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Adobe FrameMaker 11 Review (Structured)

Two reviews are available. Depending on your use of FrameMaker one or the other may be of more use. IF you are planning to work with Structured content I'd suggest you read the Unstructured Review anyway. There is a bunch of content in there about shortcuts, menus, the interface, and more. That generally also applies to the Structured interface as well, so a review of both may be helpful. The first screen or two is the same (or pretty close) for both reviews, but the core of the current doc changes when you get to the first image under the Initial reaction to the interface section.

In a nutshell: Lots of enhancements and new features for structured users. Depending on how you use FrameMaker there are feature and functional changes that change the way you work (sometimes dramatically, and often for the best!). In this review I examine the tool as a long time user of the product (since 1992), as an active creator of content (both structured and traditional), and as a developer who works with legacy file conversion issues, planning of information, and customizing output to meet client needs.

My review will largely be focused on the way that DITA is implemented. Why? Because that seems to be where more and more people are going with structure. Ther eis support for S1000D in here, and for customized DTD or Schema content, but the ideas also are the same. Working with structure is working with structure. That's all good news. Once you get to know one system the others are similar in general workflow as a writer. However, for both S1000D and for DITA there is far more "out of the box" support from Adobe.

FrameMaker has a strong legacy, a solid presence right now, and a lot of potential for the future. To that end, I’ll review the product based on my experiences. Please, do take the time to read this and reply to me by email or in person with your wish list for a long and healthy future of the product.

This is a pretty big upgrade and means that I can’t do all of FrameMaker 11 justice in a single review AND explore all the new features, but I’ll touch on many. Most of my focus will be on the overall interface and ease of use.

I suggest you download a copy and work with it. See how Adobe continues to breathe life back into this flagship product in the technical communication space. It’s also available as part of the Technical Communications Suite, making it (wait for it) a sweet deal (sorry...). For a reasonable price you get a bunch of tools (my personal favourite, outside of FrameMaker of course, has to be Captivate). Read more about the full suite elsewhere, but for now, I hope you find this review honest, light, and informative.

Initial reaction to the interface

Having worked with the previous 10+ versions (from 3 onwards, plus assorted ‘dot’ releases including the original FrameBuilder and FrameMaker+SGML versions) I’ve seen many interface changes along the way. Some have been minor, some pretty major. The current interface is both familiar enough to use every day, and subtly unique enough that I perform the odd double take. For lack of a better word, the interface feels ‘tighter’ than the previous release. Things are a bit more compact and seem to be cleaner.

The current appearance is largely familiar to authors who work with structure. It has a document displayed, and a structure view to detail what the elements are.

However, there is now a new view that exposes the XML code for those who need to use it. A big deal? Maybe. I find that I really like this view. I don't use it all the time, but when I need to dive in and tweak a setting or value, it's really quick and easy to do. Sure, in previous versions you could use the View menu and switch to Notepad, but really... Who wants to edit XML in Notepad? There are other (and powerful) XML tools out there, but now instead of having to look at code in Notepad or some other tool outside of FrameMaker, I get a better and internal view. After all, who wants to open up code and see this:

when you can view it in FrameMaker 11 and see THIS:

Of course you need to know how to toggle the view. You have to decide which view is the best one. The answer is "it depends". Adobe provides three that you can use. The first is an XML View, the second an Author View, and the last a WYSIWYG view. To switch between them click any one of the three view icons, located near the top mid/right of your screen.


The more I work with just writing content the more I like the Author view. It basically provides content in one long scrolling window rather than a "page layout" format with the headers and footers. When I am writing or reviewing I like to see the content, not the layout. Nice.

All three views have unique reasons to for you to use them. Find your own preferences and stick with them. And, speaking of preferences, if you ARE in the code view you can configure the way that it looks. Just go to Edit > Preferences and choose XML.

Workspaces

The default workspaces are good, but I find any defaults generally need tweaking. I do like that the default for Structured Authoring and XML are merged into one. They really are the same idea, so it makes sense to combine them together.


I’m high maintenance on the way I work with my software. Enough so that I don’t even like the way that the defaults work when they are good. For example, in the XML/Structured workspace the Attributes are in the foreground by default instead of the Element Catalog (which I use WAY more often). So that's another one I changed for myself.

In the following images you can see the default author view in the background. The Structure View is tough to see, and the Attributes take up a lot of real estate on screen. By reworking the interface to what is shown in the foreground I quickly end up with a view that I want rather than the defaults provided. I can then save the workspace and use FrameMaker the way I want to.


So, what is the final verdict on the interface? It’s clean, crisp, and uses Workspaces that I don’t actually use much or like. However, I still love the interface. Why? Because I can create my own and this is what I do.

I have a few tweaked and tuned workspaces. I have my own for DITA Author and another for DITA Review. This means the software does what I want, not what a developer decided. This is the ideal as far as I’m concerned. So, for the record, I’m a fan of the Workspace function, but do set things up for yourself and move beyond the defaults provided.


