How to Create a Data Flow Diagram

A data flow diagram is a flowchart that can help you visualize the data pipeline of a system so you can trace what happens to the data as it moves between components. This is a great way to find redundancies and optimize the speed and responsiveness of your app.

Making a data flow diagram involves a few simple steps:

  1. Add symbols that represent processes, datastores, dataflows and external entities
  2. Connect symbols with lines to represent the flow of information
  3. Add text
  4. Show any loops back to previous steps or link to subprocesses
How to make a data flow diagram

SmartDraw makes creating data flow diagrams easy by automating a lot of the drawing. Symbols will be automatically connected. Even if you remove or move shapes, your chart will automatically heal itself. Watch the video to see how it works.

Data flow diagram Video

Getting Started with Data Flow Diagram Templates

To begin, you'll want to start with one of SmartDraw's data flow diagram templates. You'll find these under the Software Design section on the left hand side of your template dialog. Click on Software Design, then select Data Flow Diagrams.

Open the basic Data Flow template, by clicking on its icon. The template contains a basic starting point for your diagram and a SmartPanel customized with symbols for building it. These symbols include data flow diagram notations for process, datastores, dataflow and external entities.

Data flow diagram templates

Adding Symbols

The basic building blocks of any data flow diagram are its symbols. There are a few ways to add symbols to your diagram. You can drag a symbol to your work area or select a symbol in the library and stamp it on the page. Once a single symbol has been added to the page, you can add the next symbol either by clicking on the yellow action buttons to the side of the existing symbol or by selecting the symbol you want to add in the library and clicking "Add Right" or another direction in the SmartPanel. These quick shortcuts help you build your data flow diagram faster.

If you need to rearrange your diagram, grab the symbol you want to move and drag it to its new location. Your chart will automatically reformat to accommodate the new structure. If you need to delete a symbol, just select it and hit delete. Again, SmartDraw is smart enough to close the gap automatically. No need to worry about drawing lines manually.

Drag data flow shape Automatically add data flow shape

Connecting Shapes Manually

SmartDraw's automation features make creating a data flow diagram effortless, but you can forego these automation features if you want the look and feel of manual connections. As before, start by adding two shapes to you diagram. Next, connect the two shapes by clicking on the Line Tool in the Home ribbon. In the drop down for the Line Tool, you can choose what type of line you'd like to use, for example a segmented or curved line.

Once you have chosen your line, you'll notice that your cursor has turned into a pencil. Touch your pencil to the edge of one shape. You should see a series of black connection points light up. Now drag your line to the edge of the next shape. As you near the edge, when you see your cursor turn into an Anchor symbol, you can let go, the line is ready to connect.

Data flow diagram lines

Adding Text to Data Flow Diagrams

Adding text to a shape is as simple as selecting that shape and typing. You can style your text in the Home ribbon, by adding color, weight, and more.

Add text

Advanced Features: Turning Your Shape into a Table

If you want to display a complex concept in a single shape, you may want convert your symbol into a table with rows and columns for different information. This is a great way to note variables and other technical info in addition to basic concepts.

Select the shape you want to convert and go to the Table ribbon. Select the number of rows and columns you want and hit the "Insert Table" button. It's that easy.

Display data flow shape as table

Linking to Sub-Processes

If you need to explore a complex system in more detail, you can create a more detailed data flow diagram on a separate page and link to it from the first one. To do so, click the add page button at the top of the drawing area. And when you're ready add a hyperlink from one shape to the other page, you can do so by going to the Insert ribbon, clicking on Hyperlink, and choosing which page you want to link to. You can also link to any outside resources.

Data flow pages Data flow subprocess

Sharing Your Data Flow Diagram

If you need to share your data flow diagram with colleagues, you can easily send them a link to your visual. They won't need to own SmartDraw or even create an account to see your diagram. Click the Share button on the Home ribbon, to see all your options.

Reading raw code is hard, but visuals can help you make sense of your system or app. If you need to visualize the flow of an information system or data process, create a data flow diagram with SmartDraw.

Share data flow diagram