I use process flow diagrams and find that the value they provide – the ability to scan, parse, and understand a system – starts to diminish when they become too big and unwieldy.

Can anyone suggest ways of using this diagramming style (or even entirely alternative methods) to visually represent complex systems in a way that is more likely to retain value when they systems get large?

  • If it becomes to big to interprete, you might want to group some tasks in a wel named sub process
    – Yakke
    Jan 29, 2016 at 15:47
  • Sometimes if items don't make sense to be condensed into groups, you can use the old school approach of finding a big wall and posting everything on it. Our devs loved to go up to the wall for our discussions on how issues with one piece may affect the overall flow.
    – nightning
    Jan 29, 2016 at 18:54
  • @Yakke - I think this might be the essence of it.
    – dennislees
    Jan 29, 2016 at 21:29
  • @nightning - I'd love to be able to go analog with this, but our product and engineering people are spread across the globe. Also, this problem is more about the design of the information than of the format it takes.
    – dennislees
    Jan 29, 2016 at 21:33

4 Answers 4


I usually make my documentation 11"x14" (tabloid size).

Even so, some diagrams still get too large, so on the main diagram I'll show blank placeholders and diagram those subsections individually. Label each placeholder with an ID number so the subsections on the subsequent pages can be more easily found.

I've done this plenty of times, usually needing just 1-3 placeholders, but I could imagine making the overview diagram entirely from placeholders.


You could make it interactive using some simple javascript code. Check out tree diagram block on d3.js here : http://bl.ocks.org/d3noob/8375092

Interactive tree diagrams can help you hide smaller branches unless you want to see them. Hence, user navigation through large tree maps becomes easy and understandable.

  • Thanks for the suggestion, but writing JS isn't a core competence, so this will just add to the complexity of the deliverable.
    – dennislees
    Jan 29, 2016 at 21:35

One technique that's been helpful in our work is to break the processes down into successive levels of detail. Show each level with a reasonable amount of detail. Then, break down any step that doesn't have enough detail into its own diagram.

For example, mapping the process to "Get ready for school" might look like:

Get ready for school

Even without going into any more levels of detail, we understand the process at a high level.

But, step 2 may not have enough detail for our needs. So map it out in it's own:

Eat breakfast

You'll need multiple pages and diagrams, but the goal is to keep the overall diagram sensible. Don't put too many shapes or steps on each page.

The key is to keep each page complete and have an overall meaning, not simply a continuation of a previous page with off-page references.


Reminds of this TED talk on simplifying complexity


Sometimes, the complexity is a plus. You can create simplicity from it.

It depends on your goal/situation/purpose. Sometimes, you can deem information is redundant and rightfully so.

Other time, you MUST present all of the information. In those cases, find better software or prepare to make multiple drafts by hand.

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