In business, when you have to explain a project or walk through a process, you've probably turned to flowcharts. After all, they're an effective way to show individual steps in a process. And like a lot of processes you use in business, flowcharts have been around for a long time.

But here's the thing, flowcharts aren't just for laying out processes and workflows. You can also use them to solve problems, manage data, lay out programming and much more. Depending on what you're trying to accomplish, chances are, there's a flowchart to help. They're versatile and can be used to meet a range of needs.

Take this flowchart on how to cancel an order on an online platform:

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It lays out every single step users can take when they try to buy a book online. It looks like a complicated process but it's much better than having to sift through dense process documents to understand processes or communicate workflows to your team. This is a guide to help you understand which flowcharts to use and when.

Flowchart types: understanding what you need

When you think of flowcharts, the basic workflow charts are probably what come to mind. You know the ones. There's a starting point, a few steps in the middle and an endpoint. All connected by arrows. These are the charts used most widely.

Let's say you have a product and you want users to create a profile, here's what that would look like as a basic workflow flowchart:

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The starting point is when users log into the product, followed by a predetermined number of steps that lead to a decision. Users can either create a profile (decision = yes) or close the product (decision = no). From there, the process of engagement differs depending on the decision the user made. Each decision leads to a different endpoint.

Any given flowchart is as simple or as complicated as the information you're trying to present. And they work best when you're documenting a process that follows a step-by-step sequence.

But flowcharts don't stop there; here are other kinds of flowcharts used today and how you can use them to structure and grow your business:

Business process model notation (BPMN)

This type of flowchart lays out how business processes flow. Simply put, it looks at business inputs and outputs and visually explains the resulting process within a business. It's a standardized process that makes it possible for different teams in an organization to see the effects of customer or business actions.

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This is an example of the relationship between customers, travel agents and Uber drivers. It starts with the customer input — requesting a booking — and shows the process of receiving the booking and acting on it by travel agents and cab drivers.

As your company grows, use this model to map out processes from start to finish. Meaning, when a user or customer takes action, which teams are engaged, what do they do and how do they interact with each other? This shows teams their dependencies and where they fit into the grand scheme.

Cross-functional (aka Deployment) flowchart

The cross-functional flowchart is a “business mapping tool.” It's high level and meant to show how a company operates.

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This chart is distinct because it's divided into columns that represent different teams and departments. Arrows and connectors show what happens after an action and which teams or departments are involved.

Any process a company uses — like customer onboarding, re-engagement or sales — can be outlined using this type of flowchart. It shows how each team works together to complete tasks.

Data flow diagram

Data flow diagrams look a little different from the flowcharts you're used to seeing in that they flow in different directions, not just left-to-right and top-to-bottom.

They're meant to be the first step in developing systems before moving projects forward. Their goal is to show how data flows through systems and the interactions between processes.

Here's an example of what a data flow diagram looks like:

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This shows the flow of data once it's submitted and lets developers know what they need to consider before building the actual process. This diagram is helpful in making sure that all possible processes are accounted for and in eliminating processes that don't work or won't meet expectations.

Flowcharts in everyday business

As you can see, flowcharts aren't just for showing the steps in a process, you can do so much more with them to plan and manage all aspects of your business.

Here are some ideas for how and when to use flowcharts in everyday business.

Project planning

It doesn't matter what kind of business you're in, chances are you will plan a project at some point. Instead of relying solely on project requirements documents full of text, use a flowchart to lay out things like, which teams will work on the project and what decisions have to be made.

It's also helpful to include every possible step customers can take when they use your product.

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A cross-functional flowchart works here because it works a little like a project roadmap. It lays out tracks you and your customers have to follow in order for the project to keep moving forward. This way, you know what to expect and can plan things like email, sales and marketing campaigns in advance.

Plus the cross-functional flowchart reveals potential weaknesses early in the planning process. For example, if you sell a physical product, it might make sense to check with inventory first before sending an order to sales. By shuffling the process around early, you make sure that you provide the best customer experience and your workflow makes the most sense for your business.

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Here's an example of how to use the project planning flowchart to organize workflow.

Product design

Your product design flowchart lays out how your product will work and what processes will be included. This is where you decide what it will look like, how processes will flow, what actions trigger what processes and so on.

For example, let's say you have an app that stores content for users. Your product design flowchart can show things like:

  • How customers will upload content
  • Where customers can search for their content
  • How customers will access content
  • How customers will share content
  • How customers will manage their content

This is an example of what a basic product design flowchart might look like:

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It lays out what pages you'll need within your product and in what order you want users to flow through them. You can go into more detail for each section and outline what users can do within each one and what information will be available. Once you're done, you can begin to create wireframes that show exactly what your app will look like and how it'll function.

Product design flowcharts can also be used to plan for new iterations of your product. Your most engaged customers share feedback often so take that information to update your flowchart and plan for new releases.

Email drip campaign flow

Email campaigns are one of the best ways to engage with customers. So instead of leaving this communication to chance, why not plan out how your campaigns will run?

For example, you can decide what actions trigger different types of emails, when you'll send email and even who you'll send emails to.

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This helps you plan campaigns in advance so that you can highlight any weak spots and come up with contingency plans in advance. This way your campaigns run seamlessly to optimize customer experience and boost the likelihood of them getting engaged.

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In this example from Campaign Monitor, an email marketing automation tool, their customer journey feature lets users send customized emails depending on the actions of their customers. It lets you take your flowchart and turn it into an actual email drip campaign that triggers based on certain actions and sends follow-ups based on your specs.

