Monday, July 23, 2018

A Review of MadCap Flare’s Link Types


Flare offers a wide variety of link types. Some, like hyperlinks, and popups, are common and easy to understand. Others, like cross-references, dropdowns, expanding links, and togglers, may be unfamiliar. In this post, I’ll look at all of these link types, discuss how to create them, how to customize them through the CSS, their uses, and some of their design implications.

Hyperlinks

Hyperlinks are the standard “jump” link. Clicking on a hyperlink takes users from the starting topic to the target topic. A target topic usually replaces the starting topic in the browser window but you can make the target topic open in a second browser window, resulting in two windows open on the screen (and perhaps many windows if users leave each “secondary” window open after looking at its topic).

Hyperlinks are very flexible; you can create all the types shown in the Insert Hyperlink dialog box’s Link To dropdown, below.


Customization Through the CSS

Unvisited hyperlinks typically display in a dark blue, underlined font. You can change these properties by editing the “a” style in the Stylesheet Editor. (What does the “a” style have to do with a hyperlink? The story (which I haven’t verified) is that when Tim Berners-Lee created HTML, he decided that a link was a connection between associated pieces of content. Ergo, “a” for associated.)

Hyperlink Drawbacks

Two drawbacks.

  • A hyperlink “knows” that it points to the URL of its target topic but doesn’t know what that topic is or what to do if the title of the target topic changes. This can cause surprising problems.

    Let’s say you hyperlink the word “Frappe” in topic A and point it to a target topic called Frappe. If you rename the target topic Milkshake, the link still works but it looks wrong – clicking on the Frappe link takes users to the Milkshake topic. Your users might assume that milkshake and frappe are the same thing but they’re more likely to assume that the link is bad. This kind of thing makes maintenance difficult because you’ll have to search the project for each use of “Frappe” in a hyperlink pointing to “Milkshake” and change “Frappe” to “Milkshake”. It’s easy to do but it’s one more thing to worry about, and you’ll have to do multiple search and replace runs to look for cases where you misspelled “Frappe”.
  •  A hyperlink uses a link format – click on the link to jump to the target topic. However, if you’re single sourcing out to a print target like PDF, the link obviously won’t work if users print the topic. They’ll have to look for the topic in the index, if there is one, or the table of contents, or flip through the pages. In other words, usability declines.

Cross-references, or xrefs, solve both of these problems.

Cross-References

A cross-reference, or xref, does the same thing as a hyperlink. Clicking it jumps users to the target topic. Xrefs are less flexible than hyperlinks – you can only use them in two cases as shown in the Insert Cross-Reference dialog box’s Link To dropdown, below.


Although xrefs are less flexible than hyperlinks, they solve both drawbacks of hyperlinks.

  • An xref “knows” the title of its target topic. If an xref links to the Frappe topic and you rename the target topic Milkshake, the xref’s wording changes automatically – effectively automating part of your maintenance work. (Flare automatically changes the wording when you generate the target. If you want to change the xref’s wording before you generate the target, click Tools > Update Cross-References.)
  • A side benefit of the xref’s “knowing” the name of the target topic is that you don’t have to type and select the link text in order to create the link as you do with a hyperlink. Instead, when you select the target topic for your xref, the xref automatically uses the topic’s title as the link text.
  • An xref “knows” when it’s being used in an online or print target. If you generate a print target, Flare automatically changes the xref’s format from a link style (…information about Frappes…” to a page reference style (…information about Frappes, see page 55)

Customization Through the CSS

  • You can change the formatting of your xrefs by editing the MadCap | xref style in the Stylesheet Editor.
  • You can also see how Flare changes an xref’s format for online vs. print targets by selecting the mc-format style in the Unclassified property group on the Stylesheet Editor and changing the Medium (on the Stylesheet Editor’s toolbar) from Default to Print.

Xref Drawbacks

You can use xrefs to create links between two topics in a given target but not between topics in different targets or out to external targets like PDFs or web pages. But since most links in a target usually go from one topic to another, this still leaves a lot of places to use xrefs.

