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What is a Context Diagram (and How Can You Create One)?

Written by: Daleska Pedriquez

Apr 06, 2022

context diagram

So much of project management focuses on internal systems, and rightly so. It’s essential for organizations to perfect their own processes to stay competitive. However, it’s just as important to take a look at external factors that may impact your core structures. 

This is where context diagrams can help. In this article, we’ll take a look at the benefits of this useful visualization tool and see what it can do for you and your projects. 

We’ll also show how you can make your own context diagram using Venngage’s diagram maker. Our diagram templates are developed by experts and are customizable through a drag-and-drop Smart Editor, so you can easily create high-quality visuals even without diagramming experience. 


Click to jump ahead:

What is a context diagram?

A context diagram is a high-level view of a system. It’s a basic sketch meant to define an entity based on its scope, boundaries, and relation to external components like stakeholders. 

context diagram

Otherwise known as a Level 0 data flow diagram, a context diagram provides a general overview of a process, focusing on its interaction with outside elements rather than its internal sub-processes. The latter is typically reserved for more advanced data flow diagrams. 

What are the elements of a context diagram?

A context diagram comprises three key elements. 

  • Product – The project, system, or entity to be defined. It is symbolized by a circle that holds anything within its control (i.e. job roles and responsibilities, processes) inside. Circle diagrams are pretty much a standard for presenting topics as parts of a whole. 
  • External entities or agents – The people, systems, and organizations that function outside but interact with the product in some way (i.e. decision-makers, suppliers, customers). These are represented by squares or rectangles.
  • Flow lines – Represented by arrows, these depict data flowing between agents or the specific ways external entities interact with the product. The arrows are often accompanied by text to show the specific type of data being exchanged, or the action being carried out.

What are the benefits of making a context diagram?

A context diagram zeroes in on the external factors that must be considered when building a project or product’s internal architecture. 

It is most helpful during the planning phase when proponents are just starting to interpret the landscape they are working with. At this point, a context diagram can ensure that the systems developed are relevant to the project’s requirements and restrictions, and therefore able to reduce potential risks.

context diagram

Moreover, context diagrams are simpler and more straightforward compared to most complex schematics that require some technical knowledge to understand. It’s an excellent tool for sharing critical information with team members and helping them develop a better appreciation of projects.

3 Context diagram examples for different uses

A context diagram can be used in a variety of industries and for different objectives. Below, we’ll take you through some examples, including a context diagram in software engineering, product development, and business and systems analysis.

System context diagram

A system context diagram represents the scope of a technical program or application like an automatic teller system software. Take the example below. 

context diagram

A little similar to a case diagram, system context diagrams depict an entire software system as a single process, with arrows indicating the different types of data flowing between its interacting elements.

Work context diagram

A work context diagram identifies the external factors and events that must be considered in order to design a product that will fit in and support its environment. Circle diagrams can be an excellent source for presenting topics as part of a whole, but for instance, the diagram below shows the give-and-take relationship anticipated between an online community (product) and the key players (external entities) in its surroundings. 

context diagram

Business context diagram

Business analysts use context diagrams to set expectations about the tasks that are within and without an enterprise’s scope. In turn, this also helps project stakeholders thoroughly assess the resources necessary for implementation. In this way, such diagrams also serve as a systems requirements document that can formalize and guide business processes.

The following diagram shows the data flow between a computerized system for supply chain management and the sales channels it serves. More importantly, the diagram sets the range and limitations of the interacting systems by clearly identifying the tasks involved in each exchange. 

context diagram

How to make a context diagram

Follow these easy steps to create your own context diagram in no time.

Step 1: Establish the initial boundary 

Start by identifying the product or project you want to contextualize. Place this in a circle at the center of your diagram. At this point, you must also determine the roles and processes that should go inside this boundary. 

Step 2: Identify and list down all external entities or agents

As you think about external agents, list each of them down around your initial boundary. It would be ideal to place entities with similar functions close if not next to each other. 

Step 3: Determine data flows 

Go around your system diagram and for every external entity, ascertain what data, services, or processes it can expect from the main product and vice versa. Do this for each external entity until every last one has been assigned a data flow.

