Gliffy: Easy, Friendly, Flashy [a review]

Gliffy is an easy, intuitive, online diagram editor – on Flash. I am testing it’s usefulness for communicating concepts visually in information architecture (IA).

Site diagrams (site maps, wireframes, blueprints or user experience flow charts) – whether hand-drawn on napkins, or tidily mapped out on computer – help developers and clients discuss a site’s design and structure through progressive stages of development. Bill Schmidt says they “collect ideas in a collaborative fashion, making a minimal level of commitment and maximizing flexibility”[1]

Why diagram online?

I think there are three main reasons:

  1. Not having to download or install special software.
  2. Being able to edit it with any internet connected computer.
  3. Remote collaboration – if the tool is easy for non-experts to leap in.

Gliffy promises[2], and delivers:

  • intuitive diagram creation and editing tools
  • hassle-free publishing and export
  • templates to jump-start your process
  • no download, no cost, 30-day trial

Gliffy also promises “anywhere-access collaboration”. [Jump down to my opinion on that]

With plug-ins for Confluence and Jiro, enterprise customers might be quite happy – I couldn’t test its ease of use in that environment.

First impressions: easy to use

  1. At the main landing page, the momentary “what’s that about?” at the cute little robot didn’t distract me, but then I did already know why I was there, as I expect any visitor would… the free trial to create great diagrams:
    Gliffy's landing page

    Somehow that friendly little bot doesn’t say “diagrams” to me but the textual message is clear. Trying it out is as easy as the obvious orange invitation portrays.

  2. Hit the orange button and… oh yes, wait for the Flash interface to load… but then: choose a blank slate or a ready-made to edit.

    The big plus here? No need to sign up until you want to save. Screenshot of interface published with permission from Gliffy.

  3. Then it is just drag, drop and manipulate–all quite intuitive.  The range of pre-defined shapes seems broad to me, but I haven’t begun using many yet. If I didn’t understand a shape on sight, it told me on hover.
  4. I exported and printed my results easily. Although Tyler King complained about the printing,[3]the interface showed me what would appear on a page so I could adjust size or layout to be more pleasing, and was offered the option to fit the image to the page.
    Gliffy's print or page setup dialog box

    This dialog seemed to contain every option and information I needed to print what I wanted. Screenshot published with permission from Gliffy.

  5. The “blog and share this diagram” button is easy to see and Gliffy serves the image so I do not need to save to my PC first, like this draft sitemap:

    A draft site map for this blog

Key point: Communication

Excellent support

  • There was no ready made stack shape, something I expected after reading Jesse James Garrett’s[4] visual vocabulary. “No worries,” I thought, “I’ll just overlay and group some pages”.  Although I could see the options for doing so, I couldn’t get it to work.
  • When I queried the lack of stack shape in the support forum, I received an immediate reply telling me how to group, and that a feature request had been submitted for a stack shape.

No mobile

That “anywhere-access collaboration” promise?

For me that means mobile work with my tablet.  No such luck (yet) because my Xoom doesn’t support Flash.  I could see my pretty diagrams, but not edit them. A rewrite in HTML5 is under-way, and those using Confluence now have a plug-in, but as CEO and Founder Chris Kohlhardt reported, the phasing-in of HTML5 to the full-blown editor will be later this year[5].

Collaboration support… limited

First the good points:

  • It is so easy to use that anyone in a multi-person team can edit and add comments or questions on the chart – even those who have no prior experience with diagramming software.
  • It track changes each time a save is made, forming a revision history.
  • When a Gliffy is changed, any embeds from it (such as my draft site map above) will show the  most recent version, whereas embeds from a tool like Google Drawing are moment-in-time snapshots.

Unfortunately, other tools set higher standards for collaboration:

  • Lino (a virtual ‘stickies’ canvas or corkboard) notifies you every time a collaborator makes a change.

    Gliffy doesn’t.

  • Like Lino, Websort (reviewed separately, a virtual card sort facilitator) lets me modify my initial invitation to participants.

    Gliffy doesn’t.

  • And Google Drawing facilitates real-time collaboration. Multiple collaborators edit, comment, reply, resolve; with each change automatically saved and caught for the revision history.

    Gliffy doesn’t.

    A screencapture of a collaborative Google Drawing session.

    More of a sandbox session that time, we were discovering the features of Google Drawing, together, real-time.

Pricing: free is right for me, for now

Apparently when my Pro trial is over I will still be able to create and share diagrams.  My current private diagrams will stay private, but any new ones would be public. That sounds fair.  Tyler King felt that LucidChart‘s pricing was simpler.

On the other hand: Google Drawings is completely free (or included within Google’s Apps for Business).

No sketchy, no free-draw

There is a fondness lately for digitally produced diagrams to still look sketchy. Aaron Travis explained that sketchy rather than polished wireframes could help avoid premature focus on finer detail.[6]

Gliffy doesn’t have sketchy style shapes, but right above the basic shapes library is a section for uploading your own.

What do you think?

  • What features are most important for you, in tools you use for drafting wireframes and site maps?
  • I am happy to take another look, did I miss something?
  • What do you use, and why?



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About Mica Meerbach

Labelled variously: Mica, Michaelina, Mum, dag. Librarian (AALIA) in Victoria, Australia.

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