Hyperlink and Xref Drawbacks


Hyperlinks and xrefs share a common drawback when used in task description topics. Clicking on the link takes users out of the original topic and out to topic B. A link in topic B might then take users to topic C, and so on. This makes sense but it breaks the flow of the material. Users who jump from topic A, the original topic, to B to C and so on can lose track of where they are in the steps.
What’s needed are links that access related content without taking users out of the primary topic. That’s where the remaining link types come in.

Popups

A popup keeps users in the starting topic and displays the target topic in a window that open on top of the starting topic.

NOTE: There's a bug that’s preventing a popup from displaying correctly so I don’t have an example as I write this.

Using a popup solves the problem of users linking out of a task description topic to another topic, then having to find their way back to the original topic and regain their focus.

When Use Popups

  • To display short glossary definitions within the context of a topic or to display a quick piece of information, such as the phone number for tech support.
  • To display interim steps in a larger procedure. For example, assume that step 1 in a process says to do X, followed by step 2 that says to do Y, and so on. If the users know how to do each of those steps, they can simply proceed. However, if users don’t know how to do task Y, they’re stuck. You could provide a link out to another topic that explains how to do task Y but the users have now lost their train of thought. With a popup, they can click on a link that pops open a window that explains how to do task Y but keeps them in the primary topic.

But there are several drawbacks to popups, as discussed below.

Customization Through the CSS


You can change popups’ properties by editing the MadCap | popup style in the Stylesheet Editor.

Popup Drawbacks

  • You don’t control where the popup window opens – Windows does that based on the available screen space above or below the popup link.
  • Because a popup window opens on top of the starting topic, the popup may cover something that users want to see.
  • It may not be clear to new users how to close a popup in order to keep reading in the primary topic. You could create a snippet that tells users where to click in order to close the popup but that’s one more detail to worry about and one more bit of clutter on the screen.
  • A new drawback comes out of the mobile space. Popups in a target running on a mobile device display as hyperlinks. This may be a problem if your design is based on using popups as popups.

What’s needed is a “popup-style” link that fixes these problems. That’s where dropdowns come in.

Dropdowns


Dropdowns are similar to popups in that clicking the link displays the target topic but keeps users in the starting topic, as shown below. But clicking the dropdown link “stretches” the screen and displays the dropdown body below the link. The first image shows the topic with the dropdown links unselected. The second image shows the HTML Element dropdown link selected and thus expanded.






Why use dropdowns instead of popups?

  • The dropdown body always appears below the dropdown link, eliminating the uncertainty of where the body will display, as with popups.
  • When users click a dropdown link, the screen “stretches” down in order to display the dropdown body rather than covering up part of the primary topic.

When might you use a dropdown?

  • In a topic that has a screen shot of a dialog box with many fields but you don’t want to show the full description of all the fields for fear of making the topic look too long. Instead, you list each field but hide its description in a dropdown. All the information is still present but hidden until users click on the link, thus making the topic look shorter and less intimidating.
  • In a topic containing a list of steps. But if some users might not know how to perform a particular step, you might include a link called How or Tell Me How that, when clicked, opens a dropdown explaining how to perform that particular step.

Customization Through the CSS


Closed dropdowns look like normal text and are prefaced by a right-arrow-in-a-box icon. Expanded dropdowns look the same but the icon changes to a down-arrow in a box. You can change these properties by editing the MadCap | Dropdown styles in the Stylesheet Editor.

Dropdown Drawbacks


None, in my opinion. However, I’d be interested to hear competing opinions.

Expanding Links

Expanding links are similar to dropdowns except that the expansion is horizontal, like pulling a window shade sideways. This literally reformats the text paragraph that contains the link, as shown below. The first image shows the topic with the expanding link, the word hoagie, unselected. The second image shows the topic with the link selected.



Like a dropdown and a popup, clicking the link displays the body but keeps users in the starting topic. However, expanding links can only contain text.

When might you use an expanding link? Typically, when you want to create a short, text-only link such as a definition or perhaps the phone number for tech support.

