Tuesday, April 2, 2013

My Favorite New Features in MadCap Flare 9

The recently released Flare 9 continues MadCap’s practice of adding both in-the-weeds mechanical features and big picture strategic features (sometimes surprising ones, like QR codes in Flare 7). Several full reviews have already appeared, like this one by Ed Marshall – MadCap Flare 9 – ‘Something for everyone’” at http://www.madcapsoftware.com/articles/CommunicatorArticle2013EM.aspx 
In this post, I’ll look at some of my favorite new features. (For a full feature list, see MadCap’s web site - http://www.madcapsoftware.com/products/flare/overview.aspx - or the “What’s New in This Version” topic in the help if you already have 9.)

Mechanical Features
Synchronization of text highlighting between XML editor and code view

In prior versions of Flare, you might see an issue in a topic that you wanted to fix in code. The problem was that there was no way to find that issue in the code except by eye (“find the first bullet after the second image”) or using the Search feature. Both methods worked but weren’t very convenient.
Flare 9 appears to have solved this problem. Now, you can open the XML editor and code view windows, highlight the desired text in the XML editor, and see the corresponding text highlighted in code view, as shown below.

Clicking a block bar in the text editor selects and highlights that text in both editors. This certainly beats searching for the second bullet code by eye or searching for the words “If you choose…”
Print output enhancements

In my experience, most clients’ print outputs are pretty simple. However, an avalanche of new options let you take your print output far beyond simple, such as:
·         Support for crop marks and registration marks in PDF outputs to help your printer determine where to cut the paper and to ensure accurate registration in color printing.

·         Numerous mechanical enhancements for page layout work and new page layouts for starting a first page on the left or right page.

·         Support for CMYK colors in addition to the standard RGB.

·         More table handling options.
Flare should now be able to handle all but the most esoteric print needs. (For a clue as to the size of the print feature set, note that the downloadable PDF Print-Based Output Guide is almost 600 pages long!)

Advanced Expressions in Condition Tags

Flare lets you apply conditions to almost any feature, like creating conditionalized snippets that contain conditionalized variables. You can even apply conditions to conditions, though I’ve never seen anyone do this in a real project.  (If you have done this, please let me know why and how it worked out.)
For all its power, the condition tag feature has a simple basis – include/exclude. If you recall high school algebra, that’s a NOT statement, with an OR statement if you applied multiple tags – e.g. the statement “not ( Primary.HOLD or Primary.Print )” tells Flare to exclude (“not”) any object to which you applied the tags HOLD or Print from the Primary tag set. It’s easy to understand, although it’s easy to get the wrong results if you apply different tags to text, text paragraphs, topics, foldersful of topics, and so on.

Flare 9 boosts the power of the condition tags feature (and the risk of confusion unless you plan your conditions carefully). The reason is more powerful logic controlled through a more powerful option in the dialog box. The first screen below shows the familiar, basic, mouse-driven condition tag feature.

Here’s the same dialog box but in Advanced mode.

Here, you can use AND, OR, NOT, and () statements to create more powerful but more complex build expressions – e.g. formulas. However, this also adds some new things to watch out for.
·         There are no clickable selection functions other than that Copy From Basic button; you have to type the formula, with the risk of typos. So you have to type carefully and check your entry.

·          You can switch between Basic and Advanced modes but the two modes work slightly differently.

·          It’s easy to get confused over the different logical expressions. In my Flare classes, I always run a little exercise that asks people to calculate the result of an AND expression versus an OR. People often get it wrong the first time because the logic of conditionality differs from everyday logic.

·         It’s easy to create a complex and powerful build expression that you understand; what happens when you leave? If you don’t document your build expressions, and many people don’t because project documentation is usually something we’ll get to when we have time, your replacement may have a lot of trouble understanding what you did.
Basically, the advanced conditional build tags feature should let you create expressions to cover almost any need but it has to be used with care.

