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Adobe FrameMaker 11 Review (Unstructured)

Two reviews are available. Depending on your use of FrameMaker one or the other may be of more use.
In a nutshell: Lots of enhancements and new features for unstructured 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.
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.

Workspaces

The default workspaces are good, but I find any defaults generally need tweaking.


For serious graphics work there is a Object Style Designer, but it’s not a default part of any workspace. Actually, it’s not even a tab group item. Instead, it’s a stand-alone dialog and a bit frustrating as you either have it open, or you don’t. It’s modal which means you better work with it while it’s open, as you can’t move away from it. A bit like the Graphics Rotate, or the Set Number of Sides dialogs. Relatively minor as far as annoying goes, but it would be great if the Designers (Character, Paragraph, Table, and now Object Style) all functioned in a similar fashion.

So, what is my 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. I have some for Book Writing and Image Work. I’ve been given the chance to set my preferences, and use them as I want. 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.


The options 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.

One last wish. The toolbar icons could use a splash of colour. Right now they follow the same grey that we see in a LOT of Adobe tools. Not sure why (colour shouldn’t cost more, right?) but I liked colour icons. Makes it easy to spot the one I like, and to spot it quickly.

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 9 sets of preferences in a single dialog. This is much 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.


A few of my personal issues in the preferences setup (writing that makes me feel very, Very, VERY geek) are the options for Spelling > Dictionary that support either Hunspell or Proximity. They sound cool, but I have no clue what the difference is. This would be ideally documented right in the dialog.


The same issue of “I have no clue what this means” applies to the Global > Panels and Pods preferences. Some inline documentation of these options would be fantastic.


Again, this is a one time configuration for most people. In most cases the defaults are totally adequate, so don’t worry about changing them unless you have a reason. The product perfectionist in me though is really wondering how far that can be pushed. Give me the details on the complex stuff right now, and put it right in front of me, but only when it’s needed!

Keyboard and menu quirks

The ongoing tweaks to the interface have left me giving up on a few things like standard shortcuts. In the past three versions I’ve had to press the Alt key and use different options more than I’ve wanted to. I understand that there are changes to the application, but is it too much to ask that the Alt keys on my Windows install stay the same? I understand that Windows may assign defaults, but it would be nice if they got replaced with the same set that I’ve used with different versions of FrameMaker over the years.

If you want to skip the detailed complaining about this, just move past the indented text. Not all of this is directly in Adobe's control, but there is a way that it can be configured, and I'd like to see that as a standard moving forward.

In all three versions (9, 10, and 11) I can type Alt, f. This opens the File menu. However, once open I look at what the letter h will do. In version 9 the Alt, f, h would bring me to nothing. But Alt, f, l (lowercase L) would either access Launch Photoshop or Launch RoboScreenCapture. In FrameMaker 10, the Alt, f, h went to Launch Photoshop, and Alt, f, l (lowercase L) went to Launch RoboScreenCapture. Now, in version 11 the same lowercase L combo is to Launch Photoshop or RoboScreenCapture again. Of course, if you don’t use the full Tech Comm Suite (are you crazy? go get the full suite and then come back and read some more!) then you don’t have access to all these tools.

If you toggle between both unstructured and structured interfaces (and technically, there really isn’t a need to do this when working as the structured interface gives you access to all the features in unstructured as well) then don’t expect the same combinations to work either. To view the reference pages in unstructured FrameMaker you press Alt, v, e. However, in the structured interface it’s a matter of pressing Alt, v, f because Alt, v, e shows/hides the Element Boundaries. Argh!

In FrameMaker 9 and 10, when working with structure, I use Alt, v, l (lowercase L) to view Element Boundaries as Tags. Great shortcut. In FrameMaker 11 this is now Alt, v, m. You may be asking yourself if it’s confusing for someone who has used the same shortcut in both version 9 and 10 to change this? You bet. Especially since Alt, v, l (lowercase L) hasn’t actually changed to something new. It just went away. It no longer does anything.

Sure, the shortcuts aren’t a big deal, but as a power user I get familiar with some things. I like the consistency as it gives me a sense of sanity at times when the same function is needed a dozen times a day. So a request to Adobe. Keep a list of Alt key sequences available internally and don’t change them every release. Try to stick to the same combination of letters to make it easier for those of us who use these.

TIP FOR USERS: Having asked Adobe about this they did respond to let me know that there is a way to resolve this to your preferences.

      1. Navigate to the FrameMaker 11 menu folder.
      2. Likely in C:\Program Files (x86)\Adobe\AdobeFrameMaker11\fminit\WorkSpaces\VAR\menus where VAR is either Structured or Unstructured.
      3. Open the menus.config file in which you want to make the change.
      4. In the label, put an “&” before the character which you want the shortcut to be.
      5. E.g. changing File label to Fil&e , will change the short from Alt+f to Alt+e.

On to my next gripe. For anyone who ever uses the Format menu and dreads hovering over the Font option for fear of the mother of all popup screens... no luck. It’s still there. Maybe a grouping of the fonts as an option (for example, add a “group fonts by family” so that all fonts in the Adobe, Arial, Courier, Kozuka, and all other groups are under a single main callout OR maybe just 26 characters for fonts in group A, B, C, and so on) would be a step forward. Fix up this little interface issue to make my life a bit easier if I use menus and a mouse.

Line numbers

For some people this may be considered the greatest thing ever, but I see it as minor, but nice. I often build documents for clients and get all kinds of weird commentary to try and describe where content is. The new line number feature (Format > Document > Line Numbers) is a neat little feature. I’d love to quickly toggle them on/off with the View menu as well, but the general function is a good one. This feature is good for anyone who has to be involved in document review and needs to move beyond “it’s on page 17” to the specifics of “it’s on page 17, line 28.

Shortcuts

A few shortcuts that I rely on include the F8 and F9 keys. In previous versions these would display quick access to character (F8) or paragraph (F9) tags. Great feature. It used to be that the tags were buried in the bottom on the left of the screen. Now they appear inline based on where the insertion point is. Very similar in feel to the click of the secondary mouse button and seeing a menu where you click. Nice touch Adobe. They also extended this into a lot of other places, including working with structured content. Again, nicely done. Makes it a lot faster and easier to work with template or structure based materials.

All that being typed, the biggest pain that this presents is on first time use. When I launch the application and use my F8 or F9 shortcuts I wonder if I pressed anything at all. The lag can be up to 30 minutes (well, not that long, but wow it seems like it's taking a long time). Not sure if that is my system, or common, but other reviewers have noticed this. Still, once it's out of the way, this works very fast.

Conclusion

Okay, enough of the yapping. What’s my conclusion on the unstructured product? Well, the changes are relatively minor here and nothing jumps out as a huge leap forward. It’s still pretty much the same as it was in both versions 9 and 10. 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.

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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