Customization Through the CSS


Closed expanding links look like normal text and are followed by the right-facing-arrow-in-a-box icon. Expanded expanding links display the link body to the right of the icon. You can change these properties by editing the MadCap | Expanding styles in the Stylesheet Editor.

Expanding Link Drawbacks


Expanding links, while cool, have a number of drawbacks.

  • They’re text-only.
  • The link body text format looks like regular text in a topic. This can make it hard to tell if the link is closed or expanded. The arrow-in-a-box icon indicates whether the link or closed or expanded by pointing to the right or down but users may not notice it. The solution is to change the format of the link body text to italic or red using the Stylesheet Editor.
  • Creating expanding links takes more steps than creating most other links. For an expanding link, you select the text to use as the link. Then select Insert > Expanding Text. Then select the Show Tags > Show Markers option, which displays the link inside a pair of square brackets, followed by a pair of empty square brackets. Finally, select the text to use as the body and move it inside the empty square brackets. It’s not difficult; it’s just a little more involved.
  • Expanding links dynamically reformat the paragraph in which they appear. Many users seem to find this disconcerting.

Togglers

Togglers are similar to dropdowns in that clicking the link displays the link body while keeping users in the starting topic. However, unlike a dropdown, where the body displays below the link, clicking a toggler can display multiple text, graphics, tables, etc. anywhere in the topic.

When the topic opens, the toggler-controlled content is hidden until users click on the toggler, shown below. The first image shows the topic with the toggler unselected. The second image shows the topic with the toggler selected and various new pieces of content displayed – the advanced information paragraph, the graphic, and the list of steps.




Why use togglers?

  • They offer tremendous flexibility; a toggler can display any type of content anywhere in a topic.
  • They represent a user-oriented philosophy in terms of who controls what content is visible. The author can control what content is visible in a topic through the use of conditions but this takes control away from the users. Togglers give that control back to the users.

When might you use a toggler?

  • When displaying a topic that includes a lot of supporting content but showing that content all at once might make the topic look too long or overwhelming.
  • When documenting a procedure whose first few steps are identical for all users but whose later steps vary somehow, whether the user is in the US or Canada, for example. You could add two toggler buttons labelled US Steps and Canadian Steps to the topic. Clicking the appropriate one displays the appropriate steps without the visual clutter and potential for confusion of showing both sets of steps and telling the users to pick the appropriate ones.

Customization Through the CSS

Closed togglers look like normal text and are prefaced by the right-facing-arrow-in-a-box icon. Expanded togglers look the same but the icon changes to a down-arrow in a box. You can change these properties by editing the MadCap | Toggler style in the Stylesheet Editor.

Toggler Drawbacks


  • Togglers are cool but, like expanding links, require some extra work to create. The first step is to create all the content that will be in the topic. You then assign a name to each piece of content that you want to make controllable by the toggler. (Right-click in the block bar for that piece of content, select Name, and type the name.) Then add the text or graphic that you want to use as the toggler link. Finally, make that text or graphic the toggler (Insert > Toggler) and specify the named content items that toggler will control. This is per topic. Nothing difficult, but the number of steps may lead you to only use togglers on a limited basis.
  • Users might get confused as different pieces of content appear or disappear in a topic.

Miscellaneous Other Link Types

In addition to the types described above, there are several others.

  • Table of Contents – We don’t think of a TOC as a link type, but it’s effectively a list of hyperlinks.
  • Index – Like a TOC, the index is effectively a list of hyperlinks.
  • Text popup – This is similar to a regular, or “topic” popup but with some crucial differences. 
    A regular popup is a link to a topic where the target topic displays in a popup window. That topic is itself a topic. This means any number of links can point to it and any change to the content only has to be made once, in the target topic.

    In contrast, a text popup looks like a regular popup but the target content is inserted in the topic that contains the popup link. So if you want to list the phone number for tech support as a text popup in ten different topics, you have to insert it in each of those ten topics. And if the phone number changes, you have to find those ten topics and modify the content in each one. (But, to be fair, you could create the text popup as a snippet.) 
    A text popup is text-only, so it’s less flexible than a regular popup.

