How Do People Create Process Models?

Over the last 7 years, I have been collaborating with some colleagues on a number of experiments where we investigated how people create process models. In particular, we wanted to see where and how they differ and whether their personal unique “modeling style” has an impact on model quality. In this – rather long – blog post, I want to summarize what we found out and point to the different studies that we published. (To be honest, I collected this information for a Master student who wants to replicate some of these studies, but I might as well share it with others). So, here we go.

First experiment: organize your process description!

In 2010, we conducted a first structured experiment on quality of modeling outcomes. We compared how the way an informal requirements document is organized impacts the quality of the created model (modelers get a text about a process and have to create a graphical model – say in BPMN). Spoiler: a breadth-first description of the process works best.


Models were created more accurately when the process description was given in breadth-first order.

Jakob Pinggera, Stefan Zugal, Barbara Weber, Dirk Fahland, Matthias Weidlich, Jan Mendling, Hajo A. Reijers: How the Structuring of Domain Knowledge Helps Casual Process Modelers. ER 2010: 445-451

The conceptual background for this and subsequent experiments were two paper investigating the nature of modeling languages regarding how they use particular modeling concepts to structure knowledge about a process.

  • Dirk Fahland, Daniel Lübke, Jan Mendling, Hajo A. Reijers, Barbara Weber, Matthias Weidlich, Stefan Zugal: Declarative versus Imperative Process Modeling Languages: The Issue of Understandability. BMMDS/EMMSAD 2009: 353-366
  • Dirk Fahland, Jan Mendling, Hajo A. Reijers, Barbara Weber, Matthias Weidlich, Stefan Zugal: Declarative versus Imperative Process Modeling Languages: The Issue of Maintainability. Business Process Management Workshops 2009: 477-488

Visualizing how people model

In 2011, we published a paper describing a software platform for recording and analyzing modeling actions on a canvas. We also describe the visualization of modeling actions in a time-series diagram where specific phases in the modeling process (creating elements, arranging existing elements, deleting elements, thinking about the process) can be identified and highlighted as illustrated below.


In the experiments, we could observe significant differences between how different modelers approach the same modeling task – manifesting itself in remarkably distinct modeling phase diagrams.


Jakob Pinggera, Stefan Zugal, Matthias Weidlich, Dirk Fahland, Barbara Weber, Jan Mendling, Hajo A. Reijers: Tracing the Process of Process Modeling with Modeling Phase Diagrams. Business Process Management Workshops (1) 2011: 370-382

Identifying modeling styles

In 2012, we analyzed these differences between how modelers approach a modeling task further. We plotted the number of creation, deletion, and re-arranging actions on the canvas on a time-series. We binned these modeling actions into segments of 10 seconds length; each second has a particular “modeling profile” of creation, deletion, and re-arranging actions. We then clustered users based on their “modeling profiles”, i.e., typical occurrences of create/delete/move actions throughout their modeling, and identified three unique clusters of “modeling profiles”. Below is the “modeling profile” of the cluster showing many creation operations early in the modeling and few delete operations.


Jakob Pinggera, Pnina Soffer, Stefan Zugal, Barbara Weber, Matthias Weidlich, Dirk Fahland, Hajo A. Reijers, Jan Mendling: Modeling Styles in Business Process Modeling. BMMDS/EMMSAD 2012: 151-166

We then conducted a subsequent, more detailed analysis of these clusters and also investigated the modeling phase diagrams of each cluster. First, we could establish that there are statistically significant differences between the three clusters in (1) speed of adding modeling elements, (2) duration of phases of improving the model layout and elements moves in a phase of layouting, (3) time between adding model elements, thinking about the model, and adding further model elements. Altogether, we could then characterize 3 unique modeling styles from these clusters

  1.  Quick modelers who (after some initial deliberation on the process), create an almost correct model right away and only need minimal adjustments of model layout and few thinking pauses
  2. Modelers who model at a slower pace and make regular and longer layouting breaks (possibly to plan their next modeling steps)
  3. Modelers who also model at a slower pace but require less layouting than the previous group.