Process documentation and audits

Written documentation has been the norm for a long time, however, flowcharts help visually plan sequences. This takes the idea of a roadmap and goes deeper into each process within it.

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For example, a roadmap for a new product feature might include the communication on social media and through email. It might also include updates to your website — like your features and pricing pages. Take each one of these processes and break them down with your flowchart.

For website updates, what pages need to be updated, what sections and when will this happen? You flowchart gives you a visual breakdown to make sure you included everything you need, and gave yourself enough time to follow-through on everything.

Here's an example of how to use a flowchart to organize employee onboarding:

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The process can be documented somewhere and then reviewed periodically. Reviewing the process visually, however, makes it easier to follow and review all the steps at once.

Data management

As a business you're constantly collecting data which is why a flowchart is an excellent way to formalize the process you use for capturing, managing, analyzing and sharing data.

Start with a data flow diagram to figure out what types of data you receive and how you'll be using it. From there, build a standard process for managing that data.

This can include things like:

  • Where data comes from
  • Where it's stored
  • What types of data you'll collect
  • How often it's reviewed
  • Which databases it ingrates with and uploads to

Here's an example of a simple flow meant to capture data from new and current customers:

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Collecting and organizing data this way helps you segment customers so that you can track them separately and react accordingly to meet their needs.

Also, as businesses become more data literate, people other than developers begin having access to data. A flowchart can be a big help to people who use data but aren't data-savvy enough to understand where it comes from and how it's stored. A chart is a quick reference which takes some of the pressure off your data team having to answer the same questions over and over again.

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Onboarding flow

When new users sign up for a newsletter, you might want them to go further and buy a product or service. But how do you get users from A to B to C?

The secret is to map out what steps you expect users to take after the initial newsletter signup and what you'll do to keep them engaged.

A BPMN works great here because all teams affected by onboarding can see where they fit into the process.

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This is another great use for flowcharts because it makes it clear what each step of the process entails, so you know where customers are in their journey and what you need to do to keep them moving forward.

Here's another example using Slack:

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When new users sign up with Slack, a team messaging app, onboarding includes creating a team, giving it a name, getting a customer URL and then setting up custom account preferences. These steps can be laid out in a workflow that would tell Slack how easy it is for users to follow through.

In-app page sequence

If you have an app, you have to be clear on how you want people to use it. When they log in, what steps do you expect customers to take? Do you want them to access their profile, upload content or interact with other users?

Use a flowchart to outline each option. This approach also shows you where people drop off along the customer journey. Are you making assumptions that don't resonate with customers? Your flowchart will show it if you are.

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Depending on how complex your product is, you can use your flowchart to go into as much detail as possible. Make adjustments and revisit it to see whether users are following the sequence you've laid out or if they've created new paths that you should consider incorporating.

A product analytics tool like Amplitude will help you dive even deeper into this data. For example, when customers log in, is there a path they're more likely to follow than others? Amplitude will give you a good idea of which customers choose which paths and how far along they get on each. As you make changes to the sequence, use Amplitude to find out whether the changes made progress through your product easier or harder for customers.

Efficiency depends on following best practices

Understanding the function of different flowcharts and when to use them is important, but so is how you design your flowcharts. Your flowchart might be chock full of valuable insights and information but if no one reads it, what's the point?

That's why flowcharts need a balance between information and design. They need to be informative but in a way that gets the people you want to read them to use them.

Here are a few factors to consider when you design your next set of flowcharts.

Style and design

  • Direction is important. For the most part, charts should flow left-to-right or top-to-bottom. Eyes follow this path naturally, making it easier for people looking at the flowchart to understand them.
  • Keep them on one page when possible. Charts are easier to digest when they're simple and kept to one page. The more pages there are, the more complex the chart seems. To be fair there might be times when you need more than one page and this is when you're dealing with complex processes and have to be well documented. They can't be summarized because key information might be lost.
  • Use consistent sizing and spacing because uniform design makes them easier to read and follow.
  • Include a chart key. There are standard symbols that most flowcharts use. Because these symbols are standardized, they make it easier to understand the flowchart. Also include a key so that it's clear to people reading it what you're saying.
  • Use no more than three colors. It's tempting to want to use as many colors as possible to show a path or highlight certain information. But the truth is, the fewer colors you use, the easier it is to follow the flow of the chart.

Text and content

  • Stick to one font to make flowcharts easy to follow. Also, make sure that the fonts are easy to read and large enough.
  • Fewer words the better. Because documentation is important, don't get rid of it completely. Instead, use your flowcharts to emphasize the important parts and use the documentation as backup with more details. Readability is important on charts so the less words you use there, the better.

Access and communication

  • Know your audience and how to speak to them. Some flowcharts have to be more technical than others but make sure the people reviewing them understand them. When possible, make your charts as straightforward as possible.
  • Share flowcharts with the right teams. Any teams that are affected by the information in the flowchart need to know where to find it. Set up a documentation process that ensures that the right people see the charts. This can be specific teams or the entire company. Keep in mind, it the entire company has access, it makes sense to offer high-level details on what's included so that everyone viewing the charts understand them.

Now it's your turn

Now that you have the tools to create and manage flowcharts, it's your turn to find processes where you can implement this. Start by making a list of some of the processes you'd like to clarify. If it's a basic process like a sequence, use a workflow flowchart to show the steps included. More complex or higher level charts can use customizable BPMN or cross-functional charts.

Remember, these are flexible and you should revisit them often to make sure that as you make changes to processes in real-time, your flowcharts also adjust.

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