The Appeal of Adobe InDesign

Have you ever told a project manager that the instructions he plans on releasing with an application — instructions written by an intern who is here for a three-month stint — are complete junk and that it would be an embarrassment to the organization to give them to users? When you tell a project manager that, surprise, you win yourself a new documentation project.

That’s all right, because Joomla, the topic of the instructions, is something I’ve been wanting to explore in depth. I have to say, I’m pretty impressed with Joomla. As a content management system, it’s powerful, easy to use, and captivating (kind of like driving my new Nissan Altima 3.5).

As I rewrote the Word document (of course it was in Word), I decided to create it in InDesign. In a time when I keep hearing about content re-use and single sourcing, a lot of my projects are small, with just one deliverable needed, intended for a handful of people, most of whom prefer something brief. Rather than the one or two page quick reference guides that I usually push, I’ve been extending them to 8 or 16 page documents.

Working with InDesign is interesting. On the one hand, it’s not really a tool built for technical writers. It’s intended for people laying out magazines, brochures, other heavily designed print matter. As such, some things can be confusing. Cross references, figure references, a table of contents — get ready to search the help to figure these out.

On the other hand, the power of the InDesign is somewhat captivating. You’re only limited by your own ignorance. Every day I learn something new and say, hey, that’s cool. For example, I installed the Typefi Autofit plugin yesterday afternoon to enable auto-expanding text frames, which I specifically wanted for my note styles. It’s neat that a proprietary application like InDesign has so many third-party plugins.

You may feel that some of the applications you use are boorish and dumb. Not so with InDesign. InDesign is an application with intelligence and sophistication. When you learn it, you feel like you’re part of an elite club.

When you can’t figure something out, the Adobe Forums for InDesign are excellent. Unlike Feedburner’s forums, which are a wasteland of single cries for help with no responses, the InDesign forums are active, monitored by gurus, and you get informative responses within an hour.

But enough about InDesign. The real question is why bother to use such a powerful layout tool when I could create the content in Flare (or some other HAT) and single source to a printed output? That’s certainly an option, but styling the printed output from Flare doesn’t compare with the styling options in InDesign (at least not within my print CSS skills in Flare).

Also, when I’m writing in a HAT, I get the sense that space is unlimited. I write every little detail, adding topic after topic. I think of every possible scenario and question and document it. The result is a printed document or online help file that is not really readable anymore due to length. It can only be searched.

I know it may be an old-fashioned concept, but I think users want a short guide they can read. Sure, users want to search for answers to those arcane questions, but they also want a guide that’s feasible to get through, that isn’t a War in Peace type novel but rather a dozen pages that tells them what they need to know. When it’s under 20 pages and well-designed, with a readable, attractive layout, that’s a product that has high value for users. It’s a deliverable that project managers and other techies can actually review. As a user, it’s something that still fits into your life.

If you give someone a manual that makes an almighty thud, they don’t even open it.

Madcap FlareAdobe Robohelp

By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • Mike

    Great article.
    I work for a large government organization. We manage 60+ User Guides and exclusivley use CS4. We like TCS2, but it’s scope is narrowed, or at least that is the reason they purchased enterpirse licensing for CS4. So we as Tech Writers can be more flexible.
    We love it! I wish I could switch out DW for RoboHelp, but oh well.
    Funny you should mention Joomla. We were prototying a Joomla site that would manage all of the tech docs for nearly 100 organic software products. With plug-ins such as DocMan, Letterman and a few others, much of the ITIL “thingys” such as Critical Events and Desktop Stabilization are communicated with the our customers SOOOOO much faster.
    Anyway, love the blog keep up the good work!

    • Tom

      Mike, thanks for the comment. I’d be interested to hear how you’re handling figure references and captions in long docs with InDesign. I find them to be particularly buggy when I’m moving content around.

      If your Joomla site is public, let me know the URL so I can see how you’re implementing it. I’m curious to see it used as a CMS for tech docs.

  • Milan Davidovic

    “Also, when I’m writing in a HAT… I write every little detail, adding topic after topic.”

    Wouldn’t that be easily overcome by planning before you write? Or are you talking about development environment that avoids too much initial planning?