Summary


If you haven’t yet gone beyond hyperlinks and topic popups, take a look at the other types of links that Flare offers. You may find some unexpectedly useful new ones.





Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Information 4.0 Technologies and Their Issues


Information 4.0 is getting a lot of attention, but what is it and how will it work? Andy McDonald, one of its evangelists, describes it as “…the informational component of Industry 4.0.” (I discussed Industry 4.0 in an article in the Winter 2017 issue of Communicator.)

Think of “Information 4.0” as an umbrella term for advanced technical communication technologies. Its overall goal is to create user assistance that is:
  • Continuously updated – as up-to-date as possible.
  • Focused on the requester’s needs – an event triggers the content which is then automatically profiled for the requester, as opposed to being static and generic.
  • Ubiquitous – available when and where needed.
  • Broken into small chunks, or “fragments” that are independent of each other and assembled as needed, like beads on a string.

How will Information 4.0 work? At a high level:
  1. Some mechanism determines the context of an information request.
  2. Some mechanism sends that context to a repository of categorized content fragments.
  3. Some mechanism extracts the appropriate fragments from the repository, forms them into an output, and sends that output to the requester.
If you’re thinking that this is simply an extension of how we create context-sensitive help today, you’re right. But Information 4.0’s technologies and required skills make it a HUGE extension of that work.

In this article, we’ll look at some of the major Information 4.0 technologies by function, and some issues behind those functions. As you’ll see, there are as many questions as answers today as the concepts, technologies, and methodologies emerge. (Similar to the web in the mid-90s, when the browser wars were heating up and people often didn’t know what browser they had or even what a browser was.)

The article does not discuss specific technical communication-oriented tools because those tools are still undefined. Today’s help authoring tools will add Information 4.0 features and new tools will appear as that market emerges. That’s the subject of a later article.

Contextualization

Technical Overview

In order to tailor the content to a requester’s needs, the system must know the context of the request. Contextualization sounds mysterious but it will be familiar if you create context-sensitive online help. It lets the help system determine the requester’s location within an application and what help topic is related to that location. (If the requester is in the Print dialog box and clicks a Help button, a Print Dialog Box Help topic should open. Simple.)

Traditional context-sensitive help is simple. A standard method has existed for years and is supported by the GUI of our help authoring tools; it’s a well-known process with no coding work. (Although companies can have proprietary methods that the tools don’t support.)

In Information 4.0, however, “context” goes far beyond the “in what dialog box is the requester located” model to include contexts like:
  • Geographical – physical location, outdoors using GPS or indoors using GPS or beacons.
  • Chronological – date and/or time.
  • Environmental – temperature, light levels, and more.
  • Spatial – device orientation, such as whether you’re holding your phone in portrait or landscape mode, and more.
  • Personal – pulse, temperature, and more.
  • Perhaps other contexts, such as physical to detect conditions like vibration or strain in machines.

Issues

Contextualization issues include:
  • Transience. Traditional context-sensitivity is stable until the requester changes it – e.g. you’re in dialog box A until you go to dialog box B. But the other types can change quickly and often, like a light sensor that has to distinguish between light and shadow while the requester is under a tree on a windy day. This puts more demands on the sensors.
  • Context detection method. Traditional context detection is built-into our authoring tools; others are not and the detection method must be coded separately. We’ll need programmer support.
  • Context transmission method. Transmitting the contexts to the processor needs fast and reliable internet access, plus some local fallback when internet access is slow or lacking.
  • Context processing. The context must be analyzed to determine what content fragments to send to the requester. This might take place outside or, eventually, within the authoring tool, possibly on a server.
  • The effect on hardware, software, and network requirements.

Content creation

Technical Overview

This is simply the creation of the content to be delivered in response to a user’s request.

Conceptually, it’s identical to content creation today but Information 4.0’s requirement for fragments complicates things. How?
  • Traditional authoring tools like Word or FrameMaker exist to create documents – books. We can create content fragments with them but the process takes more concentration. Users of Word of FrameMaker may have to switch to more topic-oriented authoring tools.
  • Writing will have to change. For example, traditional continuity (“as described above”) won’t work because “above” may be in a different fragment that may not appear in a given output.