Step 4: Complete your context diagram 

After identifying data flows, review your context diagram and verify the accuracy of each element: Delete any external entities that have no interactions with your product. Check for and correct any misplaced entities such as external agents that are, in fact, within the project’s scope. Make sure there are no missing agents or flows.

context diagram

Helpful tips for creating an effective context diagram

  • Tap a digital design tool, like Venngage, that can help you develop a context diagram in just a few clicks. Venngage boasts an expansive library of professionally-designed templates with smart features for easy personalization.
  • You can subtly modify your diagram elements to emphasize important details or simply make your entire system illustration more appealing. With Venngage’s drag-and-drop interface, you can effortlessly change your symbols’ colors, line weights, and typefaces. 
context diagram
  • If it’s your first time making a context diagram, it may be ideal to draft it with pen and paper first. This will give you a rough reference that you can follow as you create your high-quality designs later on your computer.
  • If possible, invite key project stakeholders and industry experts to participate in your diagram generation session. The more brains there are, the more fruitful and effective the process will be. 
  • Make sure your diagram shows all the relevant entities. Thoroughly review it and if possible, have colleagues verify its accuracy before finalizing it.
  • Lastly, use plain language for your labels and descriptions. This way, you can be sure that team members and stakeholders will understand your data. 

FAQs about context diagrams

What is a context class diagram?

A context class diagram is an information system development tool used by software developers to represent the relationship between the main product and its various subsystems or components. In such a diagram, the subsystems and components are grouped according to structural and functional similarities.

What is the difference between a data flow diagram (DFD) and a context diagram? 

A context diagram is a kind of data flow diagram (Level 0, the most basic). However, it is much less complex than the more advanced types of DFDs, which go into incredible detail as they illustrate a product’s interior structure. 

What is the difference between component diagram and context diagram?

A component diagram shows the internal parts and how they connect in a system. A context diagram, on the other hand, gives a broader view, outlining how the system interacts with the outside world without diving into its internal workings. In short, one focuses on the inside, while the other looks at the big picture outside.

How can you create a context diagram in Word?

Follow these simple steps to build a context diagram on Word. Tip: Enable your grids and rulers to guide your layout. Apart from making sure everything is aligned, they can also ensure your elements’ sizes are consistent. 

  1. On a blank Word document, select “Insert” on the toolbar. A drop-down menu will appear. From there, click “Shape.” 
  2. The Shape menu will appear on the side of your screen. Choose a circle and use your cursor to place this in the middle of your page. 
  3. Double click the circle and type your product name in the middle. You can use this same command to add names or labels elsewhere inside the circle (i.e. the roles, processes, etc. that are within your product’s scope). Alternatively, you can select “Text Box” from the toolbar and insert it where needed. 
  4. To add your external entities and data flow arrows, repeat steps 1 through 3, only make sure to select the appropriate shape or figure for each element.
  5. To label data flows, select “Text Box” from the toolbar and insert them where needed.
  6. Lastly, to customize your diagram’s elements, simply double click the shape or figure you wish to modify and adjust using the options that will appear on your toolbar (i.e. “Fill,” “Line,” and “Transparency.” 
  7. Once done, click “File,” “Save as..,” enter your preferred filename, select your preferred file destination, and click “Save.” 

A context diagram is an excellent tool for defining a product or project’s scope and limitations. It’s also a great means to identify external factors and events that may have a significant impact on your core structures and processes.

Manage business systems more efficiently with context diagrams

By doing all of the above, this system diagram enables planners and managers to assess projects well enough to mitigate potential risks. Additionally, it enables stakeholders to better grasp and appreciate projects whose success depends on their support and implementation. 

Develop your own context diagram with Venngage today. Sign-up for an account (it’s free!) and gain access to our library of pre-made templates that you can easily customize for your needs.

We also invite you to upgrade to a Venngage business account to access My Brand Kit, which lets you add your company’s logo, color palette, and fonts to all your designs with a single click.

context diagram

A business account also includes the real-time collaboration feature, so you can invite members of your team to work simultaneously on a project.

About Daleska Pedriquez

Daleska is Venngage’s Marketing Manager. With a background in marketing communications and a deep interest in journalism, she aims to write about exciting topics and make them understandable for everyone.