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Author's profile photo Holger Maassen

Swimlane Diagram – a great tool for research, design, development and as communication tool

Most of our projects are complex and multifaceted or they change emphasis during their ‘life-time’ or both. These products and services are overwhelmed with expectations, needs, must-haves and nice-to-haves. They also have to cover, serve, support and take into account many supply channels, communication channels and communication chains. In our multi-faceted world – the process are not linear anymore – the well-known cascading waterfall models still exists and they have their places – but the world is agile – and many people, various experts are involved and these people have more than just one responsibility (users often have more than just one responsibility or role – most people have different roles. For each individual there will be many roles and each person adopt a different role depending on the circumstances).

There are many project planning, creative and design technics and tools out there – used to target and bring light into the ‘unknown’.
With this article I’d like to introduce you to one of my favorite tools – the Swimlane Diagram.

A Swimlane Diagram is a type of flowchart, and it can be used to display various types of information (data, deliverables, actions, and interactions etc.). A Swimlane Diagram documents the steps or activities across borders / across users and stakeholders and shows which step and activity belongs to which throughout processes; that’s why it’s also called a cross-functional diagram or a cross-channel diagram. What makes a swim-lane-diagram special and unique is that the elements within the flowchart are placed and matched together in lanes, and you can plan and coordinate when and how a channel is required. These lanes can help identify and visualize stages, organizational units, or any other set of separated categories. And furthermore it designates who is in charge, who (employees, responsible people, stakeholders and areas) is responsible, who has to deliver or what can be done in which step or by which communication channel and the instant and situations in the process where they are and how they are involved.

 

What is a Swimlane Diagram?

A Swimlane Diagram – is pretty close as an user journey map or also known as a customer journey map – as user and customer journey map visually illustrates most often one user flow through a process or site, starting with initial contact or discovery, and continuing through the process of engagement or work process – a Swimlane Diagram allows the same and more. The idea behind the swimlanes is that the process goes from one side ‘of the pool’ / from a starting point to a certain end point – but that it might be or it might be needed to make detours or goes ‘other ways’ / using other swimlanes.
Swimlane Diagram identifies key interactions and touchpoints during the process with your app or more points of interaction and point out the user’s milestones, goals, motivations, and feelings at each step and which data or information comes in to play or is saved and stored.

 

How to do research and prepare for a swimlane diagram

  1. Determine your goal and what process or processes should be part of the research and swimlane to achieve that goal – without to much into detail but also not to miss details which might make or break your service- What is needed to have sufficient understanding to be effective.
  2. Clearly find the boundaries of the process to be studied. On the one hand you might turn your back on something – on the other hand you might got lost in details.
  3. Categorize the ‘Who’ e.g. users, work groups or departments – they defines your swimlanes
  4. Ask: ‘who’ and ‘what’ (todo, deliverable, …) is done with ‘whom’ (other user, stakeholder, …) at which time with ‘which’ (tool, deliverable, …)
  5. Think about manageable pieces – and do not forget later you can or should separate swimlanes into user journey map.
  6. Find and mark the interconnections, communications and handoffs between the lanes. Document the process as it is, but you might be on the lookout for process gaps, redundancy or outright duplication, bottlenecks and other inefficiencies.
  7. Take notes, write down ideas when something makes you think. And don’t forget that sometimes redundancy is purposely built into a process for safety or quality purposes. And what goes without saying note the process steps that would increase efficiency and quality and/or reduce delays and cost.

 

Steps to create and work with a swimlane diagram

  1. Create swimlanes for each ‘who’, either drawing by hand or using diagramming software or a Mural Board. I most often draw the swimlanes horizontal – but sometimes it suits better to do it vertical. Try and use what works best for you
  2. Confirm your diagram with participants in the process and make any necessary adjustments.
  3. Use standard symbols to represent the process steps sequentially in their appropriate swimlanes.

As architect (before I switched to the digital world I worked in the real world as architect and town/urban planer) for the planning of industrial areas and building – I already used UML diagram’s symbols. And later as Informationarchitect and UX Planner and Designer preferred the UML diagram’s symbols as well
If you do not know UML diagrams – let me give you a short summary. A UML diagram shows a visual presentation of a system, of a complex flow and relations – intending to let developers or business owners understand, analyze, and undertake the structure and behaviors of a system. UML diagrams have become one of the most common business process modeling tools, which is also highly significant to the development of digital goods.

 

The diagram can be used …

… as outlined before – to communicate a standardized, a vision for a changed process or a future vision. … for quality and training purposes, to clarify responsibilities and accountabilities, and to reveal inefficiencies and gaps.

 

Let me give you an Example

If you think about a translation of a product description for a B2B or B2C store – selling platform or something similar – e.g. for a new fashion product – it might sound pretty easy and ‘round’ like this:

A fashion brand, provider or customer needs a translation > a manager is preparing or gets a pre-translation > a translator is translating the text > another translator, editor or proof reader check the text > and finally someone published and make it available > and the customer and manager are happy as they can sell the product.

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Simple (cycle) flow of translation

 

But if you look deeper than you might or will discover the bigger the fashion company is or the more the fashion company is proud on their brand that a translation is not ‘only a translation’.
They will work with various editors and translators who might be local people in the different countries where the fashion company want to make business – so that these translators really know the ‘language’ and the consumers’ way of expressing and talking – the process looks ‘a little bit more complex’ – perhaps like this:

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Example of an Swimlane Diagram

 

Purpose of Swimlane Diagrams

  • A Swimlane Diagram provides an easy-to-read visualization of relations and responsibilities within a complex process and it will serve the following purposes:
  • Clarifying and highlight which process steps or sub-processes are assigned to a particular user or system
  • Discovering and tagging of bottlenecks and perhaps inefficiencies, redundancies between various lanes, duplicated steps, process delays or capacity constraints that can be later addressed and resolved.
  • Optimizing structures, processes between users, teams and departments, which results in clearer, more organized workflows on an ongoing basis. All this leads to increased performance and quality.

Short and crisp:

  1. Identify the initial event or process – this is your starting point
  2. Isolate the processes (steps, to-dos, documents, etc.) – note each within the regarding lane
  3. Combine the elements by connecting lines to symbolize relationships and flow
  4. Then it’s always good to take a break and then …
  5. Examine, recapitulate and adjust your process and its elements
  6. Look for ways to improve
  7. Verify and look for things or relations that are tricky

 

Lastly another hint

I often combine or add afterwards other methods to my flowcharts and diagrams to get a deeper understanding of my processes and the involved and responsible people. For example, it makes sense to merge such diagrams like the swim-lane-diagram with the techniques of mental modeling and Design Thinking because it’s a perfect way to integrate the perspective of the relevant swim-lane (role, user, etc.) into your evaluation and planning.

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