Issues

Some content creation issues exist today, and new and more complex ones will appear.
  • Fragments will have to meet the needs defined by the contexts. That seems self-evident, but it means that context definition will have to be done prior to content creation. In other words, “winging it,” already a bad idea today, will be a really bad idea under Information 4.0.
  • Fragments may have to stand alone or be combinable on the fly in response to user requests.
  • Fragment naming, metadata, and similar control conventions will be crucial. The “winging it” that we can get away with for 100 fragments will be unmanageable for 1,000 or more.
  • Fragment creation will require authoring tools that create syntactically clean code and no tool-specific code that might affect the processing.
  • Fragment content must be separate from formatting rules. This requires a CSS and elimination of local formatting. The content must also be separate from business rules to let it be used in any output ranging from a browser to a mobile app to a bot to whatever is next. The internal structure of the content has to reflect this separation.
  • Search will be crucial for finding information, so SEO (search engine optimization) will be crucial.
  • Fragments may have to be created to meet different, personalized requests. For example, for a process description, can there just be one fragment containing a list of the steps? Must there be an additional fragment containing the steps and the concepts? Or an additional fragment that describes the concepts that can be combined with the steps fragment depending on the requester’s background? And how do we know the requester’s background?
  • The contents might use “microcontent” depending on your definition of microcontent – ranging from a title or heading to an abstract or meta-description that appears on a search results list.
Finally, and most meaningfully for the future of technical communication…
  • The number of fragments required, plus the naming and coding requirements, may mean that traditional technical communication won’t be able to keep up with the work. Instead, AI-driven tools will create the fragments; our roles will become that of AI rule writer and content curator. Traditional writing will become a thing of the past in companies using Information 4.0.

Content selection

Technical Overview

Once the content fragments exist, it’s necessary to select appropriate fragments for a particular context and control the order in which they’re presented to the requester. (“Order” may seem like an odd issue if each fragment is independent but individual fragments may discuss individual steps in a task and must be presented in the right order. This is more important in print than online. In online, fragment order is less important because the order may be controlled by hyperlinks – e.g. “Click to go to the next step”. However, that implies that the links may have to be included for some outputs but excluded for others. This increases the structural complexity of the fragments.)

Back to content selection…

Content selection means that the fragments must be tagged so that they can be retrieved based on the context. There’s a model for this today, conditionality.

Issues

The conditionality feature in help authoring tools like MadCap Flare lets us assign a tag to fragments of content. We can then select content for a particular output by including or excluding content that has particular conditional tags. To do this, however:
  • Authors must know what outputs they need in order to create and assign the tags. This work is simple but time-consuming when they have to tag many fragments. The same will be true for Information 4.0.
  • Conditionality code is tool-specific. It will be years before Information 4.0 tools are as integrated as today’s help authoring tools so working in Information 4.0 will require multiple tools. This means the tags must be open source. The W3C’s RDF (Resource Description Framework) seems like the most likely candidate because it’s already used in Industry 4.0, the conceptual home of Information 4.0.
  • Authors will have to become familiar with RDF. We probably won’t have to know it at the code level; GUI tools exist now. But it will be important to understand RDF at a conceptual level in order to use it well.
  • The number of fragments to tag and the speed needed to do so is likely to shift the work toward an AI-based model. This means that our roles will change to AI rule writer and enforcer/curator and technical communication will become a thing of the past in Information 4.0 shops.

After the tags have been assigned, the appropriate fragments must be called from the repository. Calling fragments in today’s help authoring tools is mechanically simple point and click (though figuring out the logic can still be complicated). But until Information 4.0 authoring tools become as integrated as today’s help authoring tools, we’ll need programming support to write the scripts to read the context state information, translate that to the RDF codes, and call the fragments to generate the output.

Output generation

Technical Overview

After the processor receives the context information and retrieves the appropriate fragments, it has to generate the output. This seems straightforward, like generating HTML5 output from a help authoring tool. However, as you might expect by now, the process may not be that clear.

