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

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Getting Started with Data Flow Diagram Templates

To create a data flow diagram in SmartDraw, select the blank Data Flow Diagram (DFD) template from the Software Design category on the dashboard under New Document.

The template contains a basic starting point for your diagram and a SmartPanel customized with symbols for building it. Every SmartDraw template has set of tool palettes docked to the left of the work area call the SmartPanel. This SmartPanel contains all the tools, libraries, and shortcuts you'll need to build your data flow diagram.

Data flow diagram templates

Add an External Entity

Drag and drop a symbol for an external entity to begin your data flow diagram. You can find all the data flow diagram symbols you may need to the left of your drawing area in the SmartPanel. You can also search SmartDraw's symbol library for symbols.

You can continue to add other symbols from the library or you can use the yellow quick action buttons to connect to draw lines and connect to new symbols.

Drag and drop the data flow symbol for external entity

Add a Process Symbol By Drawing a Line

To add a process step in your data flow, you can use the Quick Action Controls, the yellow dots around a selected shape. These Quick Action Control buttons let you drag your mouse to draw a connected line and then choose a shape to add from a pop-up menu of options.

This menu is intelligent and will populate with the last 6 symbols you've used in your diagram, so you'll always have the right symbols at your fingertips.

You can also hold down the [CTRL] key and hit any arrow key to automatically add the most recently used shape in the direction of the arrow.

To add text, simply type while the box is selected.

Add a process step to your DFD

Use Curved Data Flow Lines to Connect Symbols

You can also connect symbols after the fact. Drag and drop all the process steps, data stores and entities you need to your page and position them where you want. You can then connect the symbols to each other using lines. Click on the Line menu at the top of the SmartPanel, to the left of your main workspace and choose either a straight or curved line.

Next, touch your cursor to the edge of one shape. You should see black connection dots appear around the shape and your cursor should look like a pencil. Now, drag your cursor towards the shape you want to connect to. Your line will be ready to connect when you see the black connection dots appear around the second shape and your cursor changes to an anchor symbol. Let go of your mouse to connect the two shapes. Repeat as necessary to connect all your shapes.

You can easily adjust the degree of curvature for any curved line using the special black adjustment handle at the center of the line. Just drag it until you're happy with the way your line looks.

Connect DFD symbols with data flow lines

Modify the Arrows on Data Flow Lines

Right-click on any line to add or modify its arrowhead. From the right-click menu choose Arrowhead and select, none, right, left or both. You can also specify a custom arrowhead style.

Modify arrows on data flows

Name the Data Flow

Describe the data flow by double-clicking any line and typing a name.

Add text to data flow lines

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 top right of your app.

You can also easily export your DFD and insert it into Microsoft Word®, PowerPoint®, Confluence, or any Google Workspace app easily.

Once your data flow diagram is ready, click on Export under the Home tab and choose Export to Office.

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 your data flow diagram
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