Modularizing flowcharts?

Subject: Modularizing flowcharts?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Mon, 23 Apr 2001 08:50:53 -0400

Bal Simon provided an example of a flowchart:

<<I do not see an easy way to modularize the diagram. I CAN map out
specific branches, e.g., Branch A 1 - 2 - d1(no) - 1 ... Branch B
1 - 2 - d1(yes) - 3 - d2(yes) - 2... Branch C 1 - 2 - d1(yes) - 3
- d2(no) - O1 This enables me to quickly see which way the decisions (d1 and
d2) need to go in order for me to reach the Output (O1): d1 has to be yes
and d2 has to be no, or else we generate loops.>>

I'm not sure I understand the problem. If I do, then it seems to me that you
essentially have two situations, with a possible intermediate case: In the
first case, users don't know their destination, and simply answer a series
of yes/no questions until they reach that destination (e.g., in
troubleshooting a problem). In that case, it doesn't matter if the flowchart
is complex, since the goal isn't to help users perceive the structure, but
rather to get them to a destination. It also doesn't matter if you generate
loops (assuming the logic of the chart is correct), since the fact that a
loop exists suggests the reader doesn't understand the problem well enough
to answer yes/no reliably; if they can't answer the questions properly, and
the questions are correctly framed, then you can't solve the problem for the

In the second case, the users desire a specific outcome, and only want to
know how to reach that outcome. In this case, a flowchart is unnecessary and
perhaps counterproductive, since standard step by step instructions
accomplish this goal eloquently. A flowchart might simplify the
presentation, but since there are no branches to be taken, it's not
necessary. The intermediate case, in which users both want to perceive the
overall structure and easily identify the sequence of instructions that gets
them there, is akin to a road map: it shows both the structure and the path
that gets them there. Because the road map tries to accomplish two somewhat
incompatible goals, it accomplishes neither goal optimally. The solution is
to optimize both: for example, an _online_ road map might let the user drag
to select a rectangular area of the map, which would then be highlighted to
focus on its overall structure, or click on the start and destination
points, so the map could then highlight the optimal path between them. This
is perhaps analogous to your situation and might thus suggest a solution.

<<Are there resources "out there" that deal with "diagram theory" and how
to better construct them?>>

A few years back, I came across a particularly interesting article that
explains how to optimize flow charts. It' s moderatetly technical, but if
it's relevant to your situation, applying a little skull sweat to reading it
should repay the effort: Jansen, C.J.M.; Steehouder, M.F. 1996. The
sequential order of procedural instructions: some formal methods for
designers of flow charts. J. Tech. Writing and Comm. 26(4):453-473. I
imagine this is easily available via inter-library loan, which is how I got
my copy. (The journal volume number may be incorrect, since it's a bad

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at

"Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot; others transform a
yellow spot into the sun."- -Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)


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