Remind me … what’s so great about Omnigraffle?

For many years, as the groundswell towards Mac has gathered pace, I’ve had to endure many of my colleagues scoffing at the fact that I continue to use Visio when they’ve seen the light and made the move to Omnigraffle.

I got my first Mac in more than a decade last week, so I’ve left behind all my Visio skills for the time being and am trying to ‘level up’ in Omnigraffle as quickly as possible!

But I don’t get what’s so special about it. Can someone remind me?

Making the switch to Mac has been a fascinating experience. I’ve had so little experience with OSX and Mac applications, that I really feel like a beginner. And, no. It’s not as easy and idiot proof as those of you who’ve been using Macs for a while seem to think. Sometimes, really basic tasks like trying to save a document into a particular folder, seem completely impossible to me (there is a lot of functionality hidden behind little black triangles, I’ve come to discover).

I miss knowing all the shortcuts desperately. And knowing how to diagnose problems. I have to learn entirely new patterns and ways of interacting.

I’m a beginner. And it’s really frustrating, and disempowering. It makes me feel pretty dumb.

It also makes me think that I wish that I could have this experience about once a year to REALLY bring home what the experience of using the interfaces that I design must be for very many people. It lifts the ‘Curse of Knowledge, or the The Curse of Expert Ennui as Anne Zelenka might describe it.

We know so much about making our computers work and so much about how they are designed… it’s impossible for us to forget enough to really empathise with novice users.

Which, of course, is why it’s so important to regularly, carefully and empathetically observe users of all levels of expertise and familiarity using your product. You might *think* you know what they understand, but you’re probably wrong. Design expertise is incredibly important, but it only goes so far. Regular observation of real people interacting with technology is a really important input to good design, and becoming a good designer.

Meanwhile. I’m taking any tips on how to become an expert in all things Mac. Let me have ’em.


26 thoughts on “Remind me … what’s so great about Omnigraffle?

  1. Identify the shortcuts from Windows that you most miss, and Google for the OSX equivalents. For me, Apple-Tab to switch between applications is most useful. Unlike Alt-Tab in Windows, it switches apps, not windows – so use Alt-Tab and then F10 to find the exact window you want, or just F9 to reveal all windows.

    Another problem I had when getting used to Finder was trying to use Return to open files, as in Windows – in OSX that takes you into “edit filename” mode. Want you want is Apple-CursorDown. Life-saverrrr.

  2. Actually, Chris, Alt-~ will swap windows in the current app. That makes more sense on a US keyboard than a British one, but I quickly tuned into Alt-tab to app, alt-~ to window.

    Omnigraffle: I’m afraid you’ll have to tell us what’s good about Visio, because I’ve never used it! I’m particularly liking OG’s automatic comparison-measurements that pop up when things are the same distance apart as elsewhere, and I’m finding the whole clickable-elements/HTML output useful for prototyping. I’ve generally found it very simple to express what I want in it – though I always wrestle with magnetic-elements in flowcharting in every piece of software that does that…

    As for the expert/novice thing… well, I’d never claim that computers were as easy as people make out. Most people I know who struggle with Macs do so not because they’re strict novices, but because Windows is so embedded in them. It’s one thing to design for total novices – it’s another thing to design for people fluent in a totally different language. As you say: your complaint is that you miss “knowing all the shortcuts” – you’re missing being an expert user. Designing for both kinds of novice is harder than designing for just one.

    And yeah, I still hate that black triangle spring-out dialogue in save boxes… it should just be sprung out all the time!

  3. Imagine how I felt when I had to use a Windows machine ;)

    press F9 for some excitement.

  4. Welcome to the dark side! I must say that I find it easier switching between Windows and Mac than between various flavours of international keyboard layouts. I’m in a laundrette at the moment in Ireland using a keyboard that has the @ symbol in a completely counterintuitive place. Can’t wait until I get to Spain for even more fun.

    WRT Omnigraffle, I don’t use it or Visio often enough to give an expert comparison. What I like most about Mac is search, and stability.

    What Mac did you get, btw?

  5. Thanks Tom, I’ll check Alt-tilde out when I’m back on my Mac (don’t ask). Though my keyboard is Japanese, not British, so may even be another step weirder.

  6. Learning Curve: I had to re-train when I swtiched. What I can say is that when you’re over the hump you’ll find yourself working in ‘flow’ much more often than when on a windows machine.

    File managment: Finder sucks. I -HIGHLY- recommend the app Path Finder, all the controls you want, os x usability and then some. I couldnt live without it.

    Omni v Visio. Its been years since I really worked on visio, I dont think there’s much difference. Be careful of the mac fanboy hype factor. That said, ommni -is- better. Its got its head around layers which greatly aids more complex designs. And again with the ‘flow’, I dont fight the app to get what I want as much as I remember with visio.

    So, give it one month and then hop back on a windows machine, you’ll pull your hair out, I gaurantee it (o;

  7. Once you can learn the palettes, I do like how you can easily manipulate the objects for rounded corners, shadowing, etc.

    I have to admit, though, I fell in love with Visio quite a long time ago. Building out custom templates in Visio with SVG files was easy and fun.

