There are many, many desktop and web-based applications available for process mapping and diagramming and I have personally used dozens of them. There’s just too many to write about. Many of these applications do the same thing, for the most part, so I will give you 3 suggestions as alternatives to Microsoft Visio.
If you have not yet read my article on how to choose process mapping and diagramming software, have a read of that first!
To demonstrate the ease of use, I am going to display videos for each application, performing the following steps:
- create a very basic 9-step process workflow
- identify each task object (rectangle) as a user task (user icon on them)
- update the colours and alignment of all objects
Feel free to compare the differences in the way this is built (as well as the speed), but the point is, if you are creating many processes and you wish to increase your efficiency, the ease of use for these activities matter. I am also only going to use the pointer and cursor functions with no keyboard shortcuts, though I personally prefer using keyboard shortcuts for added efficiencies.
Limiting myself to thinking Microsoft Visio was the best choice for process mapping was a big mistake.
Even before I really started enjoying building processes and process workflows, I’d heard of Microsoft Visio. So, of course, when I began to create diagrams, that was my first choice. I mean, I’ve heard of it, it’s produced by Microsoft and it runs on Windows – it must be the best choice, right? Wrong. This is how it made me feel:
If you’ve ever learned to play golf, it feels like you bought clubs that are too big (or small) for you and you’re trying to adjust your swing to make it work for your clubs. Instead, the better approach is to buy the right clubs (the tool) that fit your swing or get your clubs customized to fit your swing.
Here they are (in alphabetical order):
1. Edraw Max
Edraw Max is a very powerful process mapping and diagramming application. It actually does quite a bit more than that, and contains unexpected uses, such as creating marketing brochures and infographics, visual project management plans and charts, form templates and even creative solutions for business cards and greeting cards.
Edraw Max is designed and supported by a company named wondershare and, although it has been available since 2004, it appears to be more obscure than its mainstream competitors (e.g. Microsoft Visio, Lucidchart, Smartdraw, OmniGraffle, etc.). But don’t let its obscurity deceive you. When it comes to ease of use and compatibility across multiple platforms, it can’t be beat.
Ease of use:
Edraw Max is really easy to use. The adding, linking and alignment of objects is fantastic and it’s almost like the application reads my mind (or at least the developers can read my mind). It’s intuitive and the objects naturally line up in a way that makes sense. When moving around objects, they snap to well-spaced, aligned and visually-appealing imaginary grid lines. Some other process mapping tools seem to make it difficult for objects connect up using straight lines without the use of guidelines.
The number of usable templates is a huge advantage with Edraw Max. There are over 280 usable templates available to choose from. I say “usable” because although Lucidchart claims to have “hundreds of template examples to choose from”, many of them are regurgitations of the same thing. Microsoft Visio has 82 templates. The variety of templates is also excellent. From Venn diagrams to Gantt charts, business process workflows and network diagrams, marketing creatives, Edraw Max’s availability of templates beats every other application out there.
Edraw Max comes with hundreds of icons, objects and clipart and you can modify all objects for colour, size, transparency and so forth. The clipart icons and images are high-quality, so building a visually-appealing process map or creative is not difficult.
Compatibility across multiple platforms:
No Windows? No problem. As a cross-platform user, I have access to a Windows desktop but my daily driver is a 2015 Macbook Pro and I can assure you that Edraw Max runs and performs very well on it. Why do I still have the 2015 Macbook Pro model, you ask? There are specific reasons I choose to hold on to this model, but that’s a topic for another blog…
The Edraw Max desktop client runs on Windows, Mac OS and Linux! And not because it is web-based (though there is a web-based version). While other platforms claim “compatibility across multiple platforms,” it is normally because their application is web-based and runs in a web browser, not because you can install a desktop client on the operating system of your choice. And, there’s a difference! Ever try to do some work in a web browser without a live Internet connection? Ever been doing work in a web browser and try to save/access files on a flaky Internet connection? If you’ve ever been in these situations, you know it causes more personal frustration than tangible work results. While I do prefer to save my files in the cloud, I appreciate the option of being able to work on anything at anytime, while choosing to be offline.
There is an online version of Edraw Max. It can be purchased with the desktop client, or as a separate subscription service and it is every bit as powerful as the desktop version. It is cloud-service enabled as well, allowing storage to your favourite online storage solutions, such as DropBox and Google Drive.
The licensing cost for the Edraw Max desktop client is reasonable, ranging between $100 – $200 USD per personal or business user (for use on up to two computers), as a one-time cost. Free technical support also comes with your license. Their support team is responsive and helpful and the development team delivers regular application updates with new features.
The licensing cost for the web-based version of Edraw Max is $99 USD for the one-year plan or $169 USD for the two-year plan.
The best value is a combination of the Edraw Max desktop client AND the a lifetime subscription for the web-based version for $245 USD, as a one-time cost.
Is this a perfect application for process mapping and diagramming? No. There is no such thing (in my opinion, so far).
