Flow Chart vs. Data Flow Diagram: What’s the Difference?

Representing data or information visually is crucial for making it easier to understand. This visual representation can also be vital for understanding the steps to take, decisions to make, and possible outcomes depending on the different paths taken. When trying to understand data and information and their respective flows, the two most common tools used are flowcharts and data flow diagrams. Both options are different and have different features and use cases, and this is what we will focus on in this article.

What is a Flowchart?

A flowchart is a visual representation or diagram of the steps required in and decision points within a process or workflow. They are typically used to arrive at viable solutions in different areas, with this versatility seeing them used in numerous areas. For example, they are used in education, programming, and project management.

Flowcharts use shapes and symbols to help individuals and teams understand the logical progression of different actions. By providing a comprehensive view of a process or workflow, they can help teams communicate gaps in their processes, identify bottlenecks, and work on possible improvements and solutions.

One of their primary benefits is that they are easy to create and use.  However, you should understand flowcharting for beginners before creating them to ensure they are effective for what they will be used for.

What is a Data Flow Diagram?

Data flow diagrams show how data moves within a process or system. They provide a structured view to showcase this flow and the various processes therein. They take information or data as the input, store and process it, and then produce an output.

As with flowcharts, they also use symbols and arrows to show data flow, even though they do not show decision points.

Differences Between Flowcharts and Data Flow Diagrams

Data flow diagrams observe and outline processes at a much higher level than flowcharts. For example, they may show how data flows when a customer orders a product, while a flowchart may only help determine the market segment to add a customer.

Another crucial difference is how they relate to functions and functionality. A flowchart can define how decision-makers and stakeholders can or should make the system function, for example, what to do when one thing happens versus another. Data flow diagrams, on the other hand, define the functionality of the whole system and not individual parts.

Used in Different Processes

Data flow diagrams can also be used for highly complex systems, while flow charts cannot. This is a crucial limitation that forces flowcharts to only be best for systems that require simple decisions but not a complex system of interwoven processes and flows.

Flowcharts provide a more detailed view of a process because they operate at a lower level. For example, they show dependencies, actions, decision points, and relationships between various elements. Data flow diagrams focus on the bigger picture.

Although they can be used alongside each other, flow charts and data flow diagrams are different and have different use cases. Flowcharts operate at a much lower level and give you a much better granular understanding of what is happening within a process, law, or system. Data flow diagrams focus on the flow of data and how it is stored and transmitted within a system.

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