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7/16/2010
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Jake Widman
Jake Widman
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SmartDraw Simplifies Diagramming

The so-called "visual processor" aims to make it easy to describe processes, document brainstorming sessions, create project timelines, and perform many other business-oriented graphics tasks..

The so-called "visual processor" aims to make it easy to describe processes, document brainstorming sessions, create project timelines, and perform many other business-oriented graphics tasks..How do you describe your workflow to a new employee? Or document your business processes in a way that makes them easy to analyze? If your business is like most, you probably either use a lot of words or do some clumsy sketching on a whiteboard. But tasks like these and many others, assert the people at SmartDraw, would be a lot easier and more effective with a more liberal use of business graphics. The problem, they say, is that the existing tools for creating such graphics are labor-intensive and nonintuitive.

The result, according to their research, is that less than three percent of business communications use visuals. The standard go-to tool for creating business graphics is Microsoft Visio, but, according to that same research, fewer than five percent of Microsoft Office users ever touch that component, and 40 percent of those who do are IT professionals. Where does that leave the rest of us? Sketching on whiteboards.

Addressing that gap is the goal of SmartDraw. The company positions the program as a "visual processor" by analogy to a word processor. The idea is that the same way a word processor can automate the formatting of text and templates can somewhat guarantee it looks good, SmartDraw automates the creation of business graphics. For example, once you create one item -- a box to hold a process step, for example -- adding new ones just requires a keystroke each, and the spacing is adjusted to fit. If you added a new box on the right and decide you want it underneath, just drag it there and it'll snap into place with the proper connector.

That's the gist, but the program does a lot more than that. You can export your series of boxes to PowerPoint, with each addition becoming a different slide. Or, if it's more appropriate, you could export it as a flow chart to Microsoft Project. The program comes with dozens of templates, for everything from org charts and flow charts to crime scenes, engineering diagrams, and maps. It also comes with themes for applying an overall "look" to a graphic. SmartDraw really does make it possible to throw together an attractive business graphic without a lot of effort.

And, according to company CEO Paul Stannard, capturing a plan or process graphically can help a business understand it in a new way. Stannard tells the story of a printing company that used SmartDraw to create process diagrams for both its traditional printing workflow and for its digital printing workflow. When they compared the two, they were able to answer a longstanding question about the similarities between the two processes that they'd been unable to get a handle on before. "SmartDraw brings process description to SMBs," Stannard says.

The program could use some enhancements. For example, it would be nice to be able to start with just a text outline, as you can in PowerPoint, and then apply the appropriate diagram template. And many businesses would welcome the ability to design their own themes, in order to ensure a consistent company style to their graphics. Both of these features are on the list for future upgrades, according to Stannard.

The program isn't cheap: it lists at $297 and is discounted to $197 for an unspecified period, with free trial available. Rather than charging for upgrades, the company offers a maintenance contract at $50/year that covers all upgrades. But to truly evaluate its worth, you shouldn't think of it as a new approach to something you already do (unless you're already one of that five percent that uses Visio). Rather, download the trial and see if it helps you get insights into your business or enhance your communications in ways that weren't available to you before.

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