Getting Started With Swim Lane Flows
Learn more how these flows are great for complex processes.
Early on in my UX career I was tasked to depict the user flow of a complex webcast production process. Up to that point I would use a typical linear flow that shows each of the steps. However, before I began to let it flow, I realized its complexity. This flow had 5 actors, including the System, and I knew there must be a better way. That's when I decided to do some research and discovered a great solution using a business process flows.
Also known as swim lanes,cross functional flowcharts or process maps, the approach is simple - each actor is assigned its own row or column, depending upon a horizontal or vertical orientation.
- Easy to visualize. At a glance you can see the process for each actor. This makes it easy for each person to understand their role, and make any needed adjustments if needed.
- Independent in nature. Although a flow is connected, the layout makes it possible to begin the documentation without starting at the very beginning. For example, I've often times started the flow when I knew a given actor's path. I then connected the dots together when I received the remaining actors flow. This approach is a real time saver.
- Useful for agile. I once worked on a complex flow for an agile project; that had numerous moving parts. Although agile means minimal documentation, I forged ahead with creating a 12 page flow broken down by logical sections. This really helped the team in understanding the flow, and I'm glad I chose to do so.
- Helps get everyone on the same page. This is one of the biggest benefits since it adds clarity to the process.
- Not a common deliverable. Most UX flows I've seen in projects tend to be the typical flow. If you plan on making something different, make sure to check with your team. One time I had gotten resistance because it was perceived as too complex.
- Printing. If you plan to print the flow on one page, you might need a plotter - otherwise the flow will be too small to read. For large flows, I typically seperate them into sections so I can print them out on tabloid.
- More difficult to make. Visio is the only software I've seen which makes it easy to create this chart. I've been able to create these in Axure and Omnigraffle by coming up with my own template. (I plan to add an Axure template here very soon.)