Whatever the subject of lists I follow, two basic questions usually come up about every three months. Usually the person posting the question has to make a decision between:
Some lists are known to be patient with these kinds of questions. Subscribers understand that lists are continually adding new members and the questions cycle through on a regular basis. These questions are treated kindly and answered soundly by users who give their reasons for preferring one over the other. or, often, both.
On the other hand, some lists are notoriously intolerant of these kinds of questions, which is a shame. The new person may get private messages complaining about the inanity of the questions. This I consider unfortunate, because frankly, I believe anyone on a list has a responsibility to not only be civil, but also help subscribers who may be less skilled than other list members.
The whole purpose of lists is to share information, not brutalize less knowledgeable members. Sometimes the information being asked for is in the list's Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ), or could be found by searching the list archives, but for many users new to lists, finding the archives and searching them is beyond their capabilities, at least for the time. But I digress.
Document Design already has a section in which responses to the Quark vs. Pagemaker question can be posted, a question of greater concern probably to those doing page layout than technical writing. However, Kristine Olberg, a member of the TECHWR-L list, in response to the most recent PageMaker vs. Quark query, offered to collect responses from list members and post the results. Because the list members are technical writers who often deal with multiple forms of various many-paged documents, Framemaker appears often. In this case, users are less concerned about flexibility in page layout and more concerned about standardized format in several versions and hundreds of pages.
One list I follow, MacWizards, works entirely on this principal. A subscriber posts a question, all responses go directly to the person asking the question, and that person is expected to post a summary of the responses. The kinds of questions are, obviously, specific to hardware or software. The process, however, in many ways seems to be a good one for certain kinds of questions. Needless to say, the success of this process depends upon those posing questions going to the trouble of summarizing the results, and the willingness of subscribers to do this depends in large degree upon the ability of the list owner to motivate subscribers to carry out their part of the bargain.
So anyway, when the question first came up this time on TECHWR-L, Tim Altom of Simply Written quickly labeled it the "DTP Shootout." Loren Needles of Analytica, Inc. added that this evergreen question is a form of "indiscriminate evangelism." That is, he feels asking this kind of question forces people to choose one software package over another without considering the characteristics of the document being produced, the skills of the person using the software, or the way the document will be used. As he explains it, asking users for their unqualified layout software application preference is akin to asking cabinet makers to name their favorite tool. The resulting information is useless because you can't use it to help make yourself a better carpenter.
When I asked Kristine why she collected the responses, she said:
I wanted to answer the question: Is Frame the tool of choice for our profession? The survey results do not definitively show that but hint that Frame is certainly a popular package. Not wanting to launch a full-scale research project nor even get into geographic breakdowns (I don't think I could get a sample large enough to make geographic breakdown results statistically significant), I opted to ask list members to respond to a simple question:
"What DTP package do you use?"
Kristine asked this question of subscribers to TECHWR-L and the Technical Communicators List (TECHCOMM). The TECHCOMM list was recently formed for the discussion of professional issues that are broader than the strictly technical questions allowed on TECHWR-L. Many technical writers subscribe to both lists. Kristine described how she handled the responses:
I received a total of 86 responses. Some responses indicated that they used more than one package, so I tallied all packages indicated (for example, if an e-mail said "I use Word and Frame," I added one to the Frame tally and one to Word). Also, some indicated preferences; however, no opinions are not reflected in the numbers below.
Although I did not specifically request location information, I did receive some. I tallied the numbers according to large geographical groupings such as US~Midwest, Canada~East, and so on. The sample is too small for any statistical analysis. They do hint that Frame is a popular package on the West Coast of the U.S.
While Kristine's data collection is described as a survey, she is well aware that the responses she collected have no statistical significance, that is, she didn't sample randomly. The "data," by statistical standards, has no validity. It is merely anecdotal. But for people faced with the "DTP Shootout" question, the information might be helpful.
Loren notes that about 50 percent of those using FrameMaker are using it on a UNIX platform, so they don't actually have a choice of Quark or Pagemaker, but rather Word Perfect or Interleaf. And if you're using a Macintosh, Ventura is not a choice. He ran a search on the TECHWR-L archives for the number of times each of the various page layout products was mentioned between December 1, 1996 and January 28, 1997. With Loren's approach, Microsoft's Word was mentioned 300 times compared to 182 times for FrameMaker. PageMaker was mentioned only 68 times and Quark 20. Loren's numbers are posted beside Kristine's summary of her responses. Microsoft Word, Tim Altom notes, is used by a large number of his clients:
It's here in the Midwest that Word still has a tenacious hold on the public consciousness. And even where Frame is supposedly the tool of choice, it isn't understood very well and people use it as a more frustrating form of Word. We're often called in to clean up documents that should be overhauled completely. No anchors. No style tags. No template design. No table definitions.Where does this leave us? Kristine's results are biased in that she has data only from people who chose to respond to her survey. Loren's results are also biased because his search was limited to active participants in the forums he sampled. In addition, Loren noted that the apparent preference for Word over Framemaker in his data may actually be a reflection that Word causes more problems, and hence elicits more questions about how to get the job done, than Framemaker.
How people use software is an important question. And if people are willing to share their experiences with the kinds of tasks one type of software does better than another, those asking the question may find the information they need to make a better decision about which kind of page layout software would suit their purposes and their work habits best.
Other Products Mentioned In Kristine's Responses 1 Xerox products 1 Word Pro 1 Ami Pro 1 Serif's Page Plus 1 AsterX 1 IWrite 1 Arbortext 1 Datalogics
Responses by Location in Kristine's Results
The geographical data does indicate that Framemaker is used a lot in the U.S. West, which is consistent with reality, and Tom Altom mentioned the preponderance of Word's use in the U.S. Midwest. However, the sample size is so small that the geographical distribution could well change radically if the sample size were doubled or tripled.
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