As someone who has dedicated the last 14 years to exploring and writing about visual thinking tools and techniques, it takes a lot to amaze me. But I must admit that I was blown away when I got a close-up look at how SmartDraw is reimagining how people can use diagramming to get work done.
Its connected cloud application, SmartDraw Online, empowers users to automate the production of network diagrams, share diagrams seamlessly with popular tools like Slack and Confluence and use visual communication to share ideas, build consensus and solve problems.
I recently interviewed product marketing manager Joshua Platt, vice president of product marketing, and Steve Peterson, vice president of sales, to learn more about the new era of connected diagramming at SmartDraw.
Chuck Frey: How would you describe how SmartDraw has evolved during the last decade?
Steve Peterson: Going back 10 years, I think the main one was just transitioning from Windows licensed desktop product to SmartDraw Online. In the past five years or so, we’ve really seen the product sales spectrum move almost completely to SmartDraw Online and the SaaS (software as a service) model. The other main evolution from my perspective has been opening up SmartDraw’s API to connect to third-party applications like Google Workplace, the Atlassian stack and cloud storage services like Dropbox and OneDrive and our latest AWS integration.
Peterson: Obviously, remote work is the main one. Teams need to be able to communicate and collaborate from remote locations. That’s what’s helped fuel our move to SmartDraw Online, which can be accessed anywhere. And there’s been a huge growth in collaboration, connecting to other applications via our API, such as the Atlassian stack, and really being a part of the larger infrastructure of technology that’s needed for people to do their jobs and communicate effectively today.
Joshua Platt: Communicating effectively was always important, right? But when you go remote, you lose most of what we take for granted in face-to-face communications. Tools like Slack are our primary channel of communication. It has really amplified the importance of diagrams for all the reasons they’ve always been important. But when you’re working remotely, effective communication becomes a thousand times more important. And diagramming is a key part of that.
Frey: Has there been an evolution in the complexity of the challenges people are dealing with in business today? My sense, looking at it from a 50,000-foot level, is that a lot of the easy problems have been solved. We’re dealing with more systemic issues and more complex challenges. How do visual thinking and tools like SmartDraw fit into that? How do they enable people to solve these complex problems and get things done?
Platt: If you look at it from a very high level, there’s an interesting parallel with the roles and capabilities of spreadsheets. Once upon a time they were ledgers, right? And accountants wrote down their positive and negative numbers in rows and columns.
Then it was digitized with programs like Visicalc, Lotus 123 and Excel. Each cell became an X-Y coordinate in a digital spreadsheet and you could perform mathematical operations on them. The next step in it’s the evolution of the spreadsheet was the ability to create bar charts and a pie charts that could be shared with others.
Then, as the internet came around, the availability of data exploded. Suddenly, everything is being measured and tracked in spreadsheets. Today, if you want to succeed, if you want to excel in any business, the numbers are super important. Profit margins are usually very thin. Little details can make a big difference to your success. As a result, programs like Excel have become sophisticated data analysis tools that can do very complex multi-dimensional analyses.
All that came from the spreadsheet. The same thing is happening with diagramming and other tools. People are always looking for smarter tools to do visual communication, to distill that mountain of data and make sense of it. It’s a different paradigm. We need to communicate in very concise and impactful ways, visually.
In this new world, something as simple as a flow chart becomes super important. Literally, a picture is worth way more than a thousand words. Meaning may get lost in dozens of emails or Slack messages. Putting it into a flow chart and sharing it on a Confluence page makes it very clear what the process is.
We’ve got all this data. We’re all moving faster and faster. We’re all trying to be agile. We’re all trying to be competitive. Oh, and by the way, we’re now supposed to do all of this while working remotely. All of this keeps putting more pressure on people to communicate clearly. And that’s exactly where visuals can be so powerful.
Frey: Not to mention that most businesses are operating on thinner margins, during very uncertain times. The price of making the wrong decision has gone up quite a bit, I think. So you need that clarity now, more than ever. So does it seem like SmartDraw users are looking for more automation today? For example, the ability to generate diagrams or charts based on data?
Peterson: Yes, we are. It started in HR. They wanted the ability to take data from an Excel file and automatically convert it into an org chart. Same with Azure and Active Directory, the ability to automatically sync diagrams with those data repositories is becoming more common.
But then if you look at the needs of developers, that’s another world where automation is needed. They need to build UML diagrams and class diagrams. And for class diagrams, you can connect to GitHub and automatically build that from a data repository. Most recently we released our AWS integration and we’re looking at Azure as well. So, you can just connect SmartDraw up to those and then that’ll automatically build a map of your infrastructure.
During the next five years, a lot of our focus is going to be on integrating SmartDraw with data sources.
Platt: Many large organizations use Microsoft Active Directory to house all their human and non-human assets on their networks, such as email addresses, devices, printers and conference rooms. You can use SmartDraw to automatically generate a diagram of your network and all of those assets.