Issues

One issue is whether the output is a loose set of XHTML files or a packaged set of files like that created when outputting HTML5 from a help authoring tool. Why does this matter?
  • If ancillary navigation files, like a table of contents, or control files, like a CSS, are to be part of the output, they have to be generated and applied to the output through some build process. Most builds are quick, under a minute, but I have seen some that take hours. Requesters won’t want to wait for a build that takes hours, so they may not use the content at all or use an older version, if they can. The problem is whether requesters will wait for a build that takes a minute.
  • To avoid the build time problem, the fragments may just be uploaded to the requester’s device. If so, how will the ancillary files be applied, if at all?

Issue two has to do with whether to enable responsive output features. Given that ubiquity is one of the qualities propounded for Information 4.0, one output should be readable on desktops, tablets, phones, etc. We can create a separate output for each device but that requires a build, with the build time issue, or we can create one responsive output that can detect what type of device it’s on and reformat itself accordingly.
  • If we want to enable responsive output, which seems logical to drive ubiquity, there must be a build process. That raises the build time delay issue mentioned above.
  • To avoid the build time issue, there must be a way to generate files that will run on any device.

Output delivery

Technical Overview

Output delivery entails the ubiquity mentioned above – the accurate and up-to-date output must always be available when and where needed. This seems like standard internet operations, but there’s also the issue of internet access.

Issues

Some of the issues are similar to those under output creation. But two others apply to delivery.
  • In order for content to be ubiquitous, dynamic, and spontaneous, three properties desired for Information 4.0, requesters need internet access. What happens when requesters have poor or nonexistent access? This is an issue with mobile apps as well and lead to the creation of local storage options that could hold content until users got internet access back, at which point the app would connect to the database and automatically sync the data.
  • What part of the content would be sent to the requester, all of it or just those parts affected by the context call?

Summary

There will be other issues too, such as content storage and analytics.

Where does Information 4.0 stand as of mid-2018?
  • Many of the concepts – contextualization, fragmentary content creation, networked content, content tagging and selection, ubiquity in the form of multi-device capable responsive output, analytics, and others – already exist and have been implemented in varying degree in today’s authoring tools. They’ll have to be extended to move technical communication into the Information 4.0 world.
  • Other concepts, such as AI, RDF, and machine-generated content, exist now outside traditional technical communication. They will have to be integrated into technical communication.
  • Today’s help authoring tools don’t support Information 4.0 but they provide a model for those tools as they’ll start to emerge.
  • The challenges of working in Information 4.0 are broad and deep, as this article tried to show, and will rival or exceed the issues that we faced when word processing, the web, and online help all hit technical communication.

Information 4.0 may ultimately be very different from what I describe here. It may live under another name. But the challenges will be the same and will take technical communication into new and intellectually challenging areas with new and fascinating jobs.

This article was originally published in ISTC Communicator, Summer 2018.

About the Author

Neil is president of Hyper/Word Services (www.hyperword.com) of Tewksbury, MA.  He has many years of experience in technical writing, with 34 in training, consulting, and developing for online formats and outputs ranging from WinHelp to mobile apps and tools ranging from RoboHelp and Doc-To-Help to Flare and ViziApps. To top things off, he has been working in mobile since 1998 and XML since 2000.

Neil is MadCap-certified in Flare and Mimic, Adobe-certified for RoboHelp, and Viziapps-certified for the ViziApps Studio mobile app development platform. He is a popular conference speaker, most recently at TCUK 2017. Neil is an STC Fellow, founded and managed the Bleeding Edge stem at the STC summit, and was a long-time columnist for STC Intercom, IEEE, and various other publications.  You can reach him at nperlin@nperlin.cnc.net.


Wednesday, May 9, 2018

A Review of MadCap Flare 2018

MadCap released Flare 2018 last week. In this post, I’ll look at several of the new features that I think are most useful or have the most potential.

