Is there a product (FrameMaker) expert here?

February 19th, 2014 | Posted by The Robocolum(n) in Adobe FrameMaker

Later this month I have my seven year anniversary at my current job. Back then I was an Adobe FrameMaker novice. I’d never used it, but was aware of what it could do. What followed was an exercise in how each and every one of us can become (I choose my words carefully here) proficient in any application if we turn our minds to it. This post focuses on how I learnt to become proficient in Adobe FrameMaker, but it could easily apply to any other tool.

Back in 2007 we used a combination of RoboHelp and FrameMaker for different purposes. It would be fair to say that no one had much of an idea of how to use FrameMaker effectively. In fact only one of us had received any formal training on the product. That was several years previously, on a much older version and they’d harder used the product since. In short the team’s FrameMaker knowledge was negligible.

Probably because of this, FrameMaker was looked upon in a slightly negative light. For anyone used to using applications like Word or RoboHelp, the complexity of FrameMaker could be frustrating. We had a need to produce content, but we found ourselves having to setup templates before we could do this. In short, we had to invest time to get the best from it. Trouble was, there wasn’t the will to do this from up above because they didn’t understand why it was so complicated.

The end result was that we continued to use the templates that were developed years previously. They largely met our needs if you disregard the many advantages FrameMaker has over applications like Word. If we found an instance where they didn’t meet our needs, we fudged it so it did. We got by, but as we had little knowledge of what we were doing, we implemented poor solutions to our issues.

Over time the Technical Writers migrated content from FrameMaker to RoboHelp. We found ourselves using FrameMaker less and less, but our collective FrameMaker knowledge bugged me. I made it my mission to understand what the product could give us. I attended webinars, read books and scoured online articles in an effort to do just that. Often this meant doing this outside of work, if those around me did not see this as a priority. I didn’t mind, as I knew it would come in useful.

My first real win was a few of years ago. Our Technical Trainers produce guides to give delegates on their courses. They are fairly hefty documents output to PDF from FrameMaker books. Each course had its own FrameMaker book containing the files for each of the course modules. It worked well except that some modules were shared between the courses. For example, module B in course 1 was also part of course 2 and 3. Just to add an extra level of complexity, in course 2 it might be module D and in course 3 it might be module F.

All was alright until you needed to update the module content. Not only did you have to update the content in three places, you had to manually change all references to the course version and module location wherever it existed in the guide. Oh and if a module was ever renamed, they had to manually rename it in every instance of the guide where it was used. I can still hear the steam coming out of our Trainer’s ears even now. It was a major pain.

I knew there was a better way. I went away, researched the issue and created a solution. It involved setting up one of the guides to use the existing FrameMaker variable functionality available out of the box. I also demonstrated how easy it was to create new variables that our Trainers could add to the content. The result was a collection of modules (files) updated in a central location. To compile a guide, these files were copied into a book, the book updated and all references, page numbering, etc. automatically changed. Viola! A happy user base.

Roll the clock forward and I had the opportunity to spend time compiling a User Guide for our team. Designed to compliment our Style Guide, it outlines how we setup and use the various applications to ensure our style is met. It is a fairly hefty document, but if something should happen to us or certain key individuals, someone else should be able to pick up the guide and run with it.

FrameMaker was my application of choice. Why? Well some of the content was already in a FrameMaker book. Apart from that, with a document of over 300 pages the thought of using Word filled me with dread. I could have used RoboHelp, but the final deliverable was a PDF. Yes I could have created a PDF from RoboHelp, but as I had access to FrameMaker it made sense to use it.

For the first time since I joined the company I set about analysing the existing FrameMaker template. I questioned why we used certain styles, created new table styles, setup character styles, amended cross reference formats, added content to reference pages, defined the look of any TOC and Index. In short I stripped everything back to the bare bones and created exactly what we needed.

Some may assume this took a long time. I’d be lying if I said it took no time at all, but it did not take as long as you may think. I just wish we’d done it sooner. Having defined and renamed the styles so that we all know what they do – now there’s a novel idea – authouring is so much quicker. Having setup content to be reused, it can be added with a couple of clicks rather that the error prone method of cutting and pasting. In short I reduced the chances of error, made FrameMaker an easier product to use and speeded the delivery of the deliverable.

Does this make me a FrameMaker expert? Some here think so, but I’d disagree. I may have taken it upon myself to become the de facto person to come to in the company with FrameMaker queries, but that does not presume I know all the answers. Quite often I admit I’m stumped but not defeated. I do the research, define the options and only then deliver the best solution.

What this tale demonstrates is how easy it is to fall into the trap of assuming that you can use a product out of the box. You normally can, but in order to get a better return on your investment, you must spend time strategising its use. FrameMaker strength is its ability to define what Jeff Coatsworth calls “building blocks” of content. These chunks of reusable content lend themselves perfectly to large scale deliverables. Throw in the style options for things like text and tables, and you have a huge degree of control over how your content can look.

For some, having this level of control is scary. I believe that this, together with a lack of understanding of what it could do, is what led us to use FrameMaker as you would Microsoft Word. Microsoft Word it most definitely is not. Hopefully by investing time to understand some of its functionality I have made others sit up and take notice of what FrameMaker offers.

Oh and I haven’t even touched on structured FrameMaker yet!

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  • Jeff Coatsworth

    Viola? I think violins & cellos too!!

    • Colum McAndrew

      Doh! Can you guess that I failed most of my French spelling tests at school.

  • Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Inspiring story. Thanks, Colum. As you say, we have to invest some time to learn what a software tool (FrameMaker or any other) can do and to strategize the best ways to use it. When I started using FrameMaker, it intimidated me. Gradually, I got a sense of how it “thought” and all the things it could do that I had never imagined. I’m grateful to the colleagues who showed me certain features that I wouldn’t have known to explore—people like you who had figured it out and took the time to share.

    • Colum McAndrew

      Thanks Marcia. FrameMaker was described to me as the Rolls Royce of authoring tools. Trouble was back then I felt like someone behind the wheel who was more used to driving a 1.1 liter Ford. As you say you sometimes have to get into the mind of how a tool works to truly understand how to get the most from it.

      • Marcia Riefer Johnston

        I like your Rolls Royce–Ford analogy, Colum.

  • Christian Breiholz

    Colum, again another great article! I can really understand how you must have felt. Just recently we shifted from RoboHelp to FrameMaker. I am still amazed about all the possibilities! But especially in the beginning it is almost overwhelming. Thanks for sharing your experience!

    • Colum McAndrew

      Thanks Christian. If you have time, maybe you’d like to share your experiences?

      • Christian Breiholz

        Hi Colum. Sure any time, just let me know when!

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