Thursday, April 11, 2019

Creating Micro Content in MadCap Flare? What to Keep in Mind

At one time, the topic was the smallest unit of content that you could present to your users. But even a short topic might be too long. Users might just want the phone number for tech support or the setting for a field without having to read an entire topic to find that information. The solution, now available in the latest release of MadCap Flare – micro content.

Wikipedia defines micro content in several ways, one of which is “other small information chunks that can stand alone or be used in a variety of contexts, including instant messages, blog posts, RSS feeds, and abstracts.” MadCap defines it as “text, imagery and/or video content that can be consumed in 10-30 seconds”, i.e. short, concise answers to user questions.

For example, users often look for a phone number for technical support. Rather than search for “tech support” and skim through the list of results, micro content allows users to search for “tech support” and quickly find the phone number, which appears at the top of the results.

Or say users are looking for a specific piece of information in a larger topic, like the number of eggs needed for a cake.

In each case, the result, in the form of micro content, displays first on the list. The result isn’t limited to a single line of information. For example, a Google search for “healthy tomato soup recipe” produces the following:

Here, the micro content consists of the entire recipe.

Micro content offers a big potential benefit to the users – it saves them  time and aggravation when they’re looking for the answer to a question.

Plus, micro content offers several big benefits to Flare authors. It lets them segment and present information in the most immediately useful chunks, and do so quickly and easily by using Flare’s features.

Micro Content Implementation in Flare

There are several ways to create micro content. If you’ve created snippets in Flare, some of the micro content creations options will feel familiar.
  • Create the phrases and responses totally from scratch using the Micro Content Editor. Select File > New > Micro Content. The editor displays, as shown below.

    The phrase side lets you create a new phrase, add different versions of the same phrase – e.g. “Tech support phone #” and “Support phone #”, change or delete an existing phrase, and use variables for a phrase. The response side offers the familiar topic creation options, such as adding a hyperlink or cross-reference, images, variables, snippets, and special characters, and lets you apply mediums to the response.

  •       Create the phrase in the Micro Content Editor and link to a topic, snippet, or bookmark to serve as the response.

    You add the new phrase, click the pulldown at the far right of the phrase line, click Add Link, and select the topic or snippet from the Select File dialog box. The entire topic or snippet becomes the response.
  • Select a block of content in a topic or snippet to serve as the response, then click Create Micro Content in the block bar or Home ribbon to display the Create Micro Content dialog box. There, you can type the phrase and select the mco file in which to store this phrase/response pair. The pair then displays in the editor.
A few notes:

  • The micro content files are stored in a MicroContent folder under the Resources folder on the Content Explorer in Flare, and in a MicroContent folder under the Output folder for your target.
  • You can control the skin format of the micro content results by setting its properties in the TopNav and SideNav skin Styles tab.
  • Micro content is supported by the MadCap search and Elasticsearch.

Micro Content Management and Design Considerations

The Micro Content Editor is neatly integrated with existing Flare features. You can:

  • Find micro content files by using the File List feature from the View ribbon and changing the filter to MicroContent files.
  • Use the Text Analysis feature from the Tools ribbon to check the writing of the responses.
  • Use the Reports feature from the Tools ribbon to generate various reports about your micro content.
  • Spell check your micro content files.
  • Run Find and Replaces in your micro content files.

When adding micro content to your projects, there are several considerations to keep in mind that affect project management and design, and how they can be resolved:

  • Greater project complexity – Micro content is one more aspect of a project to be managed. It’s important to document your rules for creating micro content in the project description to be sure that your successors understand the logic behind them. Don’t keep a project description? It’s time to start.
  • Nature of the micro content – How do you decide what micro content to create in the first place? It’s tempting to simply jump into  creating the phrase/response pairs, but that must be done based on user needs. These needs can be identified through user analytics, and by reaching out to your customer support and tech support groups. Learn what questions they hear most often and use that information as the basis for your micro content. You’ll also have to include synonyms and different wordings in the phrases. In a sense, creating micro content is similar to indexing in that it’s never finished.
  • Speed of creation – The process of creating the phrase/response pairs is slow when done manually. Start keeping track of the time required so that you can factor that into future project planning.

