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Book review: Microsoft Visio 2010: Business Process Diagramming and Validation

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Scott Helmers
Visio enthusiast, teacher, and MVP. Co-inventor of TaskMap: process mapping for the rest of us. Avid cyclist. Father of two daughters.
David Parker’s latest book, Microsoft Visio 2010: Business Process Diagramming and Validation, will give you the tools to turn flowcharts and other business diagrams into valuable, data-driven corporate assets. Armed with the knowledge you’ll gain from this detailed look behind the scenes of Visio 2010, you’ll be able to validate drawings in totally new ways.

book cover
After digesting the text and code samples in this book, you will be able to build a workflow diagram, or a network map, or even an office layout that is self-checking to a very significant degree. For example, you’ll be able to verify the integrity of the connections in the drawing and then confirm that the diagram meets any other logical or semantic rules required by your organization.

Parker describes and provides programming examples for all of the relevant aspects of both the Visio object model and the ShapeSheet, the combination of which give Visio its unique qualities and power. Although Parker’s focus is on business process diagrams as the title of the book suggests, you will be able to use his detailed knowledge -- knowledge that clearly comes from first-hand research and programming, by the way -- to build validation rule sets for any type of Visio diagram.

The target audience for this book is not casual Visio users, by the way. The focus is much more about writing code to take advantage of Visio 2010’s validation rules than merely explaining how to use them. In fact, programmers are likely to cheer when they open this book because it is rife with code snippets and multi-page subroutines, culminating in a complete example for validating data flow model diagrams.

As an added bonus, Parker has written a very valuable Visio add-in he calls the Rules Tool that is available for download (http://www.visiorules.com). While Microsoft provided an extremely flexible facility that can be programmed to validate drawings in dozens of ways, they didn’t provide a convenient user interface to create, view and edit rules. Parker fills that very significant gap with the Rules Tool.

The progression of chapters is logical and well thought out. After introducing business process diagramming and some of Visio 2010’s related features, Parker leads the reader through the Visio object model using a series of short, clear VBA program modules to illustrate his points. Next, he tackles those parts of the Visio ShapeSheet that are relevant for business rules, once again illustrating everything with code samples. After that, he delves into the application programming interface for validation rules.

In the middle chapters, Parker walks us through the creation and use of his Rules Tools utility. If you’re a hardcore programmer, you’ll love the pages and pages of C# code that he lays out, nearly all of which you can reuse for a variety of purposes. If you’re not an experienced programmer, don’t worry, all of the code is just for illustration: you can always download the Rules Tool and use it without needing to know anything about C#.

The final chapter is a “worked example” as Parker calls it – a soup-to-nuts exposition that starts with a description of data flow modeling, demonstrates how to customize master shapes in a stencil, and works through the creation of validation logic using the Rules Tool. Parker continues by showing you how to package your custom shapes and validation rules into a Visio template, and ends by using Visual Studio 2010 to create an installation package for your template.

In addition to the material on business process and validation, and because of Parker’s detailed knowledge of Visio, he illuminates some of Visio’s innermost secrets as he is teaching us about validation rules. Two examples: He unravels the mystery of Visio’s arcane template file names in Chapter 8 and he explains how to edit stencil masters in Chapter 9.

I have a few criticisms:
Only a few of the many dozens of figures include figure numbers and captions, which means that there is not a Table of Figures to refer to when trying to find a particular illustration later. Figure numbers and captions would add value when using the book for reference.
The print quality of some of the figures could be sharper. This is especially true when there is insufficient contrast between the text color and background color as is the case for shapesheet screenshots.
A few of the images are too small or have insufficient contrast for the details to be legible. The picture on page 12 is a good example. This figure would also benefit from the addition of several callouts to illustrate key points made in the preceding text, specifically to show where the containers and the callouts are in the figure. (The locations of these objects will be obvious to some readers, but others will be better served by calling attention to them.)
On page 45, a reader not familiar with Visio internals would be better served by a fuller explanation of the differences between Name and NameU.
In summary, this is an excellent reference work on one of the most significant new features in Visio 2010 Premium edition. Be prepared to work as you read this book because it includes a remarkable amount of detail. However, your purchase of the book will be repaid threefold: you get the book itself; you get an incredible library of reusable code; and you get the Rules Tool!

Parker's book is available many places including from the publisher, at Amazon and in bookstores.

By the way, if you want a book with the same attention to detail and that focuses on one of the most important topics in Visio 2007 Professional edition, check out Parker’s first book, Visualizing Information with Microsoft Office Visio 2007: Smart Diagrams for Business Users. The same data visualization features still exist in Visio 2010 Professional and Premium, so the content is still relevant.

Full disclosure: David Parker is a long-time Visio MVP and I have met him several times at MVP events.
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