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How flowcharts unlock great user experience design

By: Sia Banihashemi


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When my team and I started defining the user experience for the latest iteration of Co-Editing (available now in MindManager 2020), I knew I was going to need to illustrate the user experience, not just describe it.

My favorite way to illustrate a multi-step user experience is with a flowchart. Flowcharts are complex diagrams that allow us to see a process or workflow. They are extremely effective visualization tools that user experience designers can use to create, revise, and communicate the flow of different personas through a feature or set of features from start to finish. The flowchart is to a user experience designer what clay is to a sculptor: a flexible medium that can be molded again and again with just enough rigidity to hold its shape when things start to look right.

MindManager 2020 makes it easier than ever before to create and revise flowcharts with better Relationship control, Topic Containers, Image Thumbnails, and more. Below is an example of a flowchart that illustrates a user experience created using MindManager 2020:

The Problem

Our design process for Co-Editing started with identifying a problem facing customers who were already using cloud storage integrations to collaborate on files. MindManager has had Co-Editing in the past, but it required customers to store their files on our servers. This meant they had to rebuild their permissions and directories from scratch and they often ended up with multiple repositories because MindManager file servers were never designed to be used for non-MindManager files.

One of our primary business objectives for the Co-Editing redesign was to continue with our strategy of integration and convenience, allowing customers to use the feature with any supported cloud storage providers so that their files could continue to live where they were already being stored. MindManager offers a number of cloud storage integrations that allow users to browse, open, edit, and save files directly through MindManager. The integrations available since version 2018 include Microsoft OneDrive, Microsoft SharePoint, Google Drive, Dropbox and Box.

Flowcharts for UX design 1

We identified two problems with earlier implementations:

  1. The check in-check out system prevented version conflicts but only allowed one editor at a time, forcing other users to wait to make their changes.
  2. Bypassing the check in-check out system caused changes from simultaneous editors to be saved to separate versions leading to version conflicts that had to be cleaned up later.

Flowcharts for UX design 2

These problems informed our primary design goals, which were to:

  1. Boost productivity by allowing on-demand real-time collaboration.
  2. Facilitate communication between multiple users who want to edit the same file at the same or overlapping time periods.
  3. Prevent version conflicts.

Creating The Flowchart

With the problem and our goals clear in my mind, I went about creating a first draft of the Co-Editing flow. The process of creating a user experience flowchart involves building the scenario step by step in my mind and documenting each step of the hypothetical process as I go. As the visual starts to materialize, it becomes easier to identify problem areas or opportunities for improvement.

I began this flowchart by asking myself a number of questions.

First, what types of customers will interact with this feature or product?

For Co-Editing, the types of customers who would interact with the feature had several differences including different cloud storage providers, different preferences for usage, and different application states. All of these differences are visualized in the flowchart as one or more branching paths that handle each unique scenario through special logic to support the individual needs.

Next I asked myself, where does the user engagement with this feature begin?

There are multiple answers to this question. For Co-Editing, some users start in the MindManager desktop app, while other users start in their browser when they click a shared Co-Editing link.

Once the beginning was identified I built the steps of the flow by imagining the actions needed to get to the final goal. It’s OK not to know every action the first time around. Build a rough flow, then continue adding more details with each revision. The below example shows the same flow at 3 different stages during its creation:

In the MindManager design team, flowcharts are living documents that continue to evolve through the design process.

Categorizing

Once I had a rough draft of my flowchart completed I added metadata to the steps to categorize them in different ways. Categorizing steps in the flow helps viewers focus on relevant information.

MindManager offers a number of different ways to add metadata to steps in the flow, setting it apart it from other flowcharting software. One way to do this is to use the Tag feature.

I used tags to categorize the steps as “user actions” or “application logic.” Tagging steps enable MindManager’s filter capabilities. The below example has been filtered to show just the “application logic” steps.

Categorizing steps using Tags, Resources, Task Dates, or Icons can enable many filter capabilities such as:

  • Showing or hiding things based on who they are assigned to;
  • Isolating the path of a specific user in the flow;
  • Showing which parts of the flow are past due or due soon; and
  • Showing or hiding things with a specific completion status.

Communicating

Once I completed a draft and added metadata it was time to start using it as a communication tool. MindManager’s Publish feature is a fast and easy tool that allows colleagues to review flowcharts without needing special software to view them. After I completed and presented the first draft of my flowchart, I used the Publish feature to share it with our Sales, Engineering, and Marketing departments to give them the opportunity to review the flow on their own timeline. This helped our organization move the project forward by building cross-functional alignment and identifying missing flows or issues.

MindManager 2020’s new Image Thumbnail feature improves on the ability to include user interface (UI) mock-ups directly in the flow by just dragging and dropping an image onto the step. Image Thumbnails are like attached images but it’s much easier to see that there is a supporting image because they are displayed as a thumbnail image on the topic instead of using the small paperclip icon shown for attachments.

Flowcharts for UX design 4

Viewing the full image is as easy as clicking the magnify icon. I recommend putting UI mock-ups directly into the flow using Image Thumbnails because it helps viewers get a clearer picture of where, when, and how users should encounter each UI.

Managing The Process

As I mentioned earlier, MindManager is unique flowchart solution because you can view your flowchart in new ways based on how you categorize the data. The meanings in a standard flowchart come from the location of the steps and the relationship lines between them.

MindManager’s Tag View allows the user to not just filter things out but to view things in the flow in a totally different way. By switching to Tag View I was able to see where in the development process each step in the flow was. Since MindManager files can have multiple views, I could switch between these views without losing any of my flowchart’s data.

In the below example, MindManager is displaying a flowchart in Tag View, so the steps are temporarily arranged in columns based on their status instead of their location in the flow.

Flowcharts for UX design 5

In the MindManager development process, things often get sent back to design based on beta or usability testing feedback. We make changes to the design based on the feedback and then they move through our engineering and testing phases once again before they are finally marked as done. As a designer, it can be challenging to consistently get everything about a feature right the first time around. To address this challenge, we are committed to an iterative process in which we continue to listen to feedback and make revisions until our features completely satisfy our customers’ needs.

Wrap up

Flowcharts are exceptional tools for designing and communicating user experience designs. MindManager provides critical features that enhance the process of building and communicating flowcharts for design that can’t be found in other flowcharting software

During the Co-Editing development process I used several flowcharts to communicate different parts of the design with various audiences. (The flowcharts used in this post are used for example purposes only and do not represent the actual flowcharts used during the development process.) The largest flowchart created for the Co-Editing feature contained more than 150 steps. Since I can’t share that one, I’ll leave you with one final example of a flowchart created using MindManager that I used to communicate the Co-Editing session request and acceptance flow to our marketing and sales teams. Until next time, stay calm and keep mapping!


About the Author
Sia Banihashemi is Lead Product Designer & Product Manager for MindManager. He’s responsible for creating and bringing user stories to life through user-centric design thinking. Sia is passionate about listening to customers and delivering valuable problem solving products and features. His product management duties include MindManager’s online and mobile products: Co-Editing, MindManager Snap, Publishing, and MindManager Go. When he’s not at work Sia likes to workout, get silly with his kids, and get in touch with his “inner-foodie” by cooking and baking.

 

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