Visio Insights
The official blog of the Microsoft Visio product team

  • Visio Insights

    Retooling for Success


    This is the fifth topic in a series discussing the essential features that make up the Visio application.


    Essential Feature:  Drawing Tools

    Visio bills itself as a diagramming application, and Drag & Drop is the core feature that makes Visio easy to use.  However, Visio is also a pretty good drawing application and has a set of tools that can create different geometric primitives such as circles and lines.  One of the original reasons for including drawing tools in the product was to enable users to make their own shapes.  In practice, the drawing tools are just as useful for building diagrams as they are for creating new shapes.


    Historically, all the tools available in Visio have been located on the Standard toolbar, though some tools are now found underneath others.  We significantly reorganized the tools in Visio 2003 to improve usability for new users.  The tools were divided into those related to diagramming such as the Connector tool and those related to drawing such as the Line tool.  The drawing tools were placed into their own toolbar named Drawing.  This change reinforced the notion that Visio is a diagramming app first and foremost, and new users seemed to respond positively.  For those that need to do a lot of drawing with the drawing tools, there is likely a benefit to having a separate toolbar as well.



    Another change in Visio 2003 was the switching behavior for tools.  In usability studies we found that many users would toggle the tools off accidentally, so the selection behavior was changed to remove the toggle.  You must now click on the Pointer tool or another tool to deactivate the current tool.  One exception is that closing the Drawing toolbar will switch the current tool back to the Pointer if one of the drawing tools was active.






    Pointer Tool

    Standard toolbar


    General shape manipulation

    Text Tool

    Standard toolbar


    Adding & editing text

    Connector Tool

    Standard toolbar


    Drawing connectors

    Pencil Tool

    Drawing toolbar


    Drawing lines & arcs

    Freeform Tool

    Drawing toolbar


    Drawing curves

    Line Tool

    Drawing toolbar


    Drawing lines, editing geometry

    Arc Tool

    Drawing toolbar


    Drawing arcs

    Rectangle Tool

    Drawing toolbar


    Drawing rectangles

    Ellipse Tool

    Drawing toolbar


    Drawing circles and ellipses

    Connection Point Tool

    Underneath Connector Tool


    Adding connection points to shapes

    Crop Tool

    Picture toolbar


    Cropping images

    Stamp Tool

    Standard toolbar customization well


    One click placement of shapes

    Text Block Tool

    Underneath Text Tool


    Moving shape text

    Format Painter Tool

    Standard toolbar


    Copy & paste formatting between shapes


    The Visio Product Team has a long term goal to reduce the amount of tool switching required to build diagrams.  In Visio 2003 the Rotation tool was removed, and a rotation handle was added to the shape handle set.  Now you only need the Pointer tool to manipulate the orientation of shapes.  Visio 2007 adds an Insert Text Box command to the Insert menu, which allows you to add a single piece of text to the drawing without switching to the Text tool.  Also the new AutoConnect feature is intended to reduce the switching between the Pointer and Connector tools.


    These changes make drawing and diagramming in Visio more efficient, but there will always be a need for tools.  Whether you want to reposition a text block to just the right place or draw a rectangle around a group of shapes to relate them together, you will find everyday uses for the tools in Visio.  And when you decide to make your own shapes, the Drawing Tools become essential.


  • Visio Insights

    Take a Closer Look


    This is the fourth topic in a series discussing the essential features that make up the Visio application.


    Essential Feature:  Zoom

    From business processes to project schedules to organization charts to network topologies, there are many different kinds of information that people and businesses use Visio to visualize.  But all these scenarios have one thing in common:  The business information presented in these diagrams tends to be complex.  In fact, the more detailed and complicated information is, the more likely you need a tool like Visio to help organize it and present it.  When drawings become large and contain detailed information, one of the most useful features in Visio is Zoom.


    Zoom is a surprisingly under-utilized feature since a full page diagram is not readable on a typical screen.  We see many beginners struggle to create diagrams simply because they are working at full page zoom rather than enlarging the area they are focused on.  Learning how to use zoom effectively is a significant part of the transition from casual user to Visio expert.


    You can change the zoom level by several means.  Clicking on the zoom dropdown in the Standard toolbar is the most frequently chosen method.  There is a Zoom sub-menu under View.  Ctrl+Mouse Wheel also works.  But Visio experts use the keyboard shortcuts: Ctrl+Shift+Left Click and Ctrl+Shift+Right Click.  The keyboard shortcuts are quick.  You can also do Ctrl+Shift+Left Drag to define a particular region of the page to zoom into.


    Of course, once you are zoomed in, panning (scrolling the view) becomes important too.  The scrollbars obviously work here.  Mouse Wheel and Shift+Mouse Wheel work as well.  But again the most convenient method may be Ctrl+Shift+Right Drag.  Thus the Left mouse button assists with zooming and the Right mouse button assists with panning.


    There is one other helpful feature for understanding your current location in relation to the entire diagram.  The Pan & Zoom window shows a bird's eye view of the drawing page, and a red rectangle outlines the region currently shown in the drawing window.  You can click, drag or resize the rectangle to manipulate the view in the drawing window.  There is also a handy slider bar for the zoom level.  The window is accessed from the View menu.





