Technical Writing – About Flowcharts

“A route has no meaning in itself; its meaning derives entirely from the two points that it connects.” – Milan Kundera, 1929-, Czech Author, Critic

What’s a flowchart?

A flowchart can be defined as a graphical representation of a sequence of operations or steps. In other words, it’s an illustration of the various steps involved in a project or process.

Typically, a flowchart consists of a number of boxes, arrows, and text that combine to form a sequence.

Why create a flowchart?

The purpose of a flowchart is to show the various steps of a process in a snapshot. By looking at the flowchart, the viewer should be able to identify the various steps involved in the process.

Flowcharts can be very useful for a technical writer. If you’re working on a complex process, a flowchart can show you the various steps involved in that process. For example, you could be working on a manual on how to troubleshoot the Autopilot Flight Director system for the Boeing 747 aircraft. There are various steps involved in troubleshooting this system. Each step has multiple sub-steps. By creating a flowchart, you can quickly see which step takes place at what stage in the process.

How to create a flowchart

When you’re working on a complex project, creating the flowchart itself may be a time-consuming task. Here are six simple steps you can follow to create even complex flowcharts:

1. Start by defining the end result of the process or project. The end result could be anything such as completing a user manual, writing a complex software process, installing a new part, or performing a test.

2. List the various steps involved to achieve the end result. This will take some research. In complex processes, each step could have a series of sub steps. The steps involved to create a user manual could be:

a. Meet with SME

b. Research existing documentation

c. Videotape the procedure

d. Take photographs

e. Create illustrations

f. Develop the user guide

g. Test the user guide

h. Make changes/adjustments

i. Deliver final product

3. Define the starting point of the process of project. This is the first step that starts of the process. For example, the first step could be project planning or research.

4. Write down the starting point and the end result. Both of these should be in boxes with some space in between them. Adjust this space according to the number of steps and sub-steps involved in the process.

5. Draw an arrow from the starting point to the end result.

6. Along this arrow, list the various steps in order that are needed to go from the starting point to the end result. Include any sub-steps as needed.

Some processes may have multiple branches of steps involved. For example, to get from Step 1 to Step 2, there could be three options. You would illustrate this on the flowchart as three separate arrows going from Step 1 to Step 2.

A flowchart is like a roadmap. It has a starting point (A) and an ending point (B). Your objective is to get from Point A to Point B. The flowchart tells you what’s involved in the process.

For a technical writer a flowchart can be a very useful tool to illustrate various operations and processes. Before you start your next project, see if you can illustrate the process via a flowchart. It will make life easier for you and your manager or client. The end result will be a better project which is good for your target audience.

Note: Microsoft Visio is a good software for creating flowcharts.