Friday, October 23, 2020

MadCap Flare 2020r2 – My Favorite New Features

 MadCap Software released MadCap Flare 2020R2 about two weeks ago, with new features ranging from those that add convenience to those that, in my opinion, indicate trends. In this review, I’ll briefly look at my favorites in this latest release. (For an overview of all the new features, see the “What’s New in MadCap Flare 2020 r2” video at

Micro Content Enhancements

MadCap continues to expand the micro content feature at a rapid clip. The most recent change is in the ability to format content differently when it’s displayed in a traditional topic versus when it’s displayed as micro content. Why do this?

MadCap’s example of using part of a set of content in traditional output and a slightly different part of that content in micro content is a good one. For example, you might not want to mention an option in the micro content in order to keep that material short in the more restricted space. Ditto using different formatting, different line spacing for example.

Assessment – From its inception, one of Flare’s major characteristics has been flexibility. That flexibility is further enhanced by this newest micro content feature. That feature also suggests future directions for Flare. (What follows is pure speculation.) For all intents and purposes, the micro content features are turning Flare into a two-track authoring tool. It can be used for “traditional” online content, with micro content integrated into that content, but can also be used to create (micro) content by itself, positioning Flare as an authoring tool for use in creating content for “terse” applications like VR, voice, or chatbots.

I have not yet had any Flare clients that make full use of the micro content features but I’ll be interested to see how that changes in the next few years.

“Sort at Build” Option

This is one of those seemingly trivial features that solves an annoying problem – what happens if several authors work on a list in the same topic and add, delete, or edit list items but don’t sort it before a build because that isn’t any one author’s job. The result is a list that’s out of order and doesn’t look correct, or that might even confuse readers. The sort at build option simply lets authors specify that the list should be sorted at build time by Flare itself, removing that task from the authors.

Assessment – “Sort at build” is a neat solution to the multi-author sorting issue. It also reflects a change in the authoring environment since it implies that multiple authors may touch the same material, which in turn implies the use of a source control system.

Salesforce and ZenDesk Enhancements

MadCap continues to enhance its ability to create output for use in these two environments. However, because these environments are so specialized, a detailed discussion of the enhancements won’t be useful here so I’ll simply note that the enhancements correct mismatches and problems between Flare and those environments.

Assessment – My experience is that Salesforce and ZenDesk authors are often less than happy with the authoring capabilities in those environments. MadCap’s continued improvement to Flare’s interaction with those environments makes it more likely authors can use Flare in place of the native authoring features.

Deprecated Features

I found two sets of deprecated features meaningful in both the trend and personal aspects.

The first is DITA output. DITA was introduced with a bang in the early 2000s as the answer for structured authoring but, outside of a small and specialized community, never took off within tech comm. MadCap gave DITA support a valiant effort but the deprecation is a recognition of DITA’s failure to effectively launch. (To my friends in the DITA space – let’s just agree to disagree.)

The second is the WebHelp output. WebHelp appeared in late 1997/early 1998 as a browser-based alternative to Microsoft’s HTML Help, the first HTML-based online help output. (The previous format, Windows Help, also from Microsoft, was based on RTF.) HTML5 began to supersede WebHelp in the early 2010s and is now dominant, as indicated by WebHelp’s deprecation by MadCap. Tempus fugit.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

MadCap Flare 2020 – My Favorite New Features

MadCap Software recently released MadCap Flare 2020 and the May 2020 version of MadCap Central. As with past releases, the new features run the gamut from the unexpected and powerful to those that add convenience. In this review, I’ll touch on a few of my favorite features in this release of Flare. (For a look at all the new features, see the What’s New webinar that MadCap is presenting on May 13 (and likely to be found soon afterwards at MadCap’s web site).

