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LucidChart web app brings diagramming prowess, collaboration to Mac and iPad

At one point in my career, I trained business analysts in the tools and techniques of their trade. One feature of business analysis methodologies is that they use a lot of diagrams to visually represent use cases, process flows, and relationships. During those classes I talked a lot about creating and sending diagrams to others, but I never dreamed that we'd be able to collaborate on them from just about any device. That's what the LucidChart HTML5 web app brings to the picture -- amazing diagramming tools and online collaboration.

A lot of the business analysts I know have refused to switch to Apple products due to a lack of one single application on the platform -- Microsoft Visio. Sure, the application can run on a virtual machine on a Mac, but a lot of these folks tell me that they don't want to run VMs. Here's some good news for those people; LucidChart lets you import Visio documents so you can wave goodbye to that anchor around your neck, and you can start doing your work on an iPad or Mac. Can you use LucidChart on an iPhone? Yes, but it's a painful experience on such a small screen.

I had a chance to try out LucidChart both on my Mac and an iPad, and I found it to be fast, full-featured, and easy to use. You can try out the web app for free, and then there are different subscription levels. An individual account with up to 5 collaborators and 100 MB of storage is US$4.95 a month or $39.95 per year. For those who want the premium features -- Microsoft Visio .vdx file import, wireframing/iPhone mockups, and revision history -- there's a professional account that costs $9.95 a month or $99.95 per year. That account is still for one user, but unlimited collaborators can work on the document and there's a full 1 GB of storage.

Teams and workgroups can have team accounts that start at $25 per month ($249 per year) for multiple users, unlimited collaborators, and storage starting at 5 GB. The team accounts have all of the professional account features plus shared templates and images. Educators can also get free accounts during 2011.

As this is a web app, there is no need to install software. You simply point your browser to LucidChart.com and log in. The site displays a clean interface showing documents, team, community, forums, account and referrals. The documents page (below) displays all documents that you have created and stored on the system. This is also where you can create subfolders to store project documents, import Visio files, or create new documents from scratch.

Clicking or tapping the big "New Document" button displays a window showing templates for different types of categories. For instance, in the Drawings category are three different types of Venn Diagrams and in Flowcharts are templates for business, sales, and support processes. Need a powerful mind-mapping tool on your iPad? There's a Mind Map template. Creating network diagrams is a breeze with the template that is available, and TUAW readers who are busy with startups will love the org chart templates.

The Software/Web templates are quite useful. There are software/web templates, UI design templates, sample ERD and data flow templates, a site map template, and a tool for creating iPhone app mockups (see below). For those who are eloquent fans of the Unified Modeling Language (UML), there are templates for activity, sequence, class and state diagrams, as well as the ever-popular UML Use Case diagram. Are you a fan of swim lanes? Got 'em.

Just to get a feel for how easy or hard it is to use LucidChart on the Mac and iPad, I made a handful of charts and also created a mockup of a TUAW TV Live app (no, we're not actually doing one -- but it was a fun thing to try). What's very cool is that you can start a document on your Mac (or PC if you swing that way), then pick up your work on the iPad when you leave the office.

As you'd expect, the web app is very similar on both platforms. There are a few differences in terms of location of tool palettes when you're on the iPad, and of course you're navigating around the app with finger taps instead of mouse or trackpad clicks. Once you've learned how to use the app on one platform, you know how to use it on all platforms.

To share a document with others, there's a small share link at the bottom of the page on the desktop version. You can send a link to the document to your collaborators, and for others who happen to be on line, you can actually view the document and chat about it in real time. The share button is actually much more visible and easier to get to on the iPad being at the top of the screen, but there is no chat function on the tablet as far as I could see.

All in all, if you're a system analyst, developer, or anyone else who needs to easily make and edit diagrams, flow charts, and other such materials, be sure to take a look at LucidChart. The individual account is very competitive with other Apple-oriented diagramming and drawing applications. For example, the very capable OmniGraffle from OmniGroup runs $99 for the regular version ($199 for OmniGraffle Professional) and doesn't include the many collaborative features of LucidChart. The LucidChart license allows you to run the app on any of your devices; you'd need to buy a license for OmniGraffle for iPad (an additional $49) to be able to work on that device.

It's not all about costs, though. There are other tangible benefits, such as cloud storage of your documents and collaboration with others. The one negative with LucidChart is that it really does require an internet connection to be useful. Although I was able to use the app offline for a short while to make changes to drawings, it often locked up until the internet connection was re-established. However, for engineers or others who might need to work on documents in the field, LucidChart works very well with a 3G connection.

Be sure to take a look at the gallery to see some screenshots of LucidChart in action, and if you're intrigued, sign up for a free trial.

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