    You can become quite proficient using Visio simply by using Zoom to enlarge your workspace.  The most obvious benefit is that text is readable.  Zoom also increases the precision of shape operations making it easy to get exactly what you want.  It makes it easier to access shape object handles because they are spread farther apart.  These differences are subtle but the result is a better diagramming experience.


  • Visio Insights

    Gluing It All Together


    This is the third topic in a series discussing the essential features that make up the Visio application.


    Essential Feature:  Connectors

    The fundamental drawing type in Visio is the flowchart - a collection of boxes connected together by lines.  When Visio was first introduced, drawing programs mostly worked with geometric primitives.  Boxes and connectors were just sets of lines, with no intelligent behavior.  If you wanted to move a box to a new location, you also had to redraw the connecting line to make it reach the box again.


    To avoid the tediousness of fixing up drawings, Visio introduced a pair of diagramming innovations: connectors and glue.  A connector is a one-dimensional shape consisting of line segments.  Each endpoint is attached to a two-dimensional shape (the box) using glue.  When the box is moved to a new location, the connector stays attached and stretches as needed to maintain the connectivity between boxes.  Visio chooses the route the connector will take between its endpoints.



    Connectors have intelligent routing behavior.  They will avoid other shapes on the page where possible.  They will even show line jumps (or line breaks) where they cross over each other.  When you do choose to override Visio, you can easily control the connector path using green handles found on the shape.


    The default connector in Visio is the Dynamic Connector, which is the shape created by the Connector Tool.  However, any 1-D shape can be used as a connector.  You can turn an ordinary line into a connector by changing the ObjType cell in the Shapesheet from 0 to 2.  You can also make your own connector master shape.  If you name your master "Dynamic Connector", Visio will use it when you draw with the Connector Tool.


    There are some other interesting behaviors when using the Connector Tool in conjunction with masters in the Shapes window.  Try this:  Select an existing shape on the page.  Then switch to the Connector Tool and drag a master shape out onto the page.  Not only is the shape added, a connector is created and glued between the existing shape and the new shape.  You can also make Visio use a different connector shape with the Connector Tool.  Switch to the Connector Tool, then select a 1-D master in the Shapes window.  Now draw a connector on the page.  Visio uses the selected master instead of the Dynamic Connector.


    The Dynamic Connector is itself a master.  It's built into Visio.  The first time you draw with the Connector Tool, Visio looks for a master named "Dynamic Connector" in the Document Stencil.  If no master is found, Visio puts a copy of its built-in Dynamic Connector master in the Document Stencil (File > Shapes > Show Document Stencil).  You can edit this master to change the appearance of all connectors in the diagram.


    There's a lot more that can be said about connectors and also glue, but those are the basics.  Connectors streamline the diagramming process by maintaining their connections with shapes and managing their routing automatically.

  • Visio Insights

    What’s in a (File)Name?


    This is the second topic in a series discussing the essential features that make up the Visio application.


    Essential Feature:  Drawings, Stencils and Templates

    In the previous post on Drag and Drop, we mentioned that Stencils were separate documents from the drawing and thus Visio has to make a local copy of a master shape when you drag one onto the page.  So what is the difference between a stencil and a drawing?  And what about templates?


    Actually, there is very little difference between these three types of Visio documents.  That's because there is really only one document type in Visio.  Drawings, stencils and templates are the same technically.  The difference is in the “view” of the document information presented to the user.


    Try this: make a simple flowchart by starting from the Basic Flowchart template.  Drag some shapes onto the drawing page from the Basic Flowchart Shapes stencil.  Save the drawing as MyDrawing.vsd and exit Visio.  Now rename the file, changing the extension from 'VSD' to 'VSS'.  Reopen the drawing in Visio.  What do you see?  You should see a stencil with just the master shapes you dragged into your drawing.  Close Visio and change the extension to 'VST'.  Now what do you see when the file is reopened?  You should see your drawing but with a generic filename like Drawing1.


    What's going on?  Every Visio document has a drawing surface - the page that you drop shapes on.  Every document also has a stencil containing masters, called the Document Stencil.  The file extension tells Visio whether to open a document showing the drawing surface or the stencil.  You can see the Document Stencil for your drawing by choosing File > Shapes > Show Document Stencil.  Templates are just like drawings.  The only difference is that Visio will open a template as a copy of the original document by default.  This explains the change in filename.


    Another part of a Visio document is the workspace information.  Whenever you save a drawing, Visio records the names of the stencils that were opened with your drawing.  These stencil documents are automatically reopened the next time your file is reopened.


    Those of you who are familiar with Visio's file format history know that there are now two sets of Visio file extensions.  VSD, VSS and VST are the drawing, stencil and template extensions for Visio's binary document format.  There is a companion set of VDX, VSX and VTX extensions for Visio's XML document format.  The XML document format is a full fidelity peer of the binary format that was introduced in Visio 2002.  The XML formats offer an under the hood view of the contents of a Visio document.  They allow developers to write programs that build new drawings from scratch or read the contents of a drawing – all without having to launch the Visio application.


