Workflow Analysis, Swim Lanes and UX

Workflow Analysis, Swim Lanes and UX

By ICS UX Design Team

Let’s talk about a hypothetical scenario.  As part of a product launch team and as part of product management, you’ve just been appointed the dreaded process documentation assignment. To make things even more interesting, you have to both document the current process and identify possibilities for improvement.  Or it is possible your team has that one task that seemingly takes twice as long as it should to accomplish.  Maybe you are a user experience designer trying to understand a client process or identify stakeholders to talk with prior to starting a project.  Completing a workflow analysis is one method to help address these and similar concerns.

There are several ways to display a workflow, one of which is the swim lane diagram.  These diagrams visually describe how a process works, including the people involved and the handover of information.  Another advantage of workflow analysis is that it encourages an analytical examination of an existing process.  The person or team in charge of the analysis has the opportunity to observe the process (when possible), talk to the people involved and find out the current state of the world. 

As an example, we created a swim lane diagram for a sales process (see the graphic at the top of this post).  In this example, we have five stakeholders: the client, sales person, engineering manager, user experience manager and the project manager.  The swim lane diagram shows the flow of information among these stakeholders.

The swim lane diagram tracks both the high-level steps of a process and the roles and responsibilities that people have throughout the process.  Each person involved in the process is listed along either the top of the page or the left side, as shown in the sample.  Dividing lines, or swim lanes, separate the tasks each person completes.  The tasks themselves are grouped according to the order in which they are completed, providing a visual timeline of the process.  In the above example, the client contacts the sales person, who contacts the appropriate managers, who write the project scope.  They then send the scope to the project manager, who writes the project proposal.  While the project manager is writing the proposal, the sales person also determines the contract price.  Finally, the proposal is sent from the project manager to the client, who (ideally) agrees to the contract.

Once the initial workflow is documented, the analysis begins.  This might include asking follow-up questions of the people involved in the workflow, for example, asking if there are any pain points for them during the process.  In the above workflow, perhaps both the user experience and engineering managers would prefer to be involved in all sales meetings.  On the other hand, perhaps the project manager would find it useful to be able to be a part of client-sales discussions.  Finally, write up any recommendations (or make a revised “future state” swim lane diagram) and present it to the various stakeholders for their feedback.

Information gained from analyzing a swim lane diagram can be quite useful to an organization as it can:

● Illustrate the flow of information
● Identify key stakeholders
● Identify the key user experience process
● Help identify areas of inefficiency
● Help identify knowledge gaps

So the next time you’re trying to address user experiences, identify hidden requirements, assess the flow of information, or improve a process, utilizing workflow analysis and swim lane diagrams will help you accomplish your task.