Visio: from a simple IT tool to a universal business diagram application, it was always designed to be

Image: Tada Images/Adobe Stock

When Microsoft first acquired Visio in 2000, it was a general-purpose diagramming tool for drawing flowcharts, floor plans, organizational charts, mind maps, and network diagrams by dragging shapes onto a canvas and creating links between them.

Bundling it with Visual Studio and including add-ons that could automatically discover network topologies to create these network diagrams (or connect to other data sources that include metadata) made it a popular tool for administrators and computer architects. The fact that it was still a separate purchase rather than included in the standard Office suite – where Word and PowerPoint had basic diagramming functionality – reinforced the idea that it was was more of a specialized tool.

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But almost everyone needs to draw diagrams sometimes, especially to explain or design processes.

Visio as an online service

As with Project, by turning Visio into an online service, Microsoft could create a simpler version of the software that would be useful to more people on more platforms (there has never been a Mac version of the desktop software Visio, for example), while gradually adding options such as network mapping and Universal Modeling Language support that made it so popular with more advanced users, while retaining desktop software for those who need the full range of features.

Create-a-new-org-chart-in-Visio-online-credit-Microsoft
Picture: Microsoft. Create a new flowchart in Visio online.

The online version of Visio offers hundreds of shapes and dozens of templates for function diagrams, business matrices, Venn diagrams, cycle diagrams, flowcharts, organizational charts, network diagrams, pyramid diagrams and of process diagrams, as well as other business-specific diagrams such as infographics, roadmaps. and visual timelines.

This includes popular business frameworks like the 5 Whys, 4 Ps of Marketing, PESTLE Analysis, and other specific ways to present information visually that you no longer have to create every time.

You-can-always-create-a-diagram-of-your-network-in-Visio-but-you-can-also-make-a-microsoft-credit-infographic
Picture: Microsoft. You can always create a diagram of your network in Visio, but you can also make an infographic.

You can also create your own diagrams from the different shapes, with smart guidelines to help you align them on the page, then drag connectors from shape to shape.

Diagrams are automatically saved to OneDrive by default in the Documents folder, but you can move them individually and export them as an image, PDF or HTML code to embed the diagram on a web page). If you have access to the desktop version of Visio, you can send the diagram from the web application, just like opening a document in any other Office application.

And because it’s web-based with APIs, you can use Visio in Microsoft Teams for people to collaborate on diagrams. If you were drawing the diagram in Word or PowerPoint, all you could share would be a static image, not something your colleagues could edit – and you’d have to cut it out or save it first. You can combine Visio diagrams with Power BI reports in Teams so you can discuss how well processes are working and see where they might need improvement.

To implement a process, you can even take your Visio diagram, open it in Power Automate, and connect the various services and data sources to implement it as an automation flow. If you have a data source, you can use Visio to automatically turn it into a diagram that you can then automate.

Visio also works as an add-in in Excel, so if you have a staff list in a spreadsheet, you can turn it into an org chart, which you can then open in the full Visio web app to work with more tools , and always get the updated diagram in Excel.

Free for some

The-Visio-2019-Roadmap-promises-to-make-Visio-on-the-web-more-powerful-and-more-widely-available-credit-Microsoft
Picture: Microsoft. The Visio 2019 roadmap promised to make Visio on the web more powerful and more widely available.

Using Visio as an add-on in Office never required a Visio license, and you can still add Visio as a tab in Teams, but editing a diagram requires a Visio Plan 1 or Plan subscription 2. Last year, Microsoft added a basic version of the Visio web app to Microsoft 365, making it available without an additional license to anyone with an Office 365 or Microsoft 365 commercial subscription.

This does not include plans for small and medium businesses like Business Basic and Business Standard, or subscriptions for frontline workers, like F1: you must have one of the Microsoft 365 Business Basic apps, Microsoft 365 Business Standard , Microsoft 365 Business Premium, Microsoft 365. for business, Office 365 E1, Office 365 E3, Office 365 E5, Office 365 F3, Microsoft 365 F3, Microsoft 365 E3, Microsoft 365 E5, Microsoft 365 Apps for business, Office 365 A1, Office 365 A3, Office 365 A5, Microsoft 365 A1, Microsoft 365 A3, or Microsoft 365 A5.

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There’s also no personal version of Visio, although there are models like Home Network that would obviously come in handy at home. But Microsoft also still offers Visio Plan 1 and Plan 2 subscriptions, and those give you additional diagram styles for cross-functional flowcharts and swimlane diagrams, shapes for network equipment and cloud services, and outlet support for UML 2.5.

Basic flowcharts are-in-the-version-of-Visio-that-anyone-can-use-but-if-you-want-more-layout-options- you-need-a-Visio-Plan-1-or-Plan-2-Microsoft-credit-subscription
Picture: Microsoft. Basic flowcharts are in the version of Visio that anyone can use, but if you want more layout options, you need a Visio Plan 1 or Plan 2 subscription.

There aren’t many additional options in Plan 1 compared to what you can do by just having Microsoft 365. But Plan 2 offers a range of more powerful features, like creating a template of multiple shapes that you can reuse, the use of rules to validate diagrams (and correct those that violate the rules, such as not connecting more devices to a router than there are ports), modeling the how a process works using a formal specification or generate diagrams based on data in Excel, Exchange, or Azure Active Directory.

It also has more visual effects like adding shadows and bevels to objects or grouping them together, as well as layouts for Gantt and PERT charts, ITIL and Six Sigma charts, maps, blueprints floor plans, mind maps, wireframes you can use to design apps and websites, and more advanced network layout options and shapes.

If you want to use a Visio diagram in Word or PowerPoint, you should always save it as an image rather than being able to copy it as a layout that you can keep editing: Visio Plan 2 lets you export diagrams and shapes to Word and PowerPoint, and it’s what you need if you want to embed Visio diagrams into Power Automate to turn them into a workflow.

This is the version closest to the desktop version of Visio: it’s also the one you need if you have .VSD files you created in desktop Visio that you want to open and edit online. If you need features not yet in the web version of Visio, Plan 2 comes bundled with the Visio desktop app so you can always come back to it.

For most business users, the free version of Visio included with Microsoft 365 goes beyond what you can already do in Office, but it doesn’t include these powerful integrations.

Lance B. Holton