How can Micro Content be Used?

Any short chunk of information that users might specifically search for can serve as micro content – like a miniature landing page as MadCap calls it. And there are several other potential uses of micro content, particularly in Flare:
  • Chatbots – Responses from a bot should be focused and concise, like micro content. Bots have been tremendously overhyped but they are no doubt coming, and micro content will support them.
  • AR – The annotations used in augmented reality applications should be focused and concise in order to use as little screen space as possible. Again, micro content will support this.

       And a fourth possible use case is starting to emerge…

  • The conversational web – Over the years, we’ve become accustomed to the search hit lists generated by Google and other search tools. Those work, if we’re looking at a screen and can scroll down the list of hits to find the one that meets our needs. But it’s almost impossible to remember multiple hits and choose between them without seeing them.

    The article “Alexa, I Want Answers” in the March 2019 issue of Wired posited a search paradigm in which users want one answer, or “one-shot answers” to solve the problem of dealing with multiple responses when you can’t see them. That means that search optimization will have to move toward providing the best answer, rather than the best 100,000 answers and, because voice responses have to be short, micro content could be used to provide the voice-optimized chunks of content.

While there are multiple applications for micro content, the easiest way to start using micro content is through featured search results. By applying and exploring the feature, users can start laying the groundwork for the chatbot and AR use cases of the future.


Micro content is likely to have major effects on project design, management, and the overall usability of the output. MadCap has done a smooth and neat implementation of micro content into the larger Flare architecture, and Flare authors should expect to be able to use it to good effect in future projects.

About the Author

Neil has 4 decades of experience in tech comm, with 34 years in training, consulting, and development for various online formats and tools including WinHelp, HTML Help, CE Help, JavaHelp, WebHelp, Flare, and more. Neil is a frequent speaker at MadWorld and various professional groups and the author of several books about Flare and mobile app development.

Neil is MadCap certified for Flare and Mimic, ViziApps certified for the ViziApps mobile app development platform, and certified in other authoring tools.  He provides training, consulting, and development for online help and documentation, Flare, Mimic, other authoring tools, mobile apps, XML, single-sourcing, topic-based and structured authoring, and content strategy.  He can be reached at,

Position Zero – It’s a Good Thing

In my keynote at the Conduit conference in Philadelphia on April 6, 2019, I mentioned something called “position zero” as an aspect of SEO but didn’t really explain what it was and why it might matter to tech comm.

“Position zero”, also called a “featured snippet”, is a relatively recent addition to a Google search results list. It shows up in the list above the first hit – ergo “position zero”. It has a summary and a description of the site from which it came. For example, searching for “B58 Hustler” in Google gives this result.

The featured snippet appears above or, here, to the right of the first search result. It’s usually followed by a “People also search for” list of other questions in text form or, in this case, in graphical form.

The featured snippet is determined organically. According to “SEO above position 1: What's Position Zero?“ by Kent Campbell at,

A few things play into which webpage's content is featured as the snippet:

      1. First page results. It’s necessary that your page is on the first page of search results for your given search query. Usually in the first five results. 
      2. Relevant information. The answer you provide has to be the right answer, and the information on the page must be relevant to the search term overall.
      3. Useful formatting. If you’ve formatted your answer like this answer is, or if you’ve got a nice table of information, Google will be more likely to display it.

So, what does this mean for tech comm? Until now, our searches have been internal to the authoring tool, like Flare’s search engine, or external, using Google, each giving the usual long list of hits. Ideally, our material will appear within the first ten hits, more ideally near the top of that list, but the exact position hasn’t been crucial. Until now…

We’re now moving from screen-based content toward voice-based content. We’ll want to appear at the top of the list of search hits because many users will go with the first hit because they won’t be able to remember the first three, let alone the first ten. Some users might respond to the first hit by asking the search engine for the next hit, but it will be the rare user who goes deeper down the list. So, the old rule of thumb that any item outside the first ten hits won’t be seen is changing. Now, any item outside the first one, possibly two, won’t be seen. That’s going to affect how we apply SEO to our content.

I expect to see conference presentations later this year or in 2020 on what’s required to reach position zero. Look for a blog post on the subject here in the next few months.