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Having Kittens Over Process Maps

I am desperately looking at diagramming tools again. Something that will make me happy on my Mac and make work that will live on Windows (meaning Visio)

Once I used CASE tools – structured models that could generate code; then I found Visio. It was a form of freedom for when I wanted expressive diagrams weren’t needed to output anything more challenging than paper or an image.

That was in the days when Visio was an independent company with a low budget CAD tool for producing room layouts and electrical wiring diagrams. A small group of consultants were finding that they could use it for drawing up large process based enterprise maps. The layers helped to present the complexity since you could show a build-up to the whole glorious mess, and the tool gave plenty of options for slapping on notes and icons to help the diagrams tell a story.

Visio and I parted company when I ditched Windows over seven years ago in favour of Linux. Visio was one of the only things I missed. Moving to OSX last year, I felt excited to replace that lack. I had long heard about OmniGraffle.

The trouble is that when I need these kind of tools it is connected with business process work with clients. As in corporations, big ones. They all use Windows and most use Visio, which is of course why it has become the complicated and expensive beast you may know and love/hate.

Unlike CAD, the business diagramming tool vendors have never got together and defined a common format, and that gap has been filled by Visio’s file format, particularly the XML version .vdx

So we should produce our diagrams in whatever, so long as it exports and imports .vdx.

Happy, happy, OmniGraffle here I come.

The first problem was, and remains that OmiGraffle and Visio have different ideas about layers and, apparently it is not so simple to read a file and create content in a tool with a different implementation of the concept expressed in the file. So whilst it says it imports and exports Visio files, it doesn’t import or export my Visio files.

I did find a rival product: ConceptDraw Pro. It is a serious challenger to Visio without the price tag and there are versions for both OSX and Windows, and it even feels like it might just belong on a Mac. Not quite. Rather too stuffy in suit and tie to hang with the cool kids, but it works just fine. It even imports and exports Visio files, including layers. And it isn’t Java.

Still, I could not quite bring myself to buy it, for reasons I can’t quite remember now, but which mostly boils down to it not being as nice a place to hang out in as OmniGraffle.

I started using the online tool LucidChart. It is good enough for most things, you can share diagrams and collaborate on them, and being HTML5 you can use it off-line. Or rather you used to be able to. They found so much variance in browsers they have dropped that option.

Hence my desperation as I spend my hotel evenings looking for a replacement. The client has a wireless that gives me kittens, and I need to be able to work offline.

LucidChart exports and imports vdx, and OmniGraffle imports and exports vdx, so does ConceptDraw. I should be able to round trip shouldn’t I?

Yea, I should, but mostly I can’t. I found that despite the file system telling me that I can’t use OmniGraffle to open vdx’s [ConceptDraw is hijacking it] I can drag and drop them onto the toolbar icon and they open just fine. And I can export them. And if I start a simple diagram in OmniGraffle I can do the round trip. But all my existing documents in LucidChart are rendered into crap, on both tools.

So that leaves me thinking I’d like to use OmniGraffle (it is still a nicer place place to be in than ConceptDraw), but probably can’t make use of the diagrams if I do.

Clearly there’s more research to do.