Side Navigation Output

The tri-pane skin has existed since 1995 and works perfectly well but it screams “online help”. MadCap’s Top Navigation, or topnav, skin, introduced several years ago, added a more webby look to Flare targets. However, topnav has some limitations compared to the tripane, primarily the fact that it’s not good for targets with long or complex TOCs.

Topnav displays the level 1 TOC heads in the upper pane so having a lot of level 1 heads means that the upper pane may use a lot of space, reducing the space available for content in the lower pane. See the image below for an (extreme) example of how the topnav uses the space in the upper pane.


Reducing the blank space on the left and right sides of the upper pane will reduce the number of lines that the TOC needs. But a long or complex TOC may still need this much space.

The next image shows what happens if the user hovers over one of the headings, in this case “Firewall Properties”.


Again, it can be hard to fit long or complex TOCs into this structure. The tripane eliminates this problem but at the cost of an old-style look and some codes that could cause trouble under HTML5. MadCap’s solution was to create a side navigation version of topnav, as shown below, first collapsed.


And then expanded, below…


It’s showing the same TOC as the topnav example, but TOC length is no longer an issue since the TOC pane can scroll.

Be aware that this skin, like topnav, assumes that the primary navigation for the target is the TOC and search. No index.

In summary, I think this skin is exactly what we’ve needed to offset topnav’s TOC space limitations and I expect it to see wide use.

Project Analysis

MadCap has offered a somewhat tangled set of project analysis options for years – a built-in report generator and a related file tag feature, a Project Analysis option (View > Project Analysis), and the separate Analyzer product.

The report generator and Analyzer product are similar; both offer 120+ reports on broken links, snippet suggestions, undefined styles, and so on. The main difference is that the report generator just creates the reports whereas the Analyzer product can actively help you act on them. Flare has also offered a little subset of the Analyzer under its Project Analysis option (View > Project Analysis).

In Flare 2018, MadCap appears to be taking steps to streamline all these options. The report generator and file tags features are still available but MadCap has added the core of the Analyzer product to Flare itself. In other words, we’ve gone from this in pre-2018 versions.


To this is Flare 2018 (with just one of the menus expanded and 44 reports in total). It’s not the full Analyzer but it’s a good start.


In summary, this should go a long way toward strengthening the analysis and management aspects of any Flare project.

Find Elements

Find Elements is a seemingly innocuous little feature that should come in handy if you have to clean up the code in legacy files. It’s available from the Home ribbon’s Find and Replace group and looks like this when first opened.


The Find What field offers the following options.



The results appear in a Find Results pane, typically at the bottom of the screen.

In summary, the most useful options, in my opinion, are inline styles, if you have to clean up legacy files, and MadCap, if you’re using Flare to create HTML files for use outside Flare, such as for a wiki, and have to find and remove Flare-specific tags in the output HTML files.

Other Interesting Features

Two in particular…

  • Review Workflow with MadCap Central – This new feature adds a new twist to your review workflows. If you’re a Contributor user, you’ve been able to solicit comments and new content from SMEs for years but you had to buy Contributor to do so. Now, if you’re a Central user, there’s no need to buy Contributor. Instead, you can add your SMEs to the review workflow through Central, in the cloud. Some of the benefits include multi-reviewer workflows, a simplified review-only interface, and change tracking.
  • Elasticsearch – This new feature adds a third search engine option to your projects in addition to MadCap’s own search and Google Search. My experience is that most users happily go for the MadCap search but a small number are looking for alternatives. For a comparison of the three types, see http://help.madcapsoftware.com/flare2018/Content/Flare/Targets/More/Setting-Up-Search-Engine.htm.

Summary

What I like:

  • How the Side Navigation Output allows Flare authors with long or complex TOCs to get the same benefits as topnav but without the space constraints.
  • How the Analysis feature adds tremendous project management and analysis control natively.
  • How the Find Elements feature helps authors look at the internals of their projects.
  • How the Central-based workflow adds a new option to Flare and continues what appears to be MadCap’s move into the cloud.

In my opinion, these features, especially the Side Navigation Output, make Flare 2018 a solid release that’s worth upgrading to.