Lastly, I'll point out that the option to assign specific menu combinations to a given workspace also exist. This means you can tweak the menu options to show or hide options based on a workspace. Imagine having a dedicated workspace for images in which the Table menu is not visible. Or a workspace in which some of the options in the Structured menu are hidden. On a larger implementation of FrameMaker this means you can control the menu items. While it’s not a simple process, it is repeatable, and based on files that can be transferred between computers. A single administrator could therefore configure a FrameMaker installation and apply the standard settings across an organization. While this feature isn’t something that I’ll personally use, I can see where some clients may really take advantage of the option to customize workspaces and menus based on the job at hand.

Preferences

For years I've gone to File Preferences > whatever. This then leads to many options and most are set once. It was a bit of a headache to set it up as I would go back and forth on options. Now, I go to Edit Preferences. You may be thinking "wow, they changed a menu, big whoop...", but the menu change is not the end of this update.

There are a lot of great things in the new setup. For starters, we have multiple preferences in a single dialog. This is faster to work with. We also have a lot of good stuff in there, but you can explore it on your own. To do so, remember to choose Edit Preferences.


Smart Insert

I've been tooling around in shortcuts and inserting structured elements for years. It's been a matter of tweaking the EDD, or using Ctrl+1 to insert THIS element, then pressing Enter twice to get to THAT element. Now, with the Smart Insert I'm seeing something I wanted, but never vocalized before. Following this image are some notes that reference what you are looking at.

In there I started with a <step> and it has a single <cmd> in it. Then I press Ctrl+1 (same shortcut as always for inserting a new element). After a pause (if it's the first time you do this it feels like it has some lag, but after that it's quick) I get a popup for insert element. Navigating that I select <choices> and then into <choice> I get the option for a <p> element. When I press Enter this is added for me. The full structure, as I need it, in one shot. Very nice.

Conclusion

Okay, enough of the yapping. What’s my conclusion on the structured product? Well, the changes are interesting. I like a lot of them. Som are minor and may not jump out as a huge leap forward. However, if nothing other than the XML view was new it would STILL be a pretty big deal. From a writing standpoint though there is enough taht I think it's a goo dmove from 9 or earlier for sure. If you have v10, you may want to think about it, but that code view is pretty sweet! If I take away a bit of my grumbling about the interface and get to the core of it, this is what I’ll commit to:

I like the interface in 9, 10, and 11, but it took some getting used to. The first few hours drove me a little crazy, just like Windows 7 did. However, once I got working with it, identified the issues, and resolved the workflow, it’s pretty decent. I love the idea of the workspace, even if it’s not exactly what I want by default. I can customize and tweak to my hearts content in a lot of areas.

The issues I have are relatively minor on this, and the application seems to do what I require. It generally does what I want, when I want, and how I want, and that’s the sign of good software. One or two more versions with a few more interface tweaks and I think it’s going to be great. I’m looking forward to seeing if/how it’s going to run on Windows 8 as well. That’s going to be the next big challenge I have to address on the interface side of FrameMaker 11. Here’s hoping that Adobe has been playing in that sandbox too.

Now, it's off to start to play in the FrameMaker 11 EDD world some more and see what other goodies have been added for the people who set the rules for structured authors. Who knows, a review on that may follow too!

About me

My name is Bernard Aschwanden. I have used FrameMaker pretty much daily since 1992 (back when Frame Technologies owned it). I worked on the initial DITA templates for version 8, and have participated in the beta program for about 20 years. I do a lot of work with DITA, file conversion, best practices, minimalist writing, and more, much of which includes FrameMaker. I don’t pitch it as the perfect product, but really, what is? My perfect product is free, does everything, works on every platform, is 100% intuitive, never crashes, and makes me so much money that I don’t even use it, and instead dedicate my time to achieving world peace. So far, I haven’t found it.

Seriously, I like FrameMaker a lot. I work with it pretty much every day, and I use it much like you do. I create content with text, tables, cross-references, page layout, images, and all the things FrameMaker is known for. I develop templates for use in structured and unstructured worlds. I convert Word, Interleaf, and half a dozen others to FrameMaker. I push the product, complain when it fails, and defend it against the people who say “just use Word instead”. I have met the development team, presented with Adobe at tradeshows, and sat down with the team either in person or online a few times a year to discuss ideas.

In this review I take a light approach and ID both what I like (and there is a lot) and what still bugs me about the product. I try to be honest and not kiss up to anyone. It may mean that there are parts that you disagree with (and if so, let me know and show me a solution) and there may be parts you agree with.

What I want to know from you is this: “What else do you want to see or do in FrameMaker? What can the team at Adobe do to make the product better? Whatever that is, please let me know. I’d love to champion features to Adobe on the behalf of any user. Especially those who agree with me. Honest. I’m eager to hear back on what you need from the product.

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