Seeing is believing: FrameMaker, DITA and content “depth”

Since its inception, FrameMaker has provided a realistic page or output display during authoring or editing. This has occasionally led to criticism of the product for not being a “real” or “pure” DITA/XML solution. Most early DITA tools, and DITA Open Toolkit provide an approximation of output during editing. Tagged views of content are more common outside of FrameMaker.

This blog covers two kinds of “seeing is believing.” On one level, there is the issue of seeing the amount of content you have created, and on another level, there is the issue of being able to see the entire process required to achieve a DITA solution before you choose your authoring tools.

Shrinking platform displays give an advantage to FrameMaker’s realistic display

There are arguments for advantages to both the FrameMaker “what you see is what you get” and the traditional DITA view/tag “what you see is sort of what you’ll get” approaches. Ironically, the FrameMaker model is becoming more attractive due to significant changes in our content consumer expectations. Most tech comm authors have been used to multiple deliverables for years, e.g. to PDF and HTML/Web. Delivery platforms for content are rapidly increasing due to explosive proliferation of tablet computers and hi-rez smart phone devices. There is now a great variety in the sizes of screens that will frame and reshape the content we create.

Many of us have been used to two sizes and shapes for final output display, (a) standard letter paper size (PDF) and (b) approximate computer screen size for HTML (usually presumed to be horizontal laptop screen orientation.) Obviously, the landscape for content display has shrunk considerably; at the same time that content has become more nimble, being capable of displaying embedded rich media like 3D graphics and video screen capture. Obviously, we need to reexamine how we create and “preview” content before it is delivered in multiple ways. Note: I will be speaking more specifically on this topic in a presentation I am giving at Intelligent Content Conference this week, “Resizing content for the small screen.”

Have you written enough, or too much content?

Many tech comm content creators will find themselves in the position of needing to create two versions of content; (a) full content for large platform display (e.g. PDF to paper or HTML and other Help formats) and (b) a reduced content version for some tablets and hand held devices. In the second scenario, it may be appropriate to reduce the amount of content through the use of conditional text control or filter by attribute in FrameMaker.

The solution: in some cases, it may become appropriate to have an “executive summary” version of some technical data that can easily be consumed on hand held devices. Sentence length, word count and number of table columns would all be modified to make information display be comfortable on hand held devices, and lead to better reader retention.

Although experienced iPhone or Droid users may become nimble at resizing screen display and navigating fairly well, the screen size limits the consumer’s attention span. In addition, the massive amount of social media and online video content being viewed by many users is also limiting our collective attention span, and calling for shorter, more concise content. How does this affect your content? You may have technical data with a “fat” bulleted list (e.g. 12 lengthy bullet points) that will lead to “tired thumb” syndrome on an iPhone.

How FrameMaker and Tech Comm Suite can assist with gauging content “depth”

With structured DITA authoring in FrameMaker, it is relatively easy to invoke a different template, or major changes in content formatting based on a current <dita> attribute value. During authoring in FrameMaker, the content creator can invoke “page size” and “font size” that will shape text to be a very close match for final display on an iPhone, Droid or other hand held device.

Using this technique to author in FrameMaker and publish beyond PDF via RoboHelp in Tech Comm Suite enables authors to know if their final content display and delivery matches the attention span associated with the screen size or delivery device.

Additional “content length” issues to consider

In the tech comm world, some legacy files (FrameMaker or otherwise) have evolved over many years. Because most of this content was originally written for 8.5” x 11” of A4 paper size, this content may have sentence and paragraph length that are not optimal for delivery on smaller screens. Some rewrites may be warranted.

The main goal is to master a new way of writing and displaying visual graphic content. These new skills will evolve quickly over time, but most of us must retrain ourselves not to think of a sheet of paper or a laptop screen as the “frame” through which our content will ultimately be viewed by many people.

Seeing is believing: how is the FrameMaker DITA authoring solution achieved?

Adobe and Tech Comm Suite are certainly unique in one regard. To my knowledge, FrameMaker and Tech Comm Suite are the only products that are virtually completely documented in step-by-step online videos, regarding exactly how you set up the solution. If you visit tmaldous.com you can view previously recorded OnDemand Seminars, where you will find several sessions that cover step-by-step how to convert unstructured documents into DITA, and how to set up your own DITA solution in FrameMaker. The following list includes a few of the more interesting recorded eSeminars for you to choose from on that webpage:

  • Unstructured To XML Workflow Series Part 2: Creating A FrameMaker Conversion Table – Part 1
  • Unstructured To XML Workflow Series Part 3: Creating A FrameMaker Conversion Table – Part 2
  • Unstructured To XML Workflow Series Part 4: Element Definition Document (EDD) – Home Grown or a Standard

Similar steps are documented for achieving your multi-channel publishing goals through RoboHelp.

As important as XML and DITA are, there are some scenarios where customers can possibly live with “unstructured” documents that have highly disciplined formatting. I gained a tremendous amount of experience in this sector during my dozen years in the translation industry. Watch for more blogs and some brief, intriguing Captivate videos here in the near future.