    I miss Visio.

  8. Ages since I used Visio, but I’d have to echo pauric and say I rarely find myself ‘wrestling’ with Graffle. It ‘feels’ nicer. Whether that’s because of the OS or the software I’m not sure. Both probably.

    Off the top of my head, here’s a few nice Graffle things:

    1. Import from OmniOutliner. Most of my diagrams begin in Outliner and eventually migrate to Graffle (I know Graffle’s got outlining capability but it’s not as powerful).

    2. The Style Brush. Useful tool for replicating styles from one shape to another. Not one of the most intuitive of icons though.

    3. Graffletopia is a splendid resource for new stencils.

    4. Inspectors > Canvas > Selection allows you to select shapes with the same style throughout your entire document.

    5. Inspectors > Properties > Action allows you you define an action for a specified object. Jumping to another canvas for example.

    6. The Master Canvas (Graffle Pro only). Good for defining document-wide stuff: guides, client info etc.

  9. I discovered a cute OS X thing this week. Once you’ve saved a document you’ll get a little icon next to the document title in the window title bar. You can drag that icon into a folder to save a copy of the document there.

  10. Hey Leisa.
    I definitely hear you on the whole novice thing, and on the “And, no. It’s not as easy and idiot proof as those of you who’ve been using Macs for a while seem to think.” This is particularly true when switching from Windows where users expect certain things.
    There are lots of nice things on the Mac that Windows doesn’t have, and vice versa. It takes a while to get use to them.
    I haven’t had a huge issue with keyboard shortcuts – most x-platform apps have similar options – but using alt to browse a menu is gone. And Mac Office messes with shortcuts a lot. Refresh in a browser is Apple-R, not F5. There’s no file browser refresh either, which can be very annoying.
    It’s good (I find it better) once you get used to it though…

  11. Oh – and on the OmniGraffle thing – I don’t get the fuss either. Handling of connectors in some instances is nicer, but there’s not a huge amount of difference generally. And power users will probably miss a lot of Visio’s power-features…

  12. There is one ESSENTIAL application for mac that changes the whole user experience dramatically for the better:


    My other recommendation is to use the hot-corners for exposé. Have a look at the system preferences / dashboard and expose to set this up.

    For me omnigraffle has two main advantages:
    1 – Stuff just looks better than visio
    2 – If you copy-past omnigraffle images into Keynote they stay vector. = small files, smooth rendering and perfect print-outs. Just try that in powerpoint…

  13. Quicksilver is undoubtedly brilliant, but it takes quite a lot of getting used to. A lot of the powerful features – proxy objects, web search sources and so on – tend not to be rapidly discovered by new users.

  14. True, but I think the basic use of quicksilver (fast application launching) is easy to grasp within minutes. Then the rest is there if you want to explore it.

  15. thanks everyone for all the tips.
    I’ve got to say, I’m a bit disappointed that the Omnigraffle fanatics haven’t surfaced… I do agree that it has a nicer ‘feel’ than Visio, and that it’s easier to create an aesthetically pleasing diagram. I do miss all the stencils I had painstakingly put together for Visio, and I’m struggling to get the connectors to work the way I want them to (I’m trying to re-create a fairly complex swim-lane document at the moment).

    I’ll be interested to wait six months and see how I feel both about the Mac and Omnigraffle :)

  16. There was one other thing I wanted to comment on. Firstly I completely agree about going back to basics and observing users. But, its also worth remembering neither visio or omni will draw the diagrams for you. Rome wasnt built in a day.

    Ideally a learning curve should only require the knowledge needed to complete the activity. In reality, the more complex the activity the more complex the tool needed to complete the work.

    Sort of like learning to play Moztart. If it was easy, everyone would do it, and nothing can fix that.

  17. hi Pauric – I hear what you’re saying and I agree. I didn’t mean to suggest that user observation could make Omnigraffle easier to use (although, perhaps it could… as you say, there is a learning curve involved and that’s to be expected for reasonably complex tasks and software).

    My point about user observation is that it’s really easy to assume *basic* knowledge – and watching myself learn to use a Mac again and having catastrophic failures on seemingly simple tasks like saving a file to a location or finding the third level of folders in my email application (both, coincidentally(?), related to very poor use of triangles to indicate ‘expand’).
    It was a note to self to try very hard not to make too many assumptions about where the base level lies, of that makes sense…

  18. Leisa:”I didn’t mean to suggest that user observation could make Omnigraffle easier to use”
    Well, there’s always room for improvement with anything. I would guess we’re not the primary target user for this app though.

    Question, how do you know you’re having “catastrophic failures” and not unavoidable bumps on the learning curve. Gotcha, aha! and grrr moments that dissipate with time, “issues” that in the wider scheme of things are a necessary part of the wholistic design.

    My point is, and I’m not countering anything said, individual quantifiable usability metrics are fine. However I feel often they are not weighted with context. All to often if feel ‘usability’ aims for a one size fits all when thats rarely achievable.

    /rant off

    take care – pauric

  19. OH MY GOD!

    Omnigraffle rocks soo much.