Micro Content Enhancements

The biggest change is an enhanced micro content feature. MadCap Software has added support for conditions on micro content phrases in order to control what phrases are available for a given output. It also added support for conditions to control what micro content is seen when viewed in normal topics or as search results. Finally, it added support for variables in micro content, similar to “regular” variables. The result effectively creates a new development stream that can be used in parallel with regular topics or even in place of regular topics. If you’re already familiar with conditions and variables, using them with micro content won’t be too big a challenge. The biggest issue will be the expanded project management load.

Assessment – Flare is an extraordinarily powerful single sourcing tool. (See the six-part series on my blog at for an overview of the single sourcing features.) These new micro content capabilities simply increase Flare’s single sourcing power. I don’t know any company that has made full use of all these features but between the existing features and the new ones for micro content, I can’t think of anything that I could not do.

There’s one more change to the micro content – creating context-sensitive Help at the field, or “object”, level. In the RTF-based help days, this was handled by “What’s This Help”. Over time, however, due to the effort that this called for on the parts of the help authors and the application programmers, field-level help largely disappeared. The enhanced micro content feature now supports field-level help by letting authors assign context-sensitive help IDs to micro content phrases. And rather than having to create separate topics for the field help, we can simply use text from a larger topic as the field help.

Assessment – I’m not sure how widely this capability of the micro content feature will be used because of the fall-off in the use of field help over the last 10+ years. But any company that wants or needs to create field-level help will welcome this feature.

Find and Replace Enhancements

Flare’s Find and Replace feature has always been very powerful. This enhancement boosts that power. The Find and Replace in Files tab is now split into two tabs – Find Text and Find Elements. The Find Text tab is largely the same as the Find and Replace in Files tab, letting you search for and replace text or search for and replace code in topics. But the new Find Elements tab enhances that by letting you search for types of items with conditions. For example, you can search for a category of item, including tag, class, style ID, inline formatting, or attribute. You can then specify what to search for within a category, such as a specific tag or class or a specific piece of inline format coding. You can then specify the replacement string. For example, from the examples in MadCap’s online help, you might remove a tip in all the topics. Or you might remove a Center class from all paragraphs in all snippets. Or you might remove local formatting from all topics in one folder. And so on.

Assessment – If you have to modify a project at the code level, or if you’re cleaning up the code from an old Flare project or a project from another authoring tool after import into Flare, the sheer power in this feature will put it at the top of your toolbox. My only reservation is that this feature is so powerful that you’ll have to carefully think through what you’re trying to do, and back up the project, before actually doing the work. (Both tabs have a Create Backup option which makes that easy.) I’d also recommend experimenting with it before actually using it.

Code Snippets

If you had to insert code snippets in your topics in the past, you probably did so in one of two ways. You might have taken a screen shot of the code and pasted it into the topic. This works but it’s impossible for readers to grab the code out of the topic to re-use it. Or you copied the code from another file, pasted it into the topic, and formatted it to make it stand out from the text. The new code snippets feature is like option 2 but better; it treats the code as an “object” that can be formatted in various language formats, and formatted for appearance, and adds a clickable “Copy” command that eliminates the need to select and copy the text like readers do now. Code snippets look attractive in printed outputs as well.

Assessment – This is a special-purpose feature, but it will come in very handy if you need to insert code snippets with syntax highlighting in your topics, such as in API documentation.

Collapsing and Expanding Tags in the XML Editor

If you create long topics with a complex heading structure, it can be difficult to keep track of where you are within that heading structure. Even with the structure bars turned on, different heading levels can start to look alike. Is that a Heading 2 or a Heading 3? The ability to collapse and expand sections in the XML Editor may make things easier. Simply click on the angled arrowhead to the left of the material – a heading, paragraph, etc. – to collapse that material. Clicking on the angled arrowhead again re-expands the material. Moving or deleting a collapsed head moves or deletes all the material collapsed under it. You can hide or show the collapse/expand indicators, just as you can hide or show the structure bars, by clicking the appropriate button on the lower toolbar of the XML Editor.

