Vertical vs Horizontal swim lanes

Walter Tran
Chief Operating Officer

LinkedIn Profile

In my travels across Australia and abroad, I found myself involved in these debates more than I would like to admit. 
"What orientation should our process maps be drawn in?" is a common question we ask ourselves when we want to capture this information across the organisation. 
The OCD person within each of us yearns to have a common standard so that everything is neat and tidy. Here are some of the things to consider if you ever find yourself at this junction.

1. It's called 'swim lanes' for a reason
As Australians, one of our proudest moments is watching our swimming greats like Dawn Fraser, Ian Thorpe, Emma McKeon and Cate Campbell compete at the Olympics where the camera pans from left to right. So, it’s the obvious reason to have process swim lanes take the same orientation. People just expect it this way. So, we think.

2. English as the standard language
Another reason for the horizontal swim lanes could be found in the fact that we also read sentences from top left to bottom right. We’ve been trained to do this so its ‘natural’. Interestingly however, there are other written languages that start from top to bottom.

3. PC and Laptop screens are orientated in landcape
The common aspect ratio of monitor screens used to be 4:3 i.e., 4 lengths wide for every 3 lengths high which meant they were wider than they were tall. In recent times the aspect ratio is even wider e.g., 16:9. This means you were more likely to fit a horizontal process map onto your screen. Side note (some people do have their monitors aligned in portrait mode, but this is still the minority within most workplaces).

1. Printing
Portrait is by far the most common (and default) orientation when it comes to printing information. Printers may be smarter and easier to use these days, but there are many of us who still struggle with having things print out in landscape. Ever try to switch orientations between portrait and landscape within the same document? It’s in the same league as trying to program the VCR (for those who can remember). Maybe its easier to just have things orientated the same way as text.

2. Not everyone can scroll sideways
Computer mice for a long time only had the ability to scroll on the vertical axis (up and down). Only in recent times can you purchase a mouse that you could push the scroll wheel left or right to do the same on the horizontal axis. Many people however still don’t use a mouse with this feature. This means that larger horizontal swim lane diagrams are a little harder to consume due to the need to fumble around with zooming and page scrolls. This is less of an issue on laptops if you know how to use the multi finger touchpad.

3. Mobile devices
Smaller form factor devices, specifically phones, are mostly used in portrait mode. Maybe it’s got to do with the way phones have evolved over time and the requirement to be able to hold it with one hand. Mobile phones have even changed the way most photos are taken these days. Check out the orientation of most pictures in Instagram as an example. 

I’ll leave the sales pitch about how we’ve approached this for another time, but who said you have to choose an orientation for everyone? 

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