    I have been using prototyping tools for 4 years now in several different companies, and i have to say that Omnigraffle beats them all.

    Making a pixel fully working perfect clickable prototype to test just days after you have finished the wireframes is amazingly simple.

    The layers and master canvas, make it effortless to control sections of your wireframes. For example if the nav model changes half way through a project, there is no need to change every wireframe.

    There is a steep learning curve when you first start, but if you begin to use all the tools, then wow. You will never go back!

    I promise.

  20. (Doh – commented on the wrong post the first time. Is there a lesson here…?)

    1) Having recently made the switch myself, I think in all fairness OmniGraffle isn’t THAT great. It’s certainly not as mature a product as Visio, but they’ve taken a more user-centered approach to the application design that gives is a more “ready-to-hand” experience (to borrow from Dourish/Heidegger) once you’re accustomed to using it. Probably my favorite feature is the ability to easily drag and drop individual features of one object onto another; I also find the output is usually more aesthetically pleasing.
    2) I could say pretty much the same thing as (1) about Mac vs. Windows. It’s still just a computer, but after a while you find you’re somehow happier at the end of the day. I’m sure plenty of people could offer a few guesses as to why.

    The “OmniGraffle Shortcuts” graffle under Help goes a long way towards taking the pain away
    David Pogue’s Mac OS X: The Missing Manual is an excellent primer; just the first couple of chapters we invaluable

  21. A little late to this thread but would you describe a few problems you’ve tried to tackle with OmniGraffle but didn’t find an acceptable solution?

    As others have mentioned OmniGraffle is quite good at the stylistic stuff both in making objects look fantastic with minimal effort and cloning styles onto new objects. I’ve found the presentation mode fairly handy a few times too.

    I think the biggest thing for me is the AppleScript component. I have scripts for automatically building a site map, making an ERD out of MySQL database, or programatic ways to alter styles based on various parameters (grow this size of this object based on the number of connections). AppleScript is a strange language but it is integrated into the entire OS far better than anything Windows or Linux/BSD have to offer. (For instance I’m making heavy use of the Python->Applescript bridge…) I know Visio does some of this easily for Microsoft products (Microsoft SQL -> Diagram) but I’m not so sure how hackable it is. On the Linux side, there are number of tools for working with graphviz and dia. Actually, this is a good time to point out that OmniGraffle works wonderfully with the graphviz “.dot” format. Any script that will output “.dot” files can be used with OmniGraffle. Likewise, if you own a copy of OmniOutliner it is easy to move back and forth between the two… many a time have I turned my outline notes into a diagram.

    That said, the thing about scripting/Applescript is such a boon to geeks but I don’t know how make the experience easier for those who don’t have the time or desire to get their hands dirty. Perhaps some of this could be bundled up into Automator actions? *shrug* (By the way, the OmniGraffle mailing list is a decent resource for tips/tricks/scripts.)

  22. It’s worth noting that Omnigraffle Pro can import Visio XML files (with mixed results as far as I can tell). Also, if you have an Intel Mac and Parallels then you could run Windows and Visio on your Mac too. (And with Parallels’ ‘coherency’ mode, you get Windows windows interleaved with OS X windows.)

  23. Okay! I need help. I have moved to a MAC from Windows. I love my MAC and have moved completely to the new system and refuse to use parallels! However I am having a hard time adapting to Omnigraffle from Visio. Does anyone know of an Omnigraffle swimlane template?

  24. I’m fairly new to Mac, I spent almost twenty years working in MS/Windows. I like Mac mainly because I have had a “crash” in more than a year (total time using MacOSX).
    Why is OmniGraffle so “great”? Well, I’m not as sophisticated as many of those who have already commented but for me the biggest, most impressive feature of OmniGraffle is that I can create a flowchart from an outline I type within OmniGraffle. It’s easy, quick (enough), and simple enough to adjust all the features I need.
    I’ve used Visio, I’d prefer AutoCAD. I tried Concept Draw, it was a lot like Visio.
    As for the differences between Macs and PCs, while it is a trial to learn a different way of doing things you once thought fundamental, it is a totally better way!!! If you question that statement, how many times have you had to “hard” re-boot a PC? In over a year with my iBook I haven’t had to “hard” re-boot once. It’s stable, dependable and it “just works” :)

  25. I agree with you. Once you get past they hype and look at the interfaces Visio and Omnigraffle are much the same. I’ve even noticed some of the tips give here apply to Visio as well (Visio also has a style brush – click on a box with the style you want, DOUBLE click on the paint brush and click on all the things you want to make, say, green).

    I am a Mac user first now with PCs at work and I use Visio on my Mac via Paralells as Omnigraffle offers no extra functionality I can see and is SLOWER to use. I can whizz around Visio and put together a diagram at speed, Omnigraffle, even having used it for two large projects, is always slower and the selection method alone is reason for me not use use it (I only want to select things totally inside my selection, not partly inside).

    Omnigraffles interface is inconsistant, takes up a lot of space and contains to o many arbitary options.

    There is a huge space out there for a IA orientated Visio killer but so far no one has come close in my view.

    Stew Dean

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