Monday, February 19, 2018

Have You Stopped Indexing Your Flare Projects? Not So Fast…



Many Flare authors no longer create indexes for their targets, instead relying on the search feature. It makes sense. Most authors find indexing tedious, so the search feature is a simple and widely accepted alternative. And if you use TopNav skins for your targets, there’s no index option anyway. So, you can just abandon indexing entirely, right?

You can, but there are two arguments for creating an index, even if you use TopNav skins.

Improving Search Ranking

Indexing seems to have nothing to do with search, but it can actually make topics found by search show up higher in a search results list and thus be more visible. For example, the screen below shows the result of a search for “FTP Site”. The desired topic, called “Neil’s FTP Site,” has no index entries assigned to it. It shows up in position 5.


I then add the index entry “FTP site” to the topic, regenerate the target, and re-run the search. The topic now shows up in position 2.


Why? When creating the list of search results, Flare assigns different weights to keywords depending on where they occur in a topic. (See “Ranking Search Results” in the help.) Specifically, it weights an index keyword in a topic as if that keyword is a search keyword in a level 4 heading. It’s hard to say exactly what to expect here because topics are so different but, as a general rule, the more index keywords you apply the better your search results. Try it with a topic in your Flare project that users often search for and see if it makes a difference.

Improving Search Synonyms

Adding index entries may let you fix some search synonym issues. This can be a somewhat tangled issue so follow me.

Let’s say that one of your topics describes subs (the sandwich). However, in Philadelphia, subs are called hoagies. But you, the author, being from Boston, never used the word hoagie in the topic. The result? Users who search for “hoagie” get zero hits.

You can fix this by creating a search synonyms file (File > New > Synonyms) and adding a group synonym where “sub=hoagie=torpedo=” and so on. Now, when users search for hoagie, they’ll get the Subs topic. Problem solved?

Perhaps. Users who search for “hoagie” but find “sub” are likely to do one of two things. If you have lots of credibility with your users, they may infer that a hoagie is the same thing as a sub. More likely, they’ll think the index entry was misdirected and the credibility of your material will drop a bit.

The solution is to change the wording of the synonym to make it clear that it is a synonym, like changing the synonym to “hoagie, aka sub”. However, the synonym editor only accepts single-word entries. Now what?

There are two solutions, one that works by using the meta-description feature but doesn’t involve index entries at all, and a speculative solution that does involve index entries.

Meta-Description Solution

The first solution is to add the synonyms in the topic’s meta-description (in the Topic Properties tab of a topic’s Properties dialog box, shown below.


In the Description field, you can enter a description of the topic that displays when users see the topic in the search results list. If I enter the synonyms in the Description field as “Also called grinder, hoagie, or torpedo,” here’s what the user will see in the search results list.

It’s not as efficient as seeing the full synonym in the search highlight but it does the job.

Speculative Solution

This involves creating the multi-word synonyms as index entries. Go to the topic for which you want to add synonyms, like the subs topic, and press F9 to open the Index window. Enter the multi-word synonyms, one per line. For example, for the subs topic, you might add the synonyms “hoagie, aka sub” and “torpedo, aka sub”. If users then search for hoagie, the browser will return the subs topic as the hit. The problem is that the search results screen looks like this.


The search report shows only what the users type in the search field. The complete synonym is “hoagie, aka sub” but you don’t want users to have to type that whole entry or expect them to. You want them to just type “hoagie”, run the search, and see a report that says “Your search for “hoagie, aka sub” returned 1 result(s).” that reinforces the idea that a hoagie is the same thing as a sub.

The problem is that, as of Flare 2017 r3, the search report only shows what the user typed in the search field. It doesn’t list the complete search term. I have put in a feature request to make the search report list the entire entry but there’s no way to tell whether MadCap will add this feature or when. So, you’d be adding these index synonyms on speculation that MadCap might add the feature.

Summary

Indexing is increasingly seen as a dying feature as more and more Flare authors default to using search. But there are some good reasons for continuing to add index entries, especially if you want to increase the findability of certain topics. Indexing may be old but it’s far from dead.