If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words is a diagram worth?
A lot, it turns out.
If you’ve ever read a user manual, you probably wished that there were more pictures and fewer words (unless it was from IKEA). The same is probably true of most communication, which is what makes visuals like diagrams so important. Diagrams can save a lot of hassle (i.e., time and money). Here are three reasons why we love using diagrams as we continue to develop our accounting software, ZipBooks:
1) Diagrams cross the language barrier
Globalization isn’t just a buzzword: it’s the way business works today. Large software projects typically span multiple nationalities and languages.
Although most software developers can read and speak English to some degree of competency, the level of comfort varies from person to person. You can assume that written English instructions without any additional context will fall flat with an international audience. Text-based descriptions aren’t even enough in most cases when everyone speaks English as their first language. There’s always a little in-office back-and-forth that you can’t get when someone is located remotely.
Diagrams and flowcharts use symbols to communicate meaning. These symbols are based on an international standard for software development notation called Unified Modeling Language (UML). With UML, you don’t have to speak the same language to understand perfectly what the other person is trying to communicate.
2) Diagrams are built for effective communication
Think back to the earliest days of communication. Before written alphabets, people communicated with images. In using pictures, they found something uniquely compelling, whether for art or instruction, or both.
Even though we communicate largely in text today, we are still hardwired to comprehend images more quickly and clearly than text. In fact, our brains process visuals up to 60,000 times faster than text. Meanwhile, 65% of people learn primarily by seeing, rather than by hearing or doing.
That’s what makes diagrams so powerful at communicating difficult technical concepts. They combine the best of visual and verbal communication to create something truly foolproof, especially when you use a library of shapes with commonly understood interpretations.
3)Diagrams can stand on their own
When done right, a diagram can tell a better story with less followup questions than written instructions. Here’s one example from my experience at ZipBooks.
Our goal is to be free Quickbooks (plus bookkeeping services), and we needed a ZipBooks iPhone app sooner rather than later. We ended up hiring a talented iOS developer living in one of most remote places on earth—the Cocos (Keeling) Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Not only could we not meet with the developer in person, we were working and sleeping on different schedules. Whenever I felt that communication was breaking down on a certain feature request, the first thing I did was reach for my Lucidchart mind mapping app.
One particular goal was to minimize the number of clicks a brand new user had to take in order to create a new time-tracking entry in our iPhone app. After trying for a few hours to explain the flow verbally to our developer, we built a diagram that resolved the problem right away:
It may not look like much, but you don’t judge a diagram on how it looks, you judge it on how it works. By that standard, this diagram is a champ.
When should you use a diagram?
You don’t have to wait for communication to break down before you resort to diagramming. Instead, creating diagrams should become something of a habit. At first team members might view diagramming as burdensome and be resistant to the idea, but as your projects start to go more smoothly, your coworkers will be converted.
In the world of software development, I can’t think of a situation where it wouldn’t help to use diagramming on a regular basis. It’s funny how much more I use flow charting when I make a point of opening my Lucidchart account in a browser tab throughout the day. I never spend more than 15 minutes in Lucidchart at a time because it’s so quick and easy, but I’m convinced those 15 minutes save me a lot of time and frustration down the road by visually communicating my ideas and preventing projects from coming back differently than what I requested.
In my opinion, there is too much typing and not enough diagramming going on in most corners of business. I suggest we start drawing more pictures in order to get better results.