That’s a lot easier than having someone spend three days, figuring out where all this stuff is, drawing it all out and then validating that it’s accurate. You completely remove that effort. Because it’s based on the data, you know that it’s right.
Frey: And you can continuously update it as well.
Platt: Exactly. A really good use case is when companies must go through quarterly audits. They can run the integration every quarter to generate an up-to-date pcture of the state of the business. It really fits in well with the way that a modern business is run. Sometimes it helps them identify a problem that they can’t quite put their finger on. But when they see it diagrammed out, it all becomes very clear to them.
Frey: What are you seeing as the outlook for diagramming tools in the next few years?
Platt: In some ways, it’s kind of like a role reversal. In the late nineties, a lot of people realized that diagramming really lowered the bar to this visual way of thinking. But then businesses moved away from it as other tools appeared like Slack. Everyone assumed they could just type out a few emails or Slack messages to communicate ideas and solve problems. People’s habits changed. They got lazy about visualizing things.
Now, the pendulum is swinging back the other way, as more and more businesses are doing things like business analytics, they’re realizing that visuals work really well for audits, business analytics, onboarding and many other applications. People are saying, “You, know, we really ought to document this in some visual way, a diagram or a mind map. And it should be part of this central repository of data.”
Right now, one of the most popular add-ons for Atlassian is diagramming. When they build knowledge directories in Confluence, one of the first things they do is download a diagramming tool so they can visualize it.
Peterson: In the past, the majority of users of diagramming were technical diagrammers. Today, we’re seeing a push toward more business people needing to diagram, all the way across the spectrum, from small companies to enterprises. The ease of use of these tools is allowing more and more folks to diagram today.
Frey: I get the sense from talking to a lot of people, that information in most companies is increasingly fragmented. As firms get larger, people get pigeonholed into narrower and more specialized roles. As a result, it’s It’s hard for anyone to see the total picture until they get together and use a tool like diagramming or mind mapping software to map it to figure out how all of the pieces of the business actually fit together, all including the formal and informal relationships.
Platt: Once upon a time, if you wanted to start a business, your IT department would buy a few hundred PCs and install Microsoft Office on all of them. You would share files via a shared network directory or you’d pass them around via email. Today, most of the data we need to work with lives in this nebulous cloud. There’s not really a file to pass around any more.
Today, most of us use multiple software-as-a-service-based tools to do our jobs. For me, I have six, seven, sometimes ten SaaS apps running at any given moment. Our users are experiencing the need to move pieces or fragments of information from one silo to another. They’ve got little bits of data and groups of users scattered all around, and they’re trying to figure out how to tie it all together.
The more your application integrates and plays well and lets information move in and out of it, the better that makes your user’s life. I spend half my day in Slack, and I need to figure out how to get a diagram into it. Or I spend a lot of my time in Jira. I need to be able to get information into it. That’s what our customers have been asking for. So that’s what we’ve been focusing on.
Frey: You mentioned that you’re seeing a tremendous amount of growth in SmartDraw Online. Where’s that coming from? Are the users different than they’ve historically been for SmartDraw desktop?
Peterson: When you need to use a SaaS application, it’s so much easier to get started than with desktop software. You go to our website and if you want to start a free trial, you click a button and within seconds you’re in. It’s a convenience issue and also a lower price point to get started. For larger organizations, it’s easier to administer, to manage users. We have in-depth admin controls for single sign-on, managing group and folder permissions and document control across the enterprise. It’s just much easier to administer for the IT manager.
Frey: Is there anything else that my readers should know about recent developments with SmartDraw and what’s next?
Platt: One of our differentiators is how responsive we try to be. We’ve been talking about these big macro changes in how diagramming works and more specifically how people get work done. In the future, you’re going to see more of us responding to that and adding features that help people get work done in the modern way.
As people continue to work remotely and the importance of visual communication continues to increase, we’re trying to meet users there. Great examples are enabling them to auto-generate an org chart from data in an Azure directory, automatically building your network diagrams from AWS and from Azure. You don’t have to spend the time maintaining that manually.
We’re going the other direction, too, pushing our content, our diagrams into tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams. That’s where workers are spending all of their time. As users find themselves using new technology stacks and adopt new ways of working, we’re adapting very quickly to meet those users there and solve those pains for them. As they realize, “I need to create a mind map. I used to do that on a whiteboard in a conference room. Now what do I do?” We want to enable that to do that and fit into how they work.
Peterson: I would add that as we talk to enterprises that are looking for a diagramming solution, what we’re finding is that they’re actually looking for a partner, somebody who can listen to what they want and need and be able to respond quickly to those needs. We’ve been able to do that very well. We have a very good continuous feedback loop to be able to listen to what our customers need. We’re always willing to get on a call with them to listen to their needs. We’ve had recent integration requests for Smartsheet, for example. We’ll take those requests and vet them out. If we can do them, we’ll let them know the timeline for that. We really want to be seen more as a partner that can help them with what they need, and some of that’s going to be customizable. That’s the future of our business.