I still remember my first experience with diagramming software.
I disconnected connectors, drew out-sized process boxes, and had a difficult time figuring out how to group the entire diagram together.
Things have improved marginally since then.
But, I still wish that those connectors would connect automatically, boxes resize, and grouping happened by magic. There has been no such tool, so far.
Until this week.
This week we will review SmartDraw : an automated visual processor that promises to make life simpler and easier for all those who dread the effort and time required to make a good visual.
We will look at its features, interface, and see how it can be of use to you.
SO, WHAT IS A VISUAL PROCESSOR, ANYWAY?
According to Jerry Lu, data analyst with SmartDraw, visual processors are the next evolution for creation of visuals. He compares the diagramming evolution to the one from typewriters to word processors. “Much like what the word processor did for text, the visual processor enables anyone to create professionally-looking, automatically formatted visuals with the ease and speed of typing a written document,” says Lu.
First developed 17 years ago by Paul Stannard, the newest generation of SmartDraw simplifies creation of visuals and assists in project management tasks. That might not seem like such a tall order, when you consider the fact that most content and project management is increasingly becoming visual. This means that company board meetings and documents are dominated by charts, visual processes, and snazzy powerpoints that enable stakeholders to view and absorb information at a glance.
The solution also integrates with multiple project management tools and software to extend its capabilities.
LET’S TALK VISUALS
Instead of calling the tool a visual processor, I would prefer to call it a productivity processor. The reasoning is simple: at each step, the solution automates much of the heavy lifting required in documenting visuals. Thus, instead of spending hours defining, designing, and drawing, you can focus your energy on implementing the content of your diagram.
SmartDraw automates many functions associated with drawing a diagram. By themselves, these functions may seem simple and inconsequential to you. Cumulatively, they can add up to quite a bit of time.
For example, you don’t need to spend time drawing connectors (did I tell you that this feature made me ecstatic?) or standardized boxes. Instead, you can simply drag and drop shapes at required positions. The system will automatically take care of connections and sizes.
However, the greatest benefit of SmartDraw is its value to project management tasks and process documentation. According to Lu, SmartDraw enables process documentation “at the speed of thought.” He adds that the solution simplifies project management. “The solution enables you to focus on the core features of defining a project and creating accountability,” says Lu. “It simplifies the creation of tasks with custom task libraries, and the assignment view lets you quickly see at a glance who is accountable for which tasks.” Brainstorming also becomes easy when you take a project from initial brainstorming to project chart using the solutions mind map to Gantt chart feature.
However, my favorite feature in the entire solution is “Meeting View.” This feature enables you to create project management tasks and charts on-the-fly. Thus, you can discuss (and address) issues, concerns, and tasks with relevant stakeholders immediately for more productive meetings.
SmartDraw also has a number of templates that can be customized for organizational use. For example, the solution has templates and libraries for several facilities such as decision trees or floor plans. Lu recommends starting off with pre-defined templates and libraries.
Evolution, in this case, happens later.
“Although SmartDraw includes a very large variety of symbol libraries, if you don’t see a library that suits your needs, you can always create your own custom libraries, and import or create your own custom symbols to suit your needs,” he says. In addition to the Microsoft Office suite of products, SmartDraw also integrates with MS Sharepoint and MS Project.
Lu adds that there are surprises in store for 2012. “At the moment, we’re working on some exciting new features and integrations for 2012, but unfortunately, I’m not at liberty to discuss them,” he says.
THE BASICS: WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE?
The interface, thankfully, is not radically different from the WSYWIG style we are used to. This means that the interface is a continuity over the existing suite of applications that you use. A global menu that divvies up into function-based interfaces enables you to perform several tasks. In addition, creating visuals is simply a matter of drag and drop (remember no connecting!).
SUPPORTING YOUR DIAGRAMS
Despite its ease-of-use, the folks behind SmartDraw provide free telephone and email support. In addition, they have an extensive knowledgebase and library of support videos.
IS IT FOR YOU?
If you want to simplify the process of creating visuals, your project management tasks and meetings, this solution is definitely for you. Of course, the caveat, as with any other solution, is that automation comes at a price (Remember MS Word’s spell check feature that insists on correcting your spellings). But, that’s a small price to pay for productivity at the speed of thought!