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25

Create flowcharts with yEd

by Tam Hanna

Get to grips with yEd, one of the best flowcharting tools for communicating information about how processes work

Most real-world interactions tend to follow a more or less rigid schedule. Visualising this process flow can be beneficial in a variety of ways; a process that has been formally defined can be improved easily. Furthermore, deviations to the standard can be determined only if a standard has been set.

During the last few years, a large variety of standards have been established. Flowcharts popped up in the Forties and have stuck around ever since. They have managed to outlast multiple more advanced forms of visualisation such as the once-hyped Nassi Schneiderman diagrams, which were since rescinded to the use of the Austrian government.

The resilience of this particular visual language can be put down to a variety of reasons. First, flowcharts are made up of relatively simple and straightforward shapes. This makes them ideally suited as a common language, which can also be read by less technically inclined users. Second, the outline of a flowchart is non-rigid. Adding new features and paths is as easy as adding a line and an extra shape – Nassi Schneiderman diagrams would require a complete redraw in most cases.

Cutting a long story short: flowcharts can be considered the lingua franca of process visualisation. This tutorial will teach you how to create good-looking and useful diagrams.

Resources

yEd

Step-by-step

Step 01 Download yEd

yEd is a semi-commercial product. Because of this, it is not included in most distribution repositories and must instead be obtained manually. This can be done easily by visiting the URL www.yworks.com/en/products_ yed_download.html and then clicking the link labelled ‘yEd for Linux’.

Step 02 Install yEd

Your browser will then download a file called ‘yEd-3.12.2_32-bit_setup.sh’. It must be marked as executable by adding the necessary attributes via chmod +x. Afterwards, execute it by entering ./yEd-3.12.2_32-bit_setup.sh on a command line to start the actual setup wizard.

Step 03 Start yEd

Leave all settings as they are and click ‘Next’ to complete the installation. The editor’s icon can be accessed by entering ‘yEd’ into the Ubuntu start window. Its blue symbol is likely to appear fuzzy on high-resolution displays. Click the symbol in order to start yEd.

Step 04 Getting started

After startup, yEd will display its ‘Getting started’ wizard. It permits you to open existing files and can be used to create a new document. Click ‘New’ to start working on your new flowchart – the program’s screen will morph into the one shown in the figure at the top.

Step 05 Representing work steps

Processes can only be represented when they are broken down into individual work units. Each of these is displayed as a rectangular Process box. These can be found in the Flowcharts drawer of yEd. Use drag and drop in order to bring the element into your document.

Step 06 Adjust object properties

Click an object once to select it. The property window on the bottom-right side of the screen will then display its attributes. Elements that can display texts have a Text property, which can be changed to modify the text that is displayed on top of the component.

Adjust object properties
Adjust object properties

Step 07 Add more elements

Flowcharts will obviously consist of more than one object, so simply drag in more elements from the toolbox on the right-hand side. Controls being dropped can be arranged via a large variety of ‘helpers’ that are displayed automatically.

Add more elements
Add more elements

Step 08 Abstract processes

Perhaps one of the most common criticisms raised against diagrams of this type involves the informational overload caused by having too many details. This can be adjusted by introducing the predefined process element. It represents a complex process whose internal details currently are not important.

Abstract process
Abstract process

Step 09 Collect input

Some processes require manual input. These steps should be highlighted by using a special symbol, designating an operation that cannot be completed without help from human input. You can find the ‘uneven’ box in the flowchart component list, simply use drag and drop to add it into your form.

Collect input
Collect input

Step 10 Making decisions

So far, our processes worked in one line. Sadly, it is not as simple as this in most real systems – usually, one or more decisions are required in order to achieve the final result. Flowcharts visualise this via the diamond- shaped decision element that is generally used as a ‘node’ for a decision.

Step 11 Entry points

Processes tend to have one or more entry points. Analysis is simplified greatly if they are shown as part of the diagram. Entry points are visualised via the starting shapes and various vendors specify different bubble shapes – the one shown on the left is more commonly used.

Entry points
Entry points

Step 12 Termination points

Some types of analysis require information about the end points of the process. Termination points should therefore be highlighted with the corresponding symbol. It signifies that work ends at this particular point and should not be overused.

Termination points
Termination points

Step 13 References for all

You should not attempt to squeeze large processes into one huge chart. Instead, use the off-page reference symbols to inform your user that the work will continue on a different page. Of course, don’t forget to add in another off-page reference there in order to specify the entry point clearly as well.

Step 14 Add wires

State transitions are shown via lines with arrows, which are called edges by flowcharting professionals. Creating a default line is accomplished by clicking an element once, and dragging the mouse pointer out while the left mouse button is held. Then, simply drop the arrowhead on the target element.

Add wires
Add wires

Step 15 Fancy-looking charts

Computer-aided flowcharting systems provide their users with a large variety of options that can make charts look so much better. yEd will willingly rearrange your charts using a group of well-established algorithms. These can be accessed from the layout menu. Some layouting engines will pop up a dialog with extra settings for fine-tuning their behaviour. Fans of Japanese colour gradients will be delighted to find that Tools>Colorize Graph opens a ready-made colorizer. The Graph Distance tab lets you choose the start and end colours of the gradient, which will be applied to your chart once you click OK.

Step 16 More edges

yEd creates direct connections by default – some layout engines may modify them to become indirect if it is helpful to their internal operation. Curved and bezier edges are available in the Edge Types palette, where clicking one of them selects it as default for new connections.

More edges
More edges

Step 17 Select multiple elements

Groups of flowchart elements can be made to relate to one another. This can be exploited by using group selection. Simply press and hold the left mouse button and drag the pointer to ‘open’ a selection rectangle. All elements ‘locked’ inside will then be selected when the mouse button is released.

Step 18 Align elements

Once multiple items are selected, yEd can arrange them to connect to one another automatically. Use the tools found in Edit>Align nodes – should you be unhappy with the results, rest assured that they can be undone easilyy by pressing Ctrl+Z at any time.

Step 19 Adjust your views

By default, your flowchart will be displayed in a medium zoom mode that can be considered a compromise between element size and visibility. The controls in the Visibility area of the toolbar can be used in order to adjust the zoom setting to your liking.

Step 20 UML to go

Flowcharts are ideal for small and medium-sized processes. Very large systems can benefit from the more compact elements introduced in the UML notation. yEd supports them via a special tool pane that can be accessed from the element pane via the UML header.

UML to go
UML to go

Step 21 Save charts

Flowcharts can be saved and loaded just like any other Office document. Click the Save and Load icons in the toolbar to open the relevant dialogs. yEd’s native file format goes by the name of graphml, and should be used for storing charts that will be edited again at a later date.

Save charts
Save charts

Step 22 View charts online

yEd is available for Unix, Windows, Mac OS and most other Java-capable operating systems. Most web browsers can launch a version of the product too, just visit the download page and click the ‘Launch’ button to get started.

Step 23 Export charts

Finished charts should be exported into a common picture format. This is achieved by clicking File>Export. yEd will pop up a file dialog permitting you to select the file format and the file name. After that, further options will be requested in a separate dialog.

Step 24 Print a chart

Teaching is easier if the materials are available on paper. Click the small Printer icon to open the printing dialog. It enables you to create posters made up of multiple pages that are glued together. This mode can be activated by entering a number into any of the ‘Poster’ fields.

Print a chart
Print a chart

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