Here are the things Edraw Max doesn’t do so well:
- Auto step numbering. Automatically numbering all the objects in a process is helpful when you are building supporting procedural documentation and there are a lot of steps in the process. This is a feature that Microsoft Visio has and I’ve suggested it to the Edraw Support Team for a future release. Let’s see when this becomes an available feature!
- Although it comes with a spell-check function, it’s very poorly implemented. In fact, I would go as far as to state that it is, by far, the worst spell-check function I’ve ever used, of any application. Ever. If you rely on a good, built-in spell-check feature for spelling and grammatical accuracy of your process maps, you’ll either need to improve that skill on your own or opt for a different application. If spelling mistakes are not a primary concern for you, or if your diagrams do not contain a great deal of text, the lack of a good spell-check feature will not be very impactful to you and the benefits of Edraw Max most certainly outweigh this drawback.
- Real-time sharing and collaboration is not available using the desktop client. Storing your process maps in a collaborative cloud storage such, such as OneDrive, will be your option to enable collaboration and version history.
Note: Edraw Max has a very good file recovery and version history feature, making it easy to recall previous versions of your work.
Edraw Max is the application I use for the majority of my process mapping and diagramming activity, when given the choice. In fact, this application is so flexible and useful, I am able to use it for workflows, mind maps, charts, brochures and so much more.
In my experience, the Edraw Max desktop application is, hands-down, the best process mapping and diagramming solution for Windows or Mac OS.
Draw.io is a very good process mapping and diagramming application. It is light-weight and very easy to use. There is a desktop client and/or a web-based version to choose from. It comes with a good number of templates to get you started on process maps, network diagrams, floor design plans, Venn diagrams, Gantt charts and more! And, guess what? It’s totally free to use! No, I’m not joking. It’s free.
What’s the catch? Like any other process diagramming application, it’s not perfect. But it’s amazing what you get for free.
Ease of use:
The setup is so straightforward that you’re up and running in seconds (literally). Click on the link and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll be in a new template and creating a diagram in under 30 seconds, even if you’ve never used this application before in your life.
Draw.io is very intuitive and easy to use. Dragging/dropping objects or clicking arrows to create new objects will have you mastering process flows in no time. Default shape sizes are great and adjusting objects snaps easily to imaginary guides that are naturally aligned and easy to follow. Draw.io possesses most of the features you will need to create process diagrams out of the box but misses little enhancements such as a format painter.
It’s easy to create a basic workflow in Draw.io (a bit clumsy when compared to Edraw Max but still very good):
Draw.io comes with over 130 templates. That’s awesome, especially for a free application! The templates are basic but usable and follow the simplicity of the Draw.io application theme. Like other process diagramming applications, the templates are intelligently categorized and grouped. I’ll mention, again, that Microsoft Visio has 82 templates.
Draw.io comes with hundreds of icons, objects and clipart and you can modify all objects for colour, size, transparency and so forth. However, the clipart images are not of high-quality so they are best left as small icons. When you enlarge them, the quality of the image will be degraded.
Compatibility across multiple platforms:
Draw.io is an excellent cross-platform solution. The web-based version works well in web browsers such as Apple Safari, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox and the desktop version is available for Windows, Mac OS, Linux and Google Chrome. All versions include full functionality and each interface is identical. Draw.io is closely integrated with Google and Atlassian Tools (i.e. Confluence, Jira), which is an added benefit, if either of those are environments that your organization works within.
Whether you prefer using a web browser or working within a desktop client, Draw.io is a reasonable choice for any platform. And, no matter which you choose, you’ll have the option of being able to save your working files locally or within a cloud storage solution, such as Google Drive or OneDrive (among others).
It’s free, so it’s, shall we say, “cost effective”? Support options are limited but still fair for a free application. There are knowledge base articles and group boards available.
I should mention that if you do some googling, you may find a paid version of Draw.io is available. This is specific to a commercial implementation for integration with Atlassian Tools and Confluence. That version and its plugins are supported by //Siebert/Media and is not the free version. If you are looking for a commercial implementation, you could go the “pay per user” cloud or server licensing model and it does come with live support.
Here are the things Draw.io doesn’t do so well:
- Auto-step numbering (out of the box). I’ll mention that there are plugins available for Draw.io and one of them is a step-numbering plugin. I attempted to install it to test out but, to be honest, I didn’t give it much effort as I was more interested in what it came with “out of the box” so to speak, and without any modification. As mentioned previously, when you build a large process map and you need to number the steps, it is very helpful to have an application that will automatically number the steps for you.
- No spell-check feature. Out of the box, there is no option to perform a spell-check and, to date, I have not noticed that there is a plugin available for this either.
If you’re serious about your process workflows, you will likely find that the free version of Draw.io will only take you so far. If you are building many process workflows, its deficiencies (or inefficiencies) will become more and more evident. Although a number of plugins are available to enhance its functionality, it’s more of a “self-serve” application, in that you (or your users) would need to spend time searching for and installing plugins to try out.
