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 hyperword.blogspot.com 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.

Summary