    • Tom

      Milan, you’re right that I could plan to be concise and limit myself to the equivalent of 16 printed pages, but it’s harder to see that prolixity when it’s in a topic-based format in a HAT. You don’t realize how many pages the printed output really is going to be unless you constantly generate it.

      • Milan Davidovic

        Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of limiting oneself to achieving a clearly defined *goal* for the topic rather than some optimal page count.

        Can you give us an example of a topic you’d write about that has the danger of getting too large?

  • Troy Thompson

    Where I work we recently purchased Adobe Tech Comm Suite 2. While I’m happy with the overall integration of the products, I feel like Adobe didn’t include the right software for Technical Communicators.

    IMO, Adobe should have included Illustrator, Dreamweaver (and moved the RH functionality to an extension), Captivate, and InDesign.

    Framemaker seems to be too much for 90% of what I do. InDesign would have been a better fit.

    Dreamweaver does everything that RH does (and then some), and RH features seem better suited to an extension for Dreamweaver.

    Illustrator would’ve been a better choice than Photoshop for image editing.

    I hope Adobe reconsiders the product lineup for the next version. Maybe they could allow users to select the individual applications and pay for them as a “suite”.

    • Joe

      I completely agree with you Troy. My team uses the TCS 1.3 and 2.0. But I never seem to have enough tools. I would love to have Soundbooth, Illustrator, Flare, and InDesign. So either I purchase the Design Premium Suite along with Soundbooth, or I buy the Master Collection. This is ridiculous for someone who is going to use Flare maybe 30 days per year. And either way I don’t get the Captivate/Soundbooth integration that I get in the eLearning Suite.

      A few months ago, RJ Jacquez sent out a tweet asking users what they would want to see in the eLearning Suite 2. Basically, he said Adobe was thinking about adding one tool to the suite. I sent him an email suggesting that Adobe creates a TCS Master Collection that includes everything from the TCS, the eLearning Suite, and the Design Premium Suite. He never responded.

      Troy, send RJ an email… so that he knows more of us want more tools in the suites.

      • Tom

        Joe, thanks for the comment. You realize that you paired up Flare with Indesign, which is an Adobe-Madcap combination? It’s kind of like mixing the Utes with the Cougars there, as those companies have strong feelings of antagonism toward each other.

        Some people on my team have the eLearning Suite. I’d love to see Adobe add InDesign to the mix.

      • Joe

        Said Flare but was thinking Flash. Oopsy!

  • D. Johnson

    Thanks Tom! I’ve been thinking about trying InDesign for documentation, but I am definitely held back by my ignorance. I just need to take a block of time (ha ha) and read the manual… :)


    • Tom

      I’ve been using InDesign for 2 years now and still feel somewhat of a novice. I recommend using it only for smaller documents under 20 pages.

  • Ivan Walsh

    InDesign is really a web-enabled version of PageMaker. Or what PageMaker would have become if Adobe really invested in it.

    My guess is that in the long run Adobe will dis-continue FrameMaker and dovetail the ‘long doc’ features into a TW version of the InDesign.

    Just speculation but my reading of how Adobe values FM leads me to this conclusion.

    FWIW InDesign is excellent for layouts, if that’s what your after. Could be suitable for case studies, white papers etc.



    now in Beijing!

    • Tom

      I think from Adobe’s perspective, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have both Framemaker and InDesign. I would love to see more long doc features in InDesign. Some of the things in InDesign, such as figure references and tables of contents, are buggy and non-intuitive. They’ll have to fix that if they want to appeal to tech writers creating long documents.

  • Brad Moldofsky

    I agree that Adobe might ultimately axe FrameMaker, or at least discontinue improvements or support for financial reasons, as it is clearly designed for our niche market. While I am a long-time QuarkXPress user, I was very impressed by the CS4 version of InDesign. I would have rather used FrameMaker, but InDesign is so versatile and lets one really stretch one’s design muscle (all in the service of improved readability, of course). For shorter documents, definitely the way to go.

    • Tom

      Brad, thanks for the comment. I know that if Adobe ever did axe Framemaker, there would be a lot of unhappy writers, as this is a pretty common application in our field.