Topic Based Content Development

Remember when you moved from Word to FrameMaker and spent the first 6 months really just confused? I do. I moved from Word Perfect 5.5 (I think it was) to FrameMaker back 1991. I spent the first 6 months on the phone with support, owned by the FrameMaker Corporation at that time. I had the support people’s first names and knew who would understand what I was asking and who not to talk to. I’m sure I was a pain in the neck.

And then one day, a light went on for me and I understood the paradigm of FrameMaker; I understood, a little, how it thought. That was the break-through I needed to eventually become a Frame expert. I started to understand the choices I made and why they were important towards developing the kinds of information I was developing.

Paradigm shifts

Part of the problem moving from Word to Frame is this paradigm shift. Some of it is expected when you move from one product to another. Things are called different stuff in Frame – there are publishing words being used to describe things instead of word processing words.

But it goes deeper than that. In Word, you open a blank document and start typing. Want a Table of Contents? No problem, just click in your document where you want it to appear and make your menu selections. Word even helpfully provides preformatted Contents so you don’t have to think about it.

In Frame, you’re faced with thinking about the structure of your document- We need a Contents, an Index, a List of Figures, some chapters, and they all need to be in a certain order. We need a book file to organize and relate these items together. It’s a different way of thinking about your information and a tough shift to make.

When I’ve taught FrameMaker, I tell my students that the power of Frame is that you have absolute control over almost everything. The downside to Frame is that you have absolute control over almost everything. It is a double edged sword. Usually, about week 4 of a 6 week class, my students tell me that they’re just confused. “Good,” I tell them. “It’s working! You’re starting to learn Frame.”

Paradigm shifts can make your head hurt

We’re finding that when people start using Flare or Blaze, they can get confused. They don’t understand, for example, when they import existing documents, why they have to make these choices about how to split a perfectly fine document into little pieces. It worked just fine in Frame or Word, why cut it up now?

And the truth is, in Flare or Blaze, you could open a new topic and start writing until the topic is 200 pages. There’s nothing to prevent you from using Flare or Blaze the same way you used Word or Frame. But that’s missing the real power of these products and keeping you from leaping into the future with them.

You need another paradigm shift.

But I was just getting comfortable with my current paradigms

So why on earth would you use either product if you have products that generally do what you need and you know the paradigms already? Because the nature of how we Tech Comm people do what we do is undergoing another sea change.

As the last 8 years have shown us, we really have too much to do and not enough time to do it. At the risk of sounding trite, we really do have to do more with less. At my previous employer, I went over the new year’s development roadmap with my boss, a Development Director for the company. We scoped the work for each project and then presented this to his boss.

Bottom line: We had 7 writers. We needed 25 writers to do an adequate job for the product release schedule for the next year. Not a great job, an adequate job. “Nonsense,” my grandboss said. “You can’t build an empire. We don’t need more writers – we need more developers to meet these aggressive schedules.” Sigh. (I guess he really thought that elves came in the dark of night and wove the blank paper into manuals)

And while it’s always gratifying to share that story with other Tech Comm managers, it’s been this way since at least the dot com crash. Fewer writers, more developers, faster schedules. You can’t force management to get you more writers, you can’t work 15 hours a day, 7 days a week. So how do you cope?

You start developing information from your users point of view – you start doing Topic-based Content Development. And that’s where you can leverage power of Blaze and Flare. That’s what they’re designed to do.

OK – more about this information development paradigm in the next post in a day or 2.

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2 Responses to “Topic Based Content Development”

  1. Sharon,
    I was on the Blaze preview today, and wanted to say thanks for walking us through the product. I’m getting anxious for the Flare 4 release, and can’t wait to hear what’s up at the end of February.

  2. It’s been interesting to learn Flare as I’ve now been using it for more than a year. I’ve been watching myself make the shift from Framemaker to Flare, and I’m making the shift that you’ve been talking about — but slowly.

    When I first started writing in Flare, I wanted to convert chapters from my Frame docs into single topics in Flare. Since then I’ve been gradually reducing the size of my topics, and I think they are finally getting down to the “right” size. But it really is a paradigm shift!

    If only somebody had put it to me in these terms a year ago…. 🙂

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