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Process flows

"illustrating events over time"

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What is it?

Process flows - also called user flows and process charts - are easy-to-understand diagrams - often based upon the use cases that result from process modelling activity - intended to elucidate how the various steps in a process fit together.


Process flows - which occasionally look a bit like storyboards, other times like mini-wireframes all hooked up together - typically include three main types of symbol:

  • Ellipses - which signify the start or end of a process
  • Rectangles - which show instructions or actionsw
  • Diamonds - which show the decisions that must be made

Symbols are connected one to the other by arrows, showing the flow of the process.

Process flows are particularly useful if one needs to explain the core interactions to someone new or not deeply involved with the project. A process flow can be informed by prior requirements capture work, particularly task analysis, use cases & scenarios, personas, taxonomy work, and so on.

What it's for?

A process flow diagram can be used to:

  • Define and analyze processes
  • Build a step-by-step picture of the process for analysis, discussion, or communication
  • Define, standardize or find areas for improvement in a process

This makes them useful tools for communicating how processes work, and for clearly documenting how a particular job is done. Furthermore, the act of mapping a process out in process flow format helps you clarify your understanding of the process, and helps you think about where the process can be improved.

How to create process flows
To create a process flow diagram, do the following:

  • Brainstorm process tasks - and list them in the order that you think they actually do occur, or should occur
  • Ask lots of "what next?" questions - such as: "What really happens next in the process?" and; "Does a decision need to be made before the next step?" or; "What approvals are required before moving on to the next task?"
  • Start the process flow - by drawing the elongated circle shape, and labelling it "Start". Then move to the first action or question, and draw a rectangle or diamond appropriately. Write the action or question down, and draw an arrow from the start symbol to this shape
  • Work through your whole process - showing actions and decisions appropriately in the order they occur, and linking these together using arrows to show the flow of the process
  • Where a decision needs to be made - draw arrows leaving the decision diamond for each possible outcome, and label them with the outcome. And remember to show the end of the process using an elongated circle labelled "Finish".

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