If you simply need to build some workflows and you’re not overly-concerned with efficiencies, polish or a spell-check, this is a great solution that’s also very cost-effective. It’s really easy to get working with Draw.io and the application contains the majority of the features that the average user will need.
Lucidchart is an excellent choice for a web-based process diagramming solution. The interface is clean, it’s objects look premium quality and it is highly-intuitive. It also stores everything in the cloud so your working files will be available for you as soon as you login. It is a very popular solution for process diagrams and is used by many “brand name” companies. It is really is well put-together and anyone will enjoy its simplicity and user-friendliness.
Being accessible only while connected to the Internet has its downsides as well, however. If you would like to work without an Internet connection or where your Internet connection is less than stable, that may be a problem. I personally enjoy going offline to work on a regular basis, so I can focus on my process workflows without the temptation of getting distracted with incoming emails, messages or something shiny on the Internet.
Ease of use:
Lucidchart does a good job of reading my mind when it comes to process flows and it is very easy to use. Objects line up intuitively and arrows adapt intelligently when you rearrange objects or relocate one connection point to another. Templates and schemes are readily available and storage all occurs in the cloud with autosave functionality, again, making it really easy to work in.
See how easy it is to create a basic workflow (again, not as smooth and quick as Edraw Max but very good):
The availability of templates in Lucidchart is very good and there is a template for just about everything.
To be clear, their site publishes that they include hundreds of templates, which is true, but I have to say that many of them are mostly regurgitating the same thing. I mean, there are 44 organizational chart templates to choose from. 44!?! Now, let’s not take away from the fact that they have a very good range of smart templates available, but if 44 of them are various organizational charts, I think that’s just “padding the stats”, so to speak.
All in all, you will find some great templates available to create premium quality workflows, diagrams, value stream maps and so much more. The object, icons and images you get with Lucidchart are also of very good quality!
Compatibility across multiple platforms:
Lucidchart is a web-based application without the option for a desktop client. So, from a platform compatibility perspective, it will run on any operating system that can launch a web browser. The pro is that you can choose whichever operating system you like and whichever web browser you like. The downside is that you should be online at all times, with a solid Internet connection, for the full Lucidchart experience.
It’s worth mentioning that Lucidchart created an “offline mode” option which, when enabled, caches up to 1GB of files, by modified date. This is useful for working on active files without an Internet connection (e.g., at the cabin, on the plane, etc.) but maybe not that good if you need to create diagrams from scratch without an Internet connection. This feature is currently in beta.
Licensing and user administration can all be handled online and the cost is reasonable, considering it is a subscription service.
Individual user licensing will run between $8 to $11 USD per user per month ($100 – $120 USD per year).
Team licensing to enable real-time collaboration as well as the ability to restore previous versions will cost $9 USD per user per month (and up) with a 3-user minimum.
The advantages of a web-based licensing model is that you never have to worry about compatibility with your operating system and you do not have to spend any downtime updating your desktop client application.
Let’s mention Visio.
Microsoft Visio is a popular process diagramming application and is well-known due to it being a part of the Microsoft Office brand. Visio was launched in 1992 by a company named Shapeware Corporation and was eventually acquired by Microsoft in 2000.
Microsoft Visio is a fine choice for general or light-weight process mapping and diagramming and I do really appreciate that it has an auto-number feature to automatically number my process steps for me. That’s a huge efficiency gain for me. I would say that feature, and the spell-check, are my favourite things about Visio. Otherwise, Microsoft Visio is not an application that I would use, by choice, for my day-to-day process mapping work.
My main reason for disliking Microsoft Visio is that I find it clumsy when trying to draw high-quality process maps. For some reason the shapes just don’t line up to natural, straight lines and connectors. They always seem to be slightly off without the constant dragging of guidelines into play to line the objects up perfectly and, after a while, it’s gruelling and I feel like I spend more time trying to make it look pretty than on building the actual content. It causes significant frustration and efficiency, in my opinion.
Still, Microsoft Visio is not a terrible choice. It is feature-rich and maintains the same look and feel as the other Microsoft Office products, so it never feels foreign or awkward.
Import from and export to Microsoft Visio?
It’s also worth mentioning that, because Visio is so popular, other process mapping and diagramming applications offer “import from Visio” and “export to Visio” features. Of the dozens of applications I’ve tested, I have not found a single one that does this well. Imported Visio files, at face value, aren’t too bad to look at but the moment you start moving objects around, it all goes off the rails and it ends up being a do-over. Exporting files to Visio is the same experience. Now, I may just be very picky on how it should all look and flow, but, in my opinion, the import from/export to Visio features are not key selling points at all.
Process Priming Consulting Services Ltd. is an independent process-consulting firm. Process Primer is not in direct partnership and is not a registered affiliate with any of the above-mentioned organizations. The opinions expressed in this blog are the opinions of our independent process consultant(s) and we do not receive any kickbacks or endorsements from the mentioned organizations.
I hope these reviews were helpful in considering a few alternatives to Microsoft Visio.
We’re always available for questions and opinions. Feel free to leave a comment or contact us and we’ll be happy to respond!
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