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Automatic document creation. How?

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My business creates practice tests.  Right now, it is all being done manually using Indesign.  It is VERY manual.  Text boxes are placed manually, graphics are imported and placed manually.  Labels and symbols are tweaked on an individual basis.  So I'm looking for a way to automate this entire process.  I feel like it should be possible because the structure of the pages is very consistent.  There are really just a few elements per problem:
--Answer Choices
--Supplemental diagrams/graphics

That's it.  So I can very easily store all of this information in a database.  Then, I can somehow have the database randomize the order and selection of a test to generate. test generation!  So that's my vision.

But how do I go about doing this?  All of this desktop publishing and database utilities are so mired in their corporate jargon that it's impossible to really know what these programs do.  It's extremely annoying.  I can read for ages and ages, and I'm still left thinking, "Just tell me what the FUCK this program does!!"

So here are my ideas so far, please comment on them if you have any knowledge about it:
Indesign Server and Incopy
Supposedly this is supposed to do what I'm talking about.  But hell if I know from what I read.  Lots of useless jargon.  And not enough screenshots, or examples, or any kind of customer testimonial.  Everything out there is just marketing jargon.  So I have how this beast works.  What I'm really concerned about is how easy it is to use.  I'm not afraid of a little scripting and such, but I don't want to spend a year just to get to the point to be able to play around with the program's features.  I would love to talk to someone who has used these two programs.

MS Access
This is my oddball solution.  Access is a database program, of course.  And it can do reports.  So I'm thinking, why don't I stick all the elements I mentioned above in an access database, and use the reporting feature to generate the actual test layouts.  I don't see why this can't work.  The other reason why I like this is because I find Access relatively easy to use for a database/programming type of application.  The problem is that using it in this way is very 'weird" to people and if I ask them about it, they will just wonder why the hell I'm doing this instead of using Word or Indesign or something traditional like that.  But I don't understand why this can't work, and work well.

A hybrid of software and databases
I'll just lump all the other alternatives here which are unknown to me at this point.  I'm sure I can use a mixed bag of sql databases with some other type of reporting application (Crystal Reports?, Visual Studio stuff).  Or some kind of workflow involving Access, Excel, Word, etc.  I have no idea.

As with most software, I want to use the one that is easy.  I don't think what I'm doing is terribly complicated, but because I want control and I'm picky, I can see why it can get complex.  As much as possible, I want to stay away from hardcore programming and scripting.  I don't want to be spending a lot of time learning java, xml, .net, c#.  This is why the Access solution appeals to me.  It strikes a good balance between power and user interface elements.

I'd shy away from Access.

But you can do that any number of ways. XML + XSLT is one. Database => business logic (to create random set of questions) => XML & XSLT.

Or PHP or ASP with HTML & CSS templates. (Or any other scripting language.)

Those are pretty cheap and fast.

I don't know how you'd do that for InDesign though. I suppose there's a way to connect it to a database and use a template. InDesign is much nicer than HTML for presentation. You could automatically generate the basics, and pass it off for further design/tweaks.

Stoic Joker:
I'd shy away from Access.-Renegade (May 17, 2011, 08:06 PM)
--- End quote ---

I think you mean run away shreaking in terror, right?


But seriously. SB How are the test being presented/taken now? Do you want a web interface with a question pool db backend? I'm actually not entirely sure what InDesign is/does ... So I'm trying to get my head around how you'd make a test with it. Are these printed?

I've had great luck doing a ton of projects based around MySQL. It's easy to work with and you can access it pretty much any way you like.

Have you taken a look at Framemaker? I do believe it's built for stuff like this.
Powerful, scalable single sourcing. Effortlessly single source variations of the same document for different channels and purposes. Build and use complex Boolean expressions to define output filters in topic-based, structured, and unstructured modes.
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Automation through scripting. Easily automate time-consuming, repetitive tasks through advanced scripting support with Adobe® ExtendScript. Run scripts for simple tasks from within Adobe® FrameMaker® or through the ExtendScript Toolkit to eliminate manual effort and increase productivity.
--- End quote ---

Structured Application Creation Wizard. Benefit from a basic infrastructure for working with structured Adobe® FrameMaker®. With this highly intuitive, UI-based tool, users can start working with structured FrameMaker even if they don’t have any prior knowledge or training.
--- End quote ---

Of course it's complex and would take time to learn and figure out how to apply it to your needs, but any really effective solution is going to be like that.

- Oshyan

There's a category of software called 'test generators' that will do some, but probably not everything you're trying to accomplish here. Their primary function is to generate random tests based on your selection criteria (random, weighed by subject, difficulty, etc.) from a pool of questions. Most have export options to word, PDF, and other formats. They're fairly utilitarian - so the output, while very legible, may not be up to what you're looking for if you're using InDesign. Most text publishers get around this by doing a formal "pretty typography" textbook and then include a less polished looking test booklet. Most customers for test review products don't seem to mind.

One program that's popular is PrimeExam. I had a client who did corporate training that used it. It seemed to get the job done.

A Google search for "test generator" will net you a selection of similar programs to explore.

Framemaker is an excellent program for creating large structured documents as JJ mentioned above. It's similar to InDesign, but the underlying product philosophy and workflow methodology is different enough that there will be a learning curve. Framemaker isn't a particularly difficult program to use. But it's also not a program that's easy to use correctly and effectively unless you put the time in to understand what it's about.



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