Tree Diagram Tools: Tips and App Reviews


Microsoft Visio Logo 600x251Visio, for those who haven't come across it, is a vector-based diagramming tool. It has it's roots in flow charts and IT design work. It has a steep learning curve, due to the wide range of capability and it will requires some work to set up template shapes though...


  • Powerful, flexible and pretty much forces you to use re-useable templates and shapes
  • Bucket-loads of power and sophistication under the bonnet, especially with the (expensive) Pro version
  • Good chance there's already expertise in your business in Visio


  • Expensive
  • You will need to set up some template shapes
  • Steep learning curve compared with many alternatives
  • Connector routing can make some untidy and infuriating decisions, and then revert when you fix them
  • Visio started as a non-Microsoft product and it still shows, as the product still doesn't obey some of the design principles other Office apps follow, making it unintuitive at times
  • Windows only

How to get it

You can buy it from here. Just a side note, Microsoft don't make it easy. Looking for this MS's paid-for adwords advert takes you to the 365 purchase page, which does not include Visio and gives not indication of where to find it. I have also had issues with being fired between different MS regions when having trial installation problems with Visio, never successfully resolved. Caveat emptor!

Microsoft Office - Microsoft Word or Powerpoint

Microsoft Office 2016 Logo

It's not generally well known, but Word and Powerpoint do have a number of Visio-like properties for their drawing objects, specifically snap points on shapes and connectors. This means that as you drag your boxes around on the page the connectors follow them - essential for tidying and editing complex trees. Head over to the Insert menu on either app and you can drop shapes and connectors onto the page. It's pretty limited compared with Visio or OmniGraffle, but there's a very shallow learning curve and you can be confident that pretty much everyone in a corporate environment can open and edit the files.


  • Pretty much universally available - in companies at least
  • Very shallow learning curve
  • Cross-platform


  • Serious limitations for bigger trees, e.g. page size and fitting, lack of layers etc.
  • Rapidly run out of page space
  • No custom shapes, the best you can do is Group and Duplicate
  • Printing can become very buggy for diagrams created this way


excel_icon_thumb800Excel isn't the obvious choice for tree diagrams, and for most purposes it's a real chore to use. There is one special case where it does work very well - massive tree diagrams. These can take up a lot of space. Here's how Excel can help squeeze them onto one page. Be warned though, it's not a fast method...

How to fit complex KPI Trees on one page using Excel

Although people generally like brightly coloured diagrams, the most space-efficient method is a wire tree diagram like this one...

KPI Tree - Customer Experience

This style, championed by Jon Moon in ‘How to Make an Impact’, often takes 5-10 times fewer pages than the same data represented in an ‘organisation chart’ style KPI Tree. The example wire tree was done entirely within Excel, mostly using the ‘Borders’ function. An additional benefit of this approach is that you can add lots of supporting data to each KPI in cells off to the right of the tree. You can download a wire tree template here Wire Tree Excel Template

Mac/OSX Tree Diagram Tools


Omnigraffle my favourite of all tree diagram toolsAs a Mac user this is one of my personal favourites. When I switched from Windows to OSX, after a brief period of mourning the fact that Visio wasn't available for the Mac, I bit the bullet and bought Omnigraffle (price is a definite negative) and haven't looked back. It can do much of what Visio can do, but has a heap of very intuitive vector drawing capability. If fact it's the package I used to create most of the vector illustrations in my book KPI Checklists. It's brilliantly flexible and is supported on IOS too. It has a steep learning curve, due to the wide range of capability and it will requires some work to set up template shapes though...


  • Powerful and flexible. Pretty much no limits on what you can do.
  • Good 'fit to page' capabilities
  • Slick (if expensive) iPhone and iPad companion apps
  • Thriving community of Stencil designers
  • You can import/export to Visio, but thing often get mangled


  • Expensive
  • You will need to set up some template shapes
  • Steep learning curve compared with many alternatives
  • Mac and IOS only

How to get it

You can buy OmniGraffle from the Apple App Store or direct from Omni.


Mind maps look like they should be useful for tree diagrams, but I've found that not to be the case. Typical issues I've had are:

  • Centre-Weighted structure. My KPI trees will often link to four or five strategic objectives. May mind mapping products are designed for one central item
  • Cross-linking. Mind map products sometimes support cross-linking, but often do so with different link formats.
  • Zoning. I like to zone my levels on a KPI Tree. Many tools make this a chore.

I'm not saying they won't work for you, but I've tried many of them and come away unimpressed. However, if it's deployed across your company already, then it may be worth using the tool to-hand.


So you are probably looking for a 'verdict' here. As a consultant, it's pencil, paper and posits that are the first weapon of choice when building a KPI tree with a group. When it comes to 'write up' , as an Apple user, it's OmniGraffle, on my MacBook Pro, that I keep coming back to. If I used a PC I would probably go for Visio with a decent custom set of stencils and shapes. Your choice may well be determined by the tools you already have on your PC. If so, then I hope this has given you some ideas on how you can use them [Office in particular] in ways that many not be immediately obvious.

I hope this helps, let me know in the comments if you think there are any others that should be here!