Large Strategic Features

Each of the features in this section is worthy of its own post. Here, I’ll sum up the features and suggest what impact they may have and cover them in more detail in later posts as time permits.
Office 365 Support (Word Import/Output Without Installation of Word)

For years, tech comm is typically done on a local PC. Flare and its projects, Word and its documents, and others – all sit on your C drive. That’s been changing with the spread of server-side version control and Flare’s native support for working on projects on network drives. Yet sometimes you don’t realize that a change is occurring until you reach a tipping point, in my case my discovery that I could put the graphics for a Flare project in the cloud and cut the size of the distributable output by 75%.
In my opinion, support for Office 365 may be that tipping point. Flare 9 users can work in the cloud but remain in the familiar Flare interface rather than having to bolt separate tools and processes together. The support is still in its early stage and the help notes some limits to that support, but this is the first step that I expect to see extended in later versions of Flare, just as Flare 8 introduced HTML5 support and Flare 9 is now extending it. (See below.) If you use Office 365 or are thinking about working in the cloud in general, read about this feature.

HTML5 Enhancements

Traditional WebHelp browser-based output has existed since 1998 and still works fine in most cases, but it does have some drawbacks that are becoming increasingly obvious in this web-based era. To address these drawbacks, MadCap added support for HTML5 output in Flare 8. (For an overview of HTML5, see “About HTML5 (WebHelp 2.0) Output” in the help.) Flare 9 offers a number of incremental additions to the HTML5 output to make it easier and more flexible to use. These include:
·         A search field on the index and glossary tabs. As users type more and more letters, Flare narrows down the list of possible hits.

·         Highlighting of search hits.

·         Box shadow effects for buttons on the toolbar, a simple aesthetic feature.
In my opinion, it will be awhile before HTML5 is as popular as WebHelp. This is because one of HTML5’s major strategic benefits, better searchability by web crawlers for better results in a Google search, isn’t that vital if your online material is behind a firewall and available only to subscribers. But HTML5 has other benefits that may be enough to tip you toward it. You can try HTML5 almost effortlessly by simply outputting an existing projects to HTML5 and comparing the result to your usual WebHelp or CHM.

eBooks and ePub3

In my experience, companies are increasingly looking at offering their material in mobile form and Flare has steadily expanded its mobile features since WebHelp Mobile in Flare 6 and ePub in 8. Flare 9 adds more ePub support, including new features, supporting the new ePub3, simplifying the esoteric process of validating ePub output, and adding mobi output for the Kindle.
ePub and mobi don’t support all the features that Flare offers, so you can’t just click a few buttons and get a result with a completely satisfactory design. But the mechanics of conversion to mobile are almost that simple. If you’ve been thinking about moving into mobile, Flare is getting closer to letting you do that for all mobile formats except “true” native apps and without having to buy and learn new software.


Several versions ago, MadCap introduced the Feedback package that let you to create a virtual, Web 2.0 style community of users who could comment about topics in your Flare output, respond to other users’ comments, rate topics for their usefulness, and so on. This “community” existed independently, though you could moderate it (for obvious reasons). Feedback is still supported, but MadCap has now released MadCap Pulse as a new and more powerful version that lets you add a more powerful social layer to your output.
As an analogy, think of Pulse as something like a Flare-centric LinkedIn. It supports commenting, email feeds, communities, questions (like a survey feature), and several that I find to have the most potential - interaction with external systems  like social media sites and helping Flare authors determine what search synonyms, not index synonyms, are required to make searching more useful. Pulse also lets users add to the documentation set by attaching images, movies, additional links and other files, without affecting the documentation set itself. You can also create controlled Communities or Groups in which to set up discussions around specific topics and invite or restrict users to particular Communities or Private Groups.  For more information and a video on Pulse, see http://www.madcapsoftware.com/products/pulse/


Simply put, Flare is an excellent tool that continues to get better.
About the Author

Neil has 34 years experience in technical communication, with 28 in training, consulting, and development for various online formats and tools including WinHelp, HTML Help, CE Help, JavaHelp, WebHelp, RoboHelp, ForeHelp, Flare, and many now known only in legend.  Neil is a columnist and frequent speaker for various professional groups and the creator and manager of the Beyond the Bleeding Edge stem at the STC’s annual summit.
Neil is Madcap certified for Flare and Mimic, ViziApps certified for the ViziApps mobile app development platform, and certified in other help authoring tools.  He provides training, consulting, and development for online help and documentation, Flare, Mimic, other help authoring tools, mobile apps, XML, single-sourcing, topic-based and structured authoring, and content strategy through Hyper/Word Services.  He can be reached at nperlin@concentric.net, www.hyperword.com.