Collaborative Diagramming

This article is part of a series on Collaborative Development

I still remember the first time I learned how to use Auto Cad Lite. I loved it. As a first semester engineering student, it was probably the only course I took that reflected my professional aspirations. Sure the general education courses undergraduate institutions require you to take have their utility, but looking back, I’ve forgotten most of what I learned in undergrad, and what really stuck with me was the tangible skills they taught me. These tangible skills are also the reason I get paid.  As it turns out, it’s really hard to make a living without tangible skills.

So why mention Auto Cad when this post is about Collaborative Diagramming? AutoCad, like, many other graphic design tools have had to constantly change over the years. When I worked for Honeywell in 2003, I remember having to completely re-learn the AutoCad program. The 2-d version I had learned in school, with it’s basic functionality that mimicked pen and pencil drafting, had been abandoned for 3-D model extrusion and a bunch of new functionalities that allowed the designer to simulate how your object would preform in the real world, how much it would cost, and also produce detailed views from all possible angles. The program still served it’s basic role, but it had evolved. And it had evolved for better.  I remember the first time the machinist who was building the object I designed found out he could rotate my object in digital space and see exactly how I envisioned it to be created.  This saved a lot of extra explanation, and expedited the creation of my physical object.

Fast forward another 8 years and now we have a completely new way to create 3-D objects that takes a fraction of the time.  Sketchup, sold by Google, has completely transformed my drafting abilities, and has enabled me to create extremely intricate designs with very little effort.  Best of all it’s free, if you don’t need the professional layout capabilities.  Drafting tools have evolved, and because of this evolution we have a more intuitive, more robust, and as it turns out,  collaborative tool (see Sketchup’s 3D model space).

Collaborative diagramming tools are no different. For years, the king of diagramming tools has been Microsoft’s visio. Collaborative diagramming basically meant you would email a visio diagram back and forth between drafters until a cohesive diagram that represented your design/process was created. I’ve done this may times, and there a bunch of issues. The biggest issue is that visio isn’t included in the base MS office suite, and thus not everyone can see, or modify, your diagram. Another issue with this process is that two individuals in physically different locations can’t modify the same diagram at the same time. Collaborative development necessitates a “Shared Mental Model” (look this term up if you’re unfamiliar), and if you can’t see what the other person is doing, you have to rely on their verbal/typed description of their changes (big issue). I had been trying to find a solution to this issue for a while, and just recently a company called lucidchart has answered the call.

Lucid chart does a lot of things no other diagramming application does.

  • For one, it’s intuitive. I spent hours learning how to use visio, and visio still frustrates me. I remember trying to do a simple UML diagram in visio this past year only to finally give up and have a colleague redo the diagram in Enterprise Architect.
  • Lucidchart is html 5 based and thus platform independent. As firefox and IE become html 5 complaint, it will be browser independent too.
  • It allows you to make changes to a diagram in real time that someone else is also viewing and changing.  All remote changes are reflected in your local diagram.
  • It allows you to embed the cloud-based diagram in a web page/wiki as an image, and changes to the base diagram are reflected in the embeded page/wiki’s diagram image
  • It integrates with openID (i.e. your google, yahoo, openID, etc). This means you don’t need to create yet another id to use lucidchart’s services.
  • It lets you include any image on the web (pre-filtered) into your diagram. For instance, if you want a database image in your diagram, you can select the “image from google” sidebar option, and a bunch of correctly sized images representing a database can be dragged onto your working diagram.
  • It is inexpensive, and collaborators can be invited to make diagram changes without paying for access
  • Academic and free licenses exist. I hate subscribing to a tool that doesn’t allow for a thorough eval. This tool lets you create images for free as long as you don’t go over 60 objects in your free image.

More to come, but needless to say, between lucidchart and, visio has been displaced from my toolbox.


Update: just noticed that Luicidcharts now has an Atlassian confluence plugin.  So the best collaborative project wiki is now integrated w/ the best collaborative diagramming tool.

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