Flowcharts and Diagrams Made Easy
Business professionals, educators, and students often need to make visuals to go along with other materials they present. An organizational chart may help an executive explain to investors the company's structure. An educator might need a flowchart to explain a complex process to students. A medical student might create an annotated figure of the human body for a peer-reviewed paper. Few people who need to create these visuals just happen to also be experts in online drawing and design. These easy-to-use productivity apps are precisely what such users need.
Diagramming apps help people who have no artistic talent produce professional-looking organizational charts, floor plans, evacuation maps, Venn diagrams, flowcharts, and other visuals. They're typically pretty easy to learn to use, especially if you're familiar with other office software.
Diagramming software was invented after vector software failed to help people who were not artistically inclined. Vector software gives you tools for drawing lines, making boxes and circles, and adding text. If you're an artist or a designer, you can use those virtual pen-and-paper products to make whatever you need. If you're not an artist, however, vector software is completely frustrating to use. You might as well be thrown back into the seventh grade with nothing more than construction paper and a protractor to make visuals for a multimillion-dollar company.
Templates. All good diagramming software comes with templates. Templates are sample versions of the visuals you are likely going to create. Unlike old-school vector software, modern diagramming apps are built with the kinds of diagrams people are likely to make in mind. They therefore provide templates for all the common purposes for diagrams. That's why I mentioned org charts, flowcharts, and floor plans early in this article. Those are some of the most common diagram types people create, and I haven't found a diagramming app that doesn't offer several templates in all those categories.
Objects. Templates start you out with a layout for your visual. Objects are the pieces of content on the template. Many templates come with objects already in place, but there are more objects, usually in a pane to the left, that you can add to your masterpiece. Diagramming software also lets you add custom objects when you upload images. If your company or educational program has specific visuals that need to be incorporated into a diagram, you don't have to draw them by hand to add them. You can instead simply upload image files.
Collaboration. Maybe with the right tools, you can make the perfect visuals. Or maybe you need some help from a coworker who fills in details, or from an art director who finesses your work into something even more appealing. Diagramming apps that support collaboration allow more than one person to edit a graphic simultaneously. In the best apps, the collaboration is live and in real time, much the way Google Docs and other apps in the G Suite support it. Being able to collaborate effortlessly also means that when you pass a diagram on to a manager or boss for approval, that person can make a few lights edits firsthand rather than telling you what the changes should be. That saves everyone a lot of time and reduces frustration.
How Much Does it Cost?
The cheapest diagramming apps are free to use, and the most expensive ones cost around $300 for a desktop version of the software. Subscription fees are much more common than straight purchases, however, with the best apps charging between $100 and $200 per year.
My favorite apps are those that offer a free level of service so that you can try them out without a time limitation. They usually add more features and services if you upgrade to a paid tier of service (in other words, they're freemium apps). Be careful with free services, though. Sometimes when you create diagrams with them, your files are publicly viewable. You wouldn't want to create a company networking diagram, for example, that might contain sensitive information that anyone could find.
Top Software for Flowcharts and Diagrams
After I tested and compared several of the most popular apps for creating diagrams, two stood out for their exemplary ease of use, feature set, template and object library, and value. They are Lucidchart and SmartDraw. These two earn PCMag's Editors' Choice.
My top choice among these two winners is Lucidchart. Lucidchart is an online diagramming app with excellent support for collaboration, and it's easy to pick up and use. Because it's online, there's no need to worry about whether all the collaborators are running macOS or Windows. Lucidchart simply runs in the browser.
SmartDraw is the runner-up, and I like the web app version SmartDraw Cloud for the same reason I like Lucidchart. Why worry about platform compatibility when everyone can simply work on the web? SmartDraw's template library is even bigger than Lucidchart's, but the app costs a bit more and doesn't have the same excellent real-time co-authoring features.
The Best Free Software for Flowcharts and Diagrams
When it comes to free diagramming apps, Draw.io is my go-to. Draw.io works very well if you're in the position of needing to make a visual or two every so often, and paying $100 a year for the privilege seems bonkers.
Draw.io lets you save your files to cloud storage services Google Drive, Dropbox, and OneDrive. You can also save files you create with it to your computer. Even though it's a web app, there's an offline option and Chrome users can access it by installing the Draw.io Desktop Chrome app.
If you're feeling suspicious about why Draw.io is entirely free, here's the deal. The company makes one version of the product that it sells for a fee: Draw.io for Confluence Server. That version of Draw.io is a plug-in for Confluence Server, and it lives entirely behind the firewall. It lets teams create diagrams within those spaces to have visual aids and representations of the work done there. If you get hooked on the free version of Draw.io and you're in the market for a tool that specifically works with Confluence Server, maybe you'll bite and pay for the service.
Explore Your Templates!
One of my favorite things about diagramming apps is exploring the templates. You might just find a diagram you didn't even know you needed, such as a business decision-making diagram for responding to emergencies. Need to post a First Aid chart in your office break room? Does your kid's soccer team have a phone tree? Browse the templates in a diagramming app, and you're sure to uncover something unexpected and hopefully useful, which will surely help you appreciate the value of having it in the first place. For more tips on how to get important documents made in hurry, you can read How to Make Key Emergency Documents in Under an Hour.
Featured Reviews for Flowchart and Diagram Apps:
%displayPrice% at %seller% Online diagramming app Lucidchart supports real-time collaborative editing, has well-stocked libraries of templates and objects, and offers many options for exporting and presenting your diagrams. Read the full review
SmartDraw Cloud Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% SmartDraw makes it easier than any other app to quickly create professional-quality diagrams, thanks to its huge, context-sensitive collection of elements and templates. Its collaboration features aren't the strongest, however. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% If you need to create professional diagrams on a budget, Creately is a good alternative to Visio, but only if it has the templates you need. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Draw.io is a useful, free diagramming service with strong collaboration features via Google. It's handy if you only occasionally need to make diagrams, but for better functionality and more templates you'll want a premium service. Read the full review
Microsoft Visio Pro for Office 365 Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Microsoft Visio is a powerful diagram creation and editing tool, but it's challenging enough to set up that it's best suited for bigger businesses with the IT resources to handle the process. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% The online diagram-creation tool Gliffy provides a low-cost alternative to Visio. It works well enough when you need to make one diagram quickly, but other tools are better for consistent use. Read the full review