This analysis also gave us a first idea into which factors influence how people approach a modeling task. The central two factors are (1) the cognitive load created by the modeling tasks, largely influencing the efficiency with which the model is created, and (2) tool support for layouting, largely influencing the amount of time spent on organizing the model on the canvas.

Jakob Pinggera, Pnina Soffer, Dirk Fahland, Matthias Weidlich, Stefan Zugal, Barbara Weber, Hajo A. Reijers, Jan Mendling: Styles in business process modeling: an exploration and a model. Software and System Modeling 14(3): 1055-1080 (2015)

Modeling style vs model quality

In a second line of analysis, we investigated how the way modelers create their models impacts the quality of the resulting model. By analyzing modeling operations at a more fine-grained level and also considering the modeling elements themselves, we could compare modeling processes at a more detailed level. Below, we see visualizations of four different modelers creating the same model (visualized using the DottedChart plugin of ProM. Each line corresponds to a modeling element (node or arc), green dots show creation operations, blue dots show move operations, and red dots show delete operations.


By analyzing the location of modeling elements on the canvas, and the time between different modeling activities, we could confirm three hypotheses:

  1. Structured modeling (e.g., in clearly defined blocks) is linked to better model quality
  2. lots of movement of modeling objects is linked to lower model quality, and
  3. low modeling speed is linked to low model quality.

Jan Claes, Irene T. P. Vanderfeesten, Hajo A. Reijers, Jakob Pinggera, Matthias Weidlich, Stefan Zugal, Dirk Fahland, Barbara Weber, Jan Mendling, Geert Poels: Tying Process Model Quality to the Modeling Process: The Impact of Structuring, Movement, and Speed. BPM 2012: 33-48

The impact of structured modeling on modeling quality was analyzed further. In a further set of experiments, factors that impact the cognitive load of the modelers were analyzed. In particular, the researchers looked for factors that help to reduce the cognitive load of the model thus helping him to have more cognitive capacity to create correct models. Besides confirming and deepening the 2010 experiment (structured breadth-first organization of process knowledge improves model quality), the experiment also shows that the characteristics of the modeler impact model quality: A modeler may have a preference of structuring knowledge in a particular way. If process knowledge is presented to them fitting their preference, the individual cognitive load is lower and model quality increases. The image below shows  “aspect-oriented” modeling, where a modeler first finishes a first aspect of the model, then works on a second aspect that may involve many modeling elements created earlier.


Jan Claes, Irene T. P. Vanderfeesten, Frederik Gailly, Paul Grefen, Geert Poels: The Structured Process Modeling Theory (SPMT) a cognitive view on why and how modelers benefit from structuring the process of process modeling. Information Systems Frontiers 17(6): 1401-1425 (2015)

The following, longer journal paper summarizes several techniques for visually analyzing the process of process modeling from various angles.

Jan Claes, Irene T. P. Vanderfeesten, Jakob Pinggera, Hajo A. Reijers, Barbara Weber, Geert Poels: A visual analysis of the process of process modeling. Inf. Syst. E-Business Management 13(1): 147-190 (2015)

For the really interested, there are 2 PhD theses on the topic:


number of ways students name an activity in a process model

I am currently evaluating data of a modeling experiment conducted with a number of colleagues. In that experiment, students were given a textual description of the NFL drafting process (which NFL scouts use to pick future star players), and students had to come up with a graphical process model of that process. We had 113 students participating. Obviously, different students will create different models. We also expected students to name the activities in the process model differently. Yet, we found a variety of ways of naming an activity that strikes me.

One sentence in the process description was the following

Afterwards the scouting team attends games of the player they are interested in live in the football stadium.

For this particular activity, we received 84 different ways of naming it (see complete list at the end of this post) – in other words, 2/3 of the students derived a different formal concept from this sentence. I think these observations hint at what needs to improved in teaching modeling. And also shows where real-world problems are in aligning process models to formal or informal descriptions.
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