inputs, outputs, and procedures.
Types of Flowcharts
Swim Lane Flowcharts
Swim lane flowcharts segment different functionality into separate lanes. For example, you can create a swim lane flowchart that contains routes for the work processes performed by other organizational areas like accounting, human resources, and operations.
Cross-functional flowcharts show who’s responsible for ensuring different functions get executed and when they happen. When dealing with an extensive, complex process involving multiple people, teams, and departments, a cross-functional flowchart can help viewers understand how information flows between different areas.
Specification and Description Language Diagram (SDL)
An SDL diagram illustrates the modeling language used to show how event-driven applications work in real-time. They’re often used in aviation, communication, medical, and automotive industries. SDLs are ideal when you want to describe the behavior of complex software.
Influence Diagram (ID)
Influence diagrams provide a visual representation of decision-making scenarios. They highlight crucial factors such as obstacles and targets to be achieved at various stages.
Process Flow Diagram
A process flow diagram shows the steps and tasks involved in a process including logic or decisions that cause the process to branch off in different directions. This type of diagram is often used before automating a business process in workflow software.
Data Flow Diagrams
A data flow diagram (DFD) is a flowchart that illustrates the movement of data or information within an application and how it is altered.
Basic Flowchart Symbols
A flowchart symbol is a graphical representation of a point in a workflow. The symbols you use depend on the type of diagram you want to build. These are some common flowchart symbols:
Start and End/Terminal
The terminal is an oval symbol used in a flowchart process to indicate when a program starts, stops, or comes to a halt. It’s often used to outline programming logic that contains error conditions. The terminal is the first and last symbol used in a flowchart.
The decision symbol, usually a diamond shape, illustrates the point in a process where a choice must be made. The operation typically involves a yes/no decision or true/false. The path of program flow can change depending on the choice made by a user or an automation process.
Parallelogram shapes typically represent inputs and outputs. They indicate where a program receives or sends out information. Users rely on the shapes to describe actions like keying in data, displaying information on a screen, or printing it to a separate device.
Connectors within a flowchart represent exit and re-entry points for a program or process. They're represented by small circles that contain a number corresponding to other functions. Connectors are helpful placeholders for situations where users need to account for a program that doesn’t allow a continuous flowchart presentation.
The display symbol indicates text that should display to the user from an interface.
Process symbol, represented by a rectangle or square box, details specific functions within a program. For example, a programmer might add a process symbol to their flowchart to outline how their program will calculate sales tax for an eCommerce shopping application.
Let’s say you wanted to build an application that compared two numbers entered by a user and displayed the larger of the two. Here’s a breakdown of how you might design the flowchart.
- The user adds a terminal symbol at the beginning, indicating the program's start.
- The user adds an input/output symbol to indicate when the user must enter the first number.
- The user adds a display symbol that contains wording like, “Please enter the first number.”
- The user adds an input symbol that accepts the first number entered by the user.
- The user adds a display symbol that contains wording like, “Please enter the second number.”
- The user adds an input symbol that accepts the second number entered by the user.
- The user adds a process symbol that shows how the program compares the two numbers.
- The user adds a decision process that checks whether the first number is larger than the second number. If true, the program should display the first number. If false, the program should display the second number.
- The user adds a display symbol that shows the larger of the two numbers entered.
- The user adds a terminal symbol that indicates the end of the program.
Advantages of Using Flowcharts
Flowcharts make it easier for technical users to communicate more complex logic within a system. In addition, they can act as guides for creating the blueprint for designing a new program. Many programmers use flowcharts to help them with debugging.
The visual flow of the shapes within a flowchart makes it easier to spot inconsistencies and perform analysis. Flowcharts are also a great tool to help users maintain proper documentation standards while working on a project. Flowcharts can help business users, and developers become more efficient since they can easily track data flow through a process.
Tips on Creating Better Flowcharts
While flowcharts are a great way to clarify a business process, they can also end up causing confusion or misleading others. You can avoid those mistakes by sticking to a good flowchart design.
- Stick with consistent design elements — For example, if you use an oval to indicate the start of a program, you should also use an oval to represent the end. In addition, make each shape the same size and keep the spacing between different flowchart elements even. It's best to use a flowchart template to avoid re-inventing the wheel.
- Try to keep everything on one page — Do your best to fit all flowchart elements on one page. If you feel you’re running out of room, try reducing the scale of your flowchart. You can also try changing the direction of your flow. For example, elements can flow from left to right, then move down to start a new row.
- Use split paths instead of decision symbols — Using a split approach versus a diamond symbol to represent a decision helps you keep your flowchart moving from left to right. That also makes it easier for others to read the flow of your flowchart without requiring a lot of explanation.
Interested in Using Flowcharts to Automate Your Workflow?
We have various resources to help you navigate to an automated workflow.
Create Flowcharts to Automate Processes
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