How does a process look like?

Business processes are an essential part of each organization since they represent a template describing how organizational activities (and other assets) are interrelated in order to produce an outcome (i.e. products or services). Thus, processes are important organizational assets, however in contrast to materials, tools or infrastructure, they are intangible, representing an abstraction of instances of performed operations. To simplify, each organization performs processes, however only some are aware of them.

Process diagrams

Processes are usually depicted in a visual manner in form of diagrams. A business process diagram simplifies understandability of a process, its analysis, enables process-related communication, etc.

The following figure represents two different process diagrams, however both represent the same process. The main difference is the visual language (i.e. notation) used: the left diagram uses an informal yet intuitive process language, whereas the right diagram uses an ISO standard-based language – BPMN.

Two representations of the same process

BPMN language offers numerous advantages toward an informal visual process language. However, a common problem in any formal visual language is that its vocabulary (i.e. symbols and shapes used for describing a concept or element) is commonly defined non-intuitively, lacking of (theoretical) background. Consequently, users, especially inexperienced or novice ones, might have problems with the comprehension of diagrams.

Why are some visual languages more intuitive than others?

It depends on how the visual vocabulary (this corresponds to an alphabet of a natural language), grammar and semantics of a visual language are defined. In light of graphical signs of a language (i.e. visual vocabulary) semiotics offers some theoretical explanations. Lets take the following example of men’s and women’s toilet – which pair of signs is most intuitive?

Signs representing toilets by genre

The first pair of signs (icon) has some visual similarity with a women and a man, so the signs are well intuitive. The second pair of signs (index) doesn’t has such similarity, however it is related to a genre via an associative relationship (e.g. women wear high heels). The third pair of signs (symbol) is not intuitive; it is defined with a convention and has to be learned.

Let’s see how an “inexperienced” individual depicts a process

In order to find how an individual, who has no knowledge of any process language would depict the concept of a process, we asked novice students (which had no formal experiences in any process modeling technique) how would they visualize a process. And the following figure shows some of the results.

Visualizations of a process concept

Despite the results have not been analysed systematically yet, the figure provides some interesting insights:

  • It is difficult to depict a process with a single sign, since it represents an intangible and abstract concept not a thing (challenging to find an icon-based sign).
  • The majority of participants depicted a process with several interrelated elements, which clearly shows some visual similarity to existing visual process languages (compare it with the featured image of this post, which shows google image results for the keyword “process”). Potential reason could be an aware or non-aware contact with process diagrams, which can be found in every (virtual) corner.
  • Another explanation of depicting a process with several interrelated elements, could be related to “divide and rule” principle – representing a process with its constituent elements (less abstract when compared to the process) is more intuitive.
  • A common element is “an arrow” which may be associated with a progress or an action (index type of a sign).

While this is part of a bigger research which is ongoing I won’t issue further details at this point, but we’ve already got several interesting findings. And you will be informed about them, maybe also via scientific papers.

Do you have any theoretical knowledge or practical experience in this matter? Do not hesitate to contact us!

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