Assessment – This is a useful convenience feature.

New Plugin for ServiceNow

Flare added support for publishing to Salesforce and Zendesk in previous releases, a real benefit if you use Flare but have to create content to be published to those other systems. Flare 2020 adds support for publishing content to a third platform with the MadCap Connect for ServiceNow plugin. 

Assessment -- This is a very useful feature for ServiceNow users (as were the plug-ins for Salesforce and Zendesk) because they keep you within Flare’s single-sourcing feature set.


All the new features and enhancements are useful and continue MadCap’s tradition of pioneering. The enhanced micro content feature is the most impressive new feature in Flare 2020, but it also takes you further away from the “wing it” philosophy of development. A feature this powerful and wide-ranging needs careful planning and management to be used effectively. If you work in code, the enhanced Find and Replace feature is an unbeatable way to become more efficient – with the caveat that it’s so powerful that you’ll want to understand both the feature and what you’re trying to do very carefully before actually using it. And if you find yourself doing API documentation, or if you need to showcase code snippets in online and print output, you’ll appreciate the new code snippet editor.
Overall, Flare 2020 looks like a solid new release.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Contextualizing Our Content – One Step Beyond

On April 2, I gave a webinar for MadCap called “Contextualizing Our Content – Today and Tomorrow.” In that webinar, I briefly reviewed how traditional context-sensitive help (CSH) and responsive design work before discussing and demo-ing advanced contextualization. That involved customizing a Flare target in real-time, without regenerating the output, in response to simulated sensor data, such as a change in temperature reported by a temperature sensor. The idea was to show how content can be customized based on input from anywhere, not just from within the computer as in CSH and responsive design. The bigger idea was to illustrate an example of contextualization in support of the Information 4.0 concept.

I won’t describe that first webinar in any more detail. You can find it in the list of recorded webinars at

Several viewers asked what other criteria could be used to customize the content. Those questions lead me to do some further testing to see what other properties of the output could be modified without the need to regenerate the output – customizing the output in real-time by modifying a control file, saving the modification, and then simply refreshing the output. I didn’t test every possibility – this was a proof-of-concept test – but here’s what I found.

The input control data comes first. This could be external sensor data, as in the webinar, but, in theory, could be any kind of data from anywhere. One viewer asked if artificial intelligence data might work. I wasn’t able to test this but it should work. (If you’re the person who asked that question, please contact me if you’d like to discuss this further.)

The processing script comes next. I simulated this in the webinar by modifying the CSS file by hand but it should be possible to write a Javascript that captured the input control data and use it to create a new version of the control file (show.css in the webinar) or simply modify the control file.

The next issue, and the topic of this post, is what you can modify in the output. As the webinar showed, I could modify the content based on its conditionality. Because conditions can apply to almost anything in a Flare project, almost anything should be modifiable as long as the things to be modified are specified in a control file that’s in the Output folder. For example, I was able to modify the skin banner for tablets by changing the background-color under nav.title-bar in tablet.css in output > owner > HTML5 > skins > fluid > stylesheets. Similarly, I was able to modify the skin banner for mobile by making the same change but in mobile.css.

Here’s an example, first with the skin banner colors generated in the target output.



And finally, mobile-sized – i.e. phone-sized:

Now, here’s the same output but with the tablet and mobile banner colors set in tablet.css and mobile.css as described above. (I’m leaving the desktop-sized banner in red.)

Tablet-sized (the hex value for the silver is C0C0C0):

And mobile-sized (the hex value for the orange is ffa500):

It may be possible to control other elements of an output – as I noted above, this was more of a proof- of-concept than a complete test. But it does work. And as I noted in the webinar, this offers the ability to customize our outputs in response to a wide variety of environmental data. And it does so in real-time, which may open up industrial applications for which the traditional build process was too time-consuming.

It’s also just cool…

If you’d like to discuss this further, feel free to email me at