NoTube blog – the future of television is social and semantic

In praise of swimlane diagrams

Posted in Meetings, Thinking Out Loud by vickybuser on January 20, 2010

As an Information Architect (IA) I often make diagrams of various kinds – usually user flow diagrams, sitemaps and wireframes. However, I’d never made use of swimlane diagrams until the most recent NoTube project meeting.

Commonly used for diagramming business processes (sometimes in a humourous vein!), I found this visualisation technique to be an extremely useful, simple and versatile tool for helping us to show how all the various components within Notube need to fit together and influence each other to support our scenarios.

The scenarios (descriptive stories about a user’s overall experience) supplied the context and background – the next step was to map these stories to a sequence of discrete ‘activities’ grouped by component to show what happens and when (as others have suggested, a more accurate name for this type of diagram might be a Scenario Description Swimlane). During the script writing activity described by Libby the ‘actors’ and their ‘lines’ were mapped to a swimlane diagram drawn on a flipchart by Chris van Aart from VU helping to clarify various issues along the way.

As the name suggests, the diagram looks like a swimming pool with lanes. Each NoTube component (service, tool or system) was assigned to a lane – we started with a lane for the user interactions implied by the scenario. The activities performed by each component were represented as boxes within the relevant column and connected by arrows to show the interconnections. Our lanes were arranged vertically so that time flowed forward as you moved down the page (but they could also be laid out horizontally). So – really quick and simple to do once you have the right information: the main challenge was not to make the diagram look too messy when drawing arrows across several lanes.

Swimlane diagram detail

The resulting diagrams provide a set of documents that show everything going on at once – at a glance – helping us to understand:

  • the tools and systems involved
  • how the user interacts with the various components
  • which components are responsible for which activities and the flow between them

An extra bonus for me as IA was that I could use the diagrams to quickly identify the screens that now need wireframing.

As Yvonne Shek says: “The goal or differentiating factor of this diagram is to tell a story from multiple perspective, in a comprehensive and holistic way.” I’m sure I’ll be using this handy technique again in future, in particular to promote common understanding between participants of a large and distributed project such as NoTube.

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