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Visio 2010: strengths and weaknesses

The gleaned wisdom of two visualisation experts

Workshop Few people in the UK have worked with diagramming tools for as long as David Parker and Chris Roth. Here they give us the benefit of the wisdom gleaned from years of delving into the ever-changing world of vector graphics.

David Parker

Having qualified as a RIBA architect in 1986, he subsequently worked for a CAD supplier, implementing a tracking and inventory system and writing a cable management system. In 1996, he realised that Visio was more adaptable than the CAD system he was working with and started to use it instead. In 1998, he created a company that focused on Visio-based solutions. He is editor of the bVisual blog and his book, Microsoft Visio 2010 Business Process Diagramming and Validation, has just been published.

What is your view on the state of diagramming software?

I think Visio created the smart vector diagramming paradigm years ago but is in danger of losing market share unless it responds to the threat of cheap web-based vector diagramming packages. There are a number of applications that copy Visio with drag-and- drop from a library of symbols, connecting shapes, editing of vertices, and a number of diagram-type templates. But I do not know of any other vector diagramming package that has such a range of templates with add-ons, in-built smartness (with the ShapeSheet and VBA), data linking and graphics, pivot diagrams and opportunity for customisation.

Do you think Visio 2010 is a significant leap into data visualisation and business process management?

Certainly, the additional structured diagramming and validation features make Visio 2010 Premium edition a strong contender for any business process methodology.

I have always advocated the “a picture paints a thousand words” philosophy, but recognise that graphics can also mislead unless based on verifiable data. For me, Visio is most useful when there is a data element, in other words when it is a representation of existing data or is used to create data and relationships.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of Visio?

Strengths: its vector graphics, ShapeSheet, connectivity, data linking, customability, prevalence, schematic and measured drawing capability, and interoperability. Weaknesses: there’s no lightweight web edition (although there is Save As Web and the free Visio Viewer, but they cannot round-trip), and a perception that it is a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. CAD users find the operation too different, and it is daunting for novices.

What do you like about Visio 2010?

See my Tips and Tricks article, but I would emphasise the validation capabilities because it provides the ability to check that a diagram is well constructed before feeding the constructed data to a data consumer.

To what extent can software like Visio can make inroads into the market for business process analysis tools when a handful of heavyweight packages dominate the sector?

It has the advantage of being widely known and used, and since it can now validate structured diagrams and has a whole host of features that specialist tools don’t have, it should be a serious contender for any business process methodology. It has business process modelling notation (BPMN) too.

What are your views on the competing standards for BPM languages used by modelling tools and processes?

There is room for multiple process modelling tools and methodologies, but they should support internationally agreed conventions and be able to exchange models. BPMN is a widely accepted standard, judging by the amount of tools that purport to support it.

Microsoft Visio 2010 Premium edition does raise the maturity level of Visio as a BPMN tool, but it lacks Business Process Execution Language and XML Process Definition Language import and export routines. As Microsoft says, it is an opportunity for third parties. However, I would hate to spend time developing such a feature, only to find Microsoft Visio providing it for free in the next release.

Chris Roth

The blogger better known as Visio Guy worked for Visio Corp from 1992-2000, before Microsoft purchased it. As an intern he created a third of the shapes that shipped with Visio 1.0 and has been a Microsoft MVP (Most Valuable Professional) since 2002. He started the blog in 2006, as a way to “offload all my Visio knowledge to the world then move on to something else”. The site is still running and is hugely popular with Visio users. Roth’s book, Using Visio 2010, is due out from Que Publishing in March.

What is your view on the state of diagramming software in general?

I haven’t tried SmartDraw for a while. ConceptDraw seems like a cheap copy of Visio. It blatantly copies features of Visio, but does add some of its own. It feels a bit weird – why copy Visio, why not offer the diagramming world something new? I guess it can try to compete on price, and I think ConceptDraw works on Macs. Web-based diagramming apps look interesting. There are several: Lovely Charts, AutoDesk has one I think, Google Drawing, Gliffy, Draw Anywhere, Cacoo and more. The thing is, they can update features any time, as opposed to the very slow update and upgrade cycles of desktop software. You can have several people work on the same diagram at the same time, which is not possible with Visio and desktop software.

