Visio Online, First Take: Web-based diagramming with basic options

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When Microsoft first released an online version of the Visio diagramming tool, it was just a viewer where you could leave comments. Now, with Visio Online, you can create diagrams and embed them in SharePoint modern team sites, while developers can use the Visio JavaScript APIs to create mashups. But it's certainly not the full desktop feature set.

Visio is the classic diagramming tool for mapping out network infrastructure and development architectures, and it can be a little offputting to beginners. Visio Online is much easier to approach, and to start with feels like the SmartArt diagram tools from Word and PowerPoint. However, depending on which plan you have, you can also make more complex process, cross-functional and SDL diagrams (for networks and state machines).

You'll need a commercial Office 365 subscription (which lets you view diagrams for free) and the Visio plans for editing diagrams are available as an add-on: the cheaper plan is £3.80 per user per month if you take it for a full year annually, or £4.50 if you don't. So if your business is seasonal you can turn it on for users just for the times when they need it; you can edit and share diagrams that you save into your 2GB of OneDrive for Business storage.

The more expensive plan (£11.30 per user per month, or £13.60 if you don't commit to the whole year) adds the full Visio Windows application, the Visio iPad viewer, a visualiser tool that turns Excel process map data into Visio diagrams automatically, and an integration with Power BI -- which is currently in preview. The latter will automatically connect Visio diagrams -- from flow charts to floor plans -- to Power BI data and turn them into live, interactive visualisations; it should be released in early 2018.

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There are lots of samples and templates to get you started with more complex Visio Online diagrams.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet
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Visio Online automatically loads the shapes for the type of diagram you're working with, but you can add different shape collections to the shape palette.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

If you already have VSD, VSDX and VSDM Visio files, you can open them in Visio Online (older VDW format diagrams must be converted to a newer format) and see all the details. Or you can create diagrams online, either starting with a variety of diagram samples and templates on the landing page, or from scratch and adding your own shapes.

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Building a Visio Online diagram is fast and easy: just pick the next shape to connect each time from the Quick Shape tool.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet
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Pick the style for diagram connectors.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

There are multiple shape palettes, from standard geometrical shapes and symbols to Venn, matrix and cycle diagrams. You drag shapes onto the canvas, drag to size and rotate them, and click on the handles at the side to pick the next shape and draw the connection at the same time. It's not as obvious to see how to connect two existing shapes, but you just need to select a connection point on the first shape and drag the green handle that appears onto the second shape.

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Smart guides make it easy to line up shapes; dotted green lines appear to show when the edge or centre of the shape you're moving lines up with another shape. You can change connections from the default right angles to straight or curved lines. You can pick colours for individual shapes or style diagrams by picking a theme and a set of colours; themes change the style of connectors, and of basic shapes (with flat or shaded faces) on 3D shapes, but process and network diagram shapes don't get restyled, just coloured.

You can group and ungroup shapes and move them forward and back (so you can create an overlapping stack); you can even make sure the shape proportion stays correct by holding down Shift as you resize. But we couldn't find a way to flip shapes to get the mirror image. You can also add labels to shapes or put an explanatory text box or image in diagrams.

Missing Online features

There are still plenty of features from the full Visio app you don't get in the Online version -- in particular, shape data. Visio diagrams can contain a lot of extra data that's part of a shape, rather than filling up the diagram with details like the price or dimensions of a desk, or the length of time it takes a step in a process to complete, or the number of the person to phone in an emergency. You can view that data in Visio Online if it's been added in the desktop version of Visio, but you can't create or edit it.

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Move away from your diagram for a few minutes to do some research and you get this annoying time out message.

Image: Mary Branscombe/ZDNet

While the Visio Online site is generally easy to use, especially if you're familiar with other Office Online apps, it has a very annoying flaw. Infuriatingly, Visio Online times out after a few minutes of inactivity; so if you switch to another app or browser tab to research the process you're diagramming, you come back to a dialogue box telling you your session has expired. You don't lose any information; clicking Refresh reloads the page and puts you right back where you were in the diagram so it's just an irritating interruption. But why not just refresh the page as soon as the user clicks on anything in the interface?

Visio Online isn't the first option Microsoft has had for viewing diagrams online; it replaces Visio Services (or Visio Web Access) which has been part of the Office web apps that come with SharePoint and is now being deprecated (if you have a subscription, that will transition to the new service). There are only a few features from Visio Services that Visio Online doesn't have: you can click hyperlinks added to shapes in the Visio app, but you can't edit them, and you can't click a link to a local network path -- you have to copy the path from the Shape Info Pane and paste it into Explorer. It's also available in 26 languages and adds an accessibility checker to make sure you've put alt text on your diagrams, as well as working better with modern SharePoint team sites.

Visio Online is definitely useful, but at this stage it's clearly a companion for the desktop software that gives you the basic options. Power users will want to stick with the Windows version.

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