When Microsoft first purchased Visio in 2000, it was a common diagramming tool for drawing flowcharts, floor plans, org charts, mind maps, and network diagrams by dragging shapes onto a canvas and creating connections between them.
Bundling it with Visual Studio and with add-ons that can automatically discover network topologies to create those network diagrams (or connect to other data sources that contain metadata) made it a popular tool for IT administrators and architects. The fact that it was always a separate purchase rather than included in the standard Office suite – where Word and PowerPoint had basic diagramming features – reinforced the view that it was more of a specialist tool.
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But almost everyone needs to draw diagrams from time to time, especially to explain or design processes.
Visio as an online service
Like with Projectby making Visio an online service, Microsoft could create a simpler version of the software that would be useful to more people on more platforms (for example, there was never a Mac version of the Visio desktop software), while gradually adding options like network mapping and Universal Modeling Language support that made it so popular with more advanced users – but still keep the desktop software for those who need the full range of features.
The online version of Visio has hundreds of shapes and dozens of templates for block diagrams, business matrices, Venn diagrams, cycle diagrams, flowcharts, org charts, network diagrams, pyramid diagrams, and process diagrams, plus more business-specific diagrams such as infographics, roadmaps, and visual timelines.
This includes popular business frameworks such as 5 whys, the 4 Ps of marketing, PESTLE analysis, and other specific ways to represent information visually that now you don’t have to recreate every time.
You can also create your own diagrams of the different shapes, with smart guidelines to help you align them on the page, then drag connectors from one shape to another.
Charts are automatically saved to OneDrive in the Documents folder by default, but you can move them individually and export them as an image, PDF, or HTML code to embed the chart on a web page). If you have access to the desktop version of Visio, you can send the diagram from the web app just like opening a document in any other Office app.
And because it’s web-based with APIs, you can use Visio in Microsoft Teams so people can collaborate on diagrams. If you were to draw the diagram in Word or PowerPoint, you’d only be sharing a static image, not something colleagues can make changes to — and you’d have to cut or save it first. You can combine Visio diagrams with Power BI reports in Teams to discuss how well processes are working and where they might need improvement.
To implement a process, you can even take your Visio diagram, open it in Power Automate, and connect the different services and data sources to deploy it as an automation flow. If you have a data source, you can use Visio to automatically convert it into a diagram that you can then automate.
Visio also works as an add-in in Excel, so if you have a list of employees in a spreadsheet, you can turn it into an org chart, which you can then open in the full Visio web app to work on with more tools, and get still get the updated chart back in excel.
Free for some
Using Visio as an add-on in Office never required a Visio license, and you could always add Visio as a tab in Teams, but editing a diagram required a Visio Plan 1 or Plan 2 subscription . Last year, Microsoft added a basic version of the Visio web app to Microsoft 365, making it available to anyone with an Office 365 or Microsoft 365 commercial subscription without an additional license.
That doesn’t include small and medium business subscriptions like Business Basic and Business Standard, or frontline worker subscriptions like F1: you must have one of Microsoft 365 Business Basic, Microsoft 365 Business Standard, Microsoft 365 Business Premium, Microsoft 365 Apps for Business, Office 365 E1, Office 365 E3, Office 365 E5, Office 365 F3, Microsoft 365 F3, Microsoft 365 E3, Microsoft 365 E5, Microsoft 365 Apps for enterprise, Office 365 A1, Office 365 A3, Office 365 A5, Microsoft 365 A1, Microsoft 365 A3 or Microsoft 365 A5.
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There is also no personal version of Visio, even though there are templates like Home Network that would of course be useful for the home. But Microsoft also still offers Visio Plan 1 and Plan 2 plans, which give you additional diagram styles for multipurpose flowcharts and swimlane diagrams, shapes for network equipment and cloud services, and support for UML 2.5.
There aren’t many extra options in Plan 1 over what you can do by just having Microsoft 365. But Subscription 2 has a range of more powerful features, such as creating a multi-shape stencil that you can reuse, using rules to validate diagrams (and fixing anything that doesn’t follow the rules, such as not connecting more devices to a router than there are ports), model how a process works using a formal specification, or generate diagrams from data in Excel, Exchange, or Azure Active Directory .
It also has more visual effects, such as adding shadows and bevels to or grouping objects, as well as layouts for Gantt and PERT charts, ITIL and Six Sigma charts, maps, floor plans, mind maps, wireframes that you can use to design apps and websites and more advanced network layout options and shapes.
If you want to use a Visio diagram in Word or PowerPoint, you still need to save it as an image instead of being able to copy it as a layout that you can continue to edit: Visio Plan 2 lets you export diagrams and shapes to Word and PowerPoint, and it’s what you need if you want to include Visio diagrams in Power Automate to create workflows from them.
This is the closest thing to the desktop version of Visio: it’s also the one you need if you have .VSD files you created in desktop Visio that you want to open and edit online. If there are features you need that aren’t already in Visio’s web version, Plan 2 comes with the desktop Visio app so you can always fall back on it.
For most business users, the free version of Visio included with Microsoft 365 is a step beyond what you can already do in Office, but these powerful integrations aren’t there.