Even if they suck now, they might not suck in three months. You still run into browser-based limitations and awkwardness, but maybe HTML5 will make this better, or else really good implementations in Silverlight or Flash. Also, the creators of these apps can theoretically look at every single drawing created with their software and make improvements based on what people are doing with it. An incredible database for moving forward. Something like Axure seems more interesting. Its graphical software is aimed specifically at wireframes and prototyping of web sites and user interfaces. Take the core engine behind it and wrap it up in several different special-purpose applications that people really need for their business.

Do you think any of the open source software has much to offer?

Open source: I haven’t looked at Dia for a while, but it was pretty clunky. InkScape is really more of an illustration app, but I haven’t looked at it yet. When you think of something like the Gimp (the open source alternative to Photoshop) you wonder if or when diagramming will get the same. The competition: it looks like the web-based diagrammers I already mentioned are really going to have to slug it out. I clicked on a few links and the domains are already for sale. So they are either folding, being renamed or being acquired by others. OmniGraffle is the “Mac Visio” and evidently has a nice iPad version. The coming tablet story gets interesting. I don’t know if diagramming on a tablet will be practical, but certainly roughing out the skeleton of a diagram should be.

Visio does a good job against competition because it has a long history and there are lots of drawings in the Visio format. Big drawings work better on workstation software, and people do big, technical drawings with lots of pages and shapes. Look at the stuff people do with D-tools. Part of their product hooks into Visio and lets people design high-end AV systems in Visio.

Microsoft has tied Visio into SharePoint and the Office suite very tightly (Visio services for SharePoint 2010 for example). Visio has a great automation model – you can program sophisticated custom solutions for it, or incorporate it as a module in a larger product. It also has lots of data-linking features. I don’t know if any of the competition has this. Oddly, PowerPoint is one of Visio’s biggest competitors. Drawing in PowerPoint is a pain, but people continue to try to do it. I guess they just don’t know about Visio.

Do you think cloud services will have an impact?

Yes, witness the long list of web-based diagrammers I mentioned before. Again, I think the constant updating is a huge plus. No installation of patches and updates – just go to the web site and draw. The collaboration and sharing is easier, and you’re backed-up before you start.

Do you think companies under-use diagramming and visualisation products?

Even if diagramming software is easy to use, a lot of people don’t think visually and are frustrated by products like Visio. Drawing, illustration, diagramming and CAD software are much more valuable in the hands of a power user – someone who uses lots of keyboard shortcuts and flies around the interface. I see people using Visio, slowly clicking the scroll bars, looking for the zoom controls one-handed, and it looks painful. I have both hands on the PC and can manipulate a drawing as if I were pushing paper around on my desk. It makes a huge difference in your attitude towards the product.

Do you think Visio 2010 is encouraging more data visualisation and business process management?

I don’t know how many people are buying or upgrading. Just a feeling from Twitter that the SharePoint people really think Visio 2010 Premium is cool. They can visually design SharePoint Workflows in Visio, then export them to SharePoint Designer. I’ve seen lots of positive tweets about this. I’m guessing these guys are a new market for Visio. Visio Services for SharePoint is also interesting. Now you’re using Visio as an authoring tool for dynamic web pages that can show a process flow, and colour steps or adorn them with status icons according to the latest data.

What do you feel are the strengths and weaknesses of Visio?

Strengths: its long history, wide acceptance; it handles scaled or measured drawings: floor plans, network rack diagrams and so on; its automation model, data-linking features, smart graphics and SmartShape technology.

Weaknesses: it feels a bit old sometimes. The graphics sophistication isn’t keeping up with modern software. PowerPoint’s text and graphics looks so much better, but you can’t really draw and diagram very well with PowerPoint. Visio has extended solutions – templates that load additional code to make them work better. Org-chart, for example, which helps with the positioning of walls, windows and doors. There’s also database re-engineering, UML [Unified Modelling Language], and so on. The problem is that each of these could be a complete, sophisticated product on its own. Microsoft can’t justify re-creating the entire universe inside Visio, so some of these solutions suffer from lack of updates and sophistication. I hear that the UML solution is getting very old, and nobody knows much about it, inside or outside Microsoft.

What do you like about Visio 2010?

The features in Premium: Visio Services for SharePoint and the rules validation open up huge new possibilities that I haven’t had time to explore yet. Improved web export that uses Silverlight to render advanced features id very good. They did a nice job streamlining the interface and making it a bit more modern. There are lots of subtle things that are really nice. Whether you like the ribbon or not, it is better looking than umpteen million toolbar buttons. Collapsing the stencil window into a tidy bar on the side of the window is also nice.

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