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August 2, 2006

That’s one mystery of the universe explained

FrameMaker users are a loyal, occasionally even fanatical, bunch. The mystery has always been exactly why that is so. After all, there are lots of software tools out there, and many of them are prettier, faster, and cheaper than FrameMaker. But you don’t hear a lot of discussion about the joys of Visio.

Madcap Flare, on the other hand, does seem to have that magic buzz. And finally, Kathy Sierra explains the issue:

When we talk about “best tool for the job”, we should look not only at “best for the task”, but also “best for those who must use it.” (When the “best tool for the job”…isn’t)

Kathy lays out three criteria for tool selection — the match between the tool and the required tasks, the user’s current expertise in the tool, and the user’s enthusiasm for the tool. This explains a lot. FrameMaker is an excellent fit for typical tech writer tasks and many writers have expertise in the tool. It automates what can otherwise be drudge work in creating long documents–that’s where the passion comes from.

It also explains why XML-based authoring is such a difficult sell. XML may be the best approach for content creation and management. It does not, however, take into account the writer’s needs. Many of us got into writing because we get deep satisfaction from seeing our work on a printed page. XML-based systems often separate the writer from their results.

You write a topic and plug it into the system, but you don’t get immediate feedback.
You don’t see your page count go from 1 to 4 to 7.
You don’t see the empty page fill with content.
You don’t get to watch as your table of contents slowly grows.

With structured authoring, it can feel as though you’re writing in a black hole.

Nonetheless, XML content has clear advantages over “regular” content, and the transition difficulties are short-lived. (Authors with at least one year of experience in structured authoring environments generally like them.)