    Try saving out a drawing as XML and then opening the file in a text editor.  You can rename the file to give it a .XML extension and view it in Internet Explorer too.  There is a lot of information, but if you dig around you'll find the Masters collection that makes up the Document Stencil and the Pages collection that makes up the drawing.  You may even find the workspace information.


  • Visio Insights

    Drag, Drop, Done


    We're going to kick off the Visio Insights blog with a series on the essential features that make Visio the popular diagramming application it is today.  In each topic, we'll cover the basics from a user's perspective and then dive more deeply into the technical details.


    Essential Feature:  Drag and Drop

    Fifteen years ago a new diagramming product hit the marketplace with a revolutionary way to draw.  Rather than construct drawings from geometric primitives such as lines and arcs, Visio offered the ability to drag and drop pre-built shapes.  One of the early tag-lines for Visio was Drag, Drop, Done.  Making diagrams in Visio is more a matter of assembling than drawing, and this mechanism made diagramming approachable for many people.


    So how does drag and drop really work?


    The pre-built shapes are called Masters, often referred to as Master shapes.  The masters are organized into documents called Stencils.  The stencils are displayed on the left side of the drawing workspace inside the Shapes window.  To add a shape to the drawing, you drag one of the masters from a stencil to the drawing page.


    Behind the scenes Visio does a lot of work to place that shape on the page.  A stencil is a separate document from the drawing, so Visio first must copy the master from the stencil to the drawing document.  (This operation is generally not visible to the user.  If you want to see the masters in the drawing document, go to File > Shapes > Show Document Stencil.)  Then Visio creates an instance of the master shape and places it on the drawing page.


    If you drag the same master shape out from the stencil again, Visio checks to see if there is already a copy of the master in the drawing document.  If the master is already present, Visio skips the copy operation and proceeds to create another shape instance to place on the drawing page.  Visio checks a property on the master called the UniqueID to determine if two masters are alike.  Whenever you edit a master, the UniqueID changes.  Thus it is possible for two masters to have the same name, but Visio will know that the masters are different by their UniqueIDs.


    UniqueID lets Visio distinguish between two masters with the same name, but users may have more difficulty telling them apart.  To avoid that problem, Visio forces the name of each master within a document to be unique.  When you add a different master by the same name to a document, Visio automatically renames the incoming master by appending a decimal point and a number such as Person.1 .  There may be a scenario where you want Visio to interpret masters with the same name as being identical, so there is a property on the master that you can set to “Match master by name on drop”.


    Why go through all these steps to drop a shape on the page?  It ensures that Visio documents are always portable.  There are no external references to masters in a Visio document, so you can pass documents around and not worry about missing information.  Master shapes are a powerful concept, and we'll have more to say about them in a future post.



  • Visio Insights



    Welcome to the Visio Insights web log, authored by members of the Visio Product Team.  Our goal is to give you some insights into how Visio works, how you can best use Visio to accomplish your tasks and how others are using Visio in their businesses.


    You can expect to find topics covering a wide variety of Visio functionality.  We'll post information for End Users, Shape Designers and Developers, and you can view archived posts according to these categories.


    We want this blog to be a two-way dialogue between the user community and the product team, so your comments are strongly encouraged.  Also you can send us suggestions for future topics by clicking on the Contact link.


    Visio Ecosystem

    This blog is by no means the only source of information about Visio, so let's start by highlighting some of the current resources out there.  We don't want to reinvent the wheel here.  Our goal is to give you insights.


    For end users, there is a wealth information and training on Office Online.  You can find lots of help about basic tasks, tips & tricks, tutorials and online courses.


    For shape designers and developers, MSDN offers a comprehensive set of documentation, samples and tools to assist you.  In particular you can download the Visio SDK, which is essential  for developing on the Visio platform.


    There is an active community that participates in the Visio Newsgroups as well.  This is a great place to ask questions about specific issues you have.  This blog will address some of the frequently asked questions from the newsgroups.


    For those that need direct assistance, Microsoft Product Support is available to help.  Please utilize this resource to get your problems resolved.  We are not able to respond to specific problems through this blog.  The PSS team is highly trained and best equipped to serve you.  IT Professionals may also be interested in the deployment and support resources on Microsoft TechNet.


    Finally, we're not the only blog on the block.  Here are some blogs authored by Microsoft employees or affiliates:


    Eric Rockey - Visio 2007 features

    Bill Morein - Data visualization with Visio

    Chris Castillo - Visio solutions development

    Mai-lan Thomsen Bukovec - General Visio blog (inactive)

    Visio MVPs - General Visio blog

    VisioJ - Japanese language Visio blog


    Of course, that is just a small part of the overall Visio community.  There are many Microsoft Certified Partners out there who offer their solutions, services and expertise.  There are Visio champions in corporations around the world who evangelize Visio to their teams.  There are also a number of enthusiasts out there who delight in helping people utilize Visio. 


    Visio is a popular application with a large and growing base of users.  The community is robust and continues to expand.  Now is a great time to increase the level of communication between the product team and the user community.  We hope you will participate.


    Mark Nelson

    Visio Product Team

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