yEd: A Free Concept Visualization Tool for the Professional User

The Occasional User

Let’s be honest, most of us rely on just a handful of software tools on a regular basis. Some tools are invaluable and necessary in our job. For example, if you are a technical writer, you use one or more authoring and graphics tools. Or if you are a mechanical design engineer, you rely on CAD software. These are all job-specific tools.

Likewise, there are tools not unique to our job that we routinely use. Examples include communication and collaboration tools so we can interact with clients and co-workers.

And then there are the tools that we occasionally use. These tools are nice-to-have solutions because they make it easier to perform a specific task or prepare information. For instance, creating a visual to capture business processes, relationships, hierarchies, or system interactions.

We could use any tool with graphics capabilities to accomplish this task. However, some tools are better suited than others for visualizing abstract concepts. The problem is that a dedicated visualization tool may not justify the investment if we are just occasional users. Or they are too comprehensive and complex for our needs. Like many professionals, I occasionally need to design diagrams and workflows. Typically, I prepare them for consultations and marketing content.

Over the years, I have used several different tools, including PowerPoint, Word, FrameMaker, Illustrator, SmartDraw, and Visio to name a few. In general, I always felt that a specialized tool like Visio made it easier to quickly create appealing and clean visuals. However, such tools tend to be expensive or have a steep learning curve.

As an occasional user, I have found that yEd from yWorks offers a simple and cheap alternative. yEd is free and has all the features I need to create quality visuals.

Why yEd?

About yWorks

First off, I am neither affiliated with yWorks nor am I paid to promote their tool. I simply felt that sharing my experience using yEd would highlight a viable option for other professionals with similar needs.

Regarding yWorks, the company emerged as a project spin-off from the University of Tuebingen, Germany, in 2001. Its primary focus are visualization tools for software development and software documentation. Furthermore, yWorks’ staff of approximately 25 employees provide support and consulting services to diverse global clients.

Reasons for Using yEd

There are many reasons why you might consider yEd. However, my top three reasons are:

  • Affordability
  • Platform portability
  • Features

Below is a sample screenshot of yEd’s user interface.

Affordability

Affordability is always a key question for the occasional user. Or your budget might not cover the cost of additional software. So, it is natural to look for alternatives that include enough functionality at the lowest possible price.

Compared to some competitors that offer a “free download” or a “free trial,” this tool is indeed free to use. While the concept of a free trial makes sense, I always felt that “free download” is a bizarre proposition. Who would pay for the download itself anyway? However, I do understand the attention-getter effect behind the “free download” advertisement by some competitors.

Platform Portability

Although yEd targets software developers, its design features can support diverse user types across an organization. Moreover, many businesses utilize hybrid platforms to enable their operations. Therefore, it is only logical to offer platform portability.

yEd supports the following platforms:

  • Windows
  • Mac OS
  • Unix/Linux

In addition, yWorks offers a desktop and a browser version of yEd. The browser version (yEd Live) might be interesting to users who do not want to install software on their PC.

Features

It would be beyond the scope of this blog post to cover all the features in detail. My primary need was for basic block diagrams to depict workflows and convey conceptual relationships. yEd has all the standard features, including automatic layouts and customization of design elements.

One feature that I really find helpful is the ability to create your own palette of reusable design elements. As you create a diagram, you can simply configure items as needed and then add them to your custom palette. This saves time and establishes consistent visuals.

Likewise, yEd offers data import to create information-driven diagrams and set custom element properties. It supports the following data import formats:

  • GEDCOM
  • GML
  • GraphML
  • XLS
  • XML

Furthermore, yEd allows you to export designs into the several popular graphic output formats:

  • BMP
  • EMF
  • EPS
  • GIF
  • HTML image maps (including embedded URLs and descriptive tooltips)
  • JPG
  • PDF
  • PNG
  • SVG (including embedded URLs and descriptive tooltips)
  • SWF

Conclusion

While a tool like yEd might be a necessity for software developers, its features and design capabilities are equally valuable to other users. Any content creators will appreciate a free tool that allows them to create visuals that look professional.

For example, technical writers can easily prepare schematics and flowcharts to enhance technical documentation and web content. Or they can prepare content maps for their content strategy planning and share the visuals with other stakeholders. There are many applications where a tool like yEd can add value and make you more effective in your role.

Still, no tool is perfect, and we all have our own idea of what a good tool should look like. Personally, I found yEd easy to use and was able to customize it for my needs. Nevertheless, some users point out that yEd has a unique way of working for some features. Their experience is that it feels less intuitive compared to other tools they are familiar with. In addition, the library of default design elements is not as comprehensive as some users would prefer.

However, everybody’s experience will differ, and we must decide for ourselves where we draw the line. For me, it was a small compromise to make given that the tool is absolutely free. More importantly, it can do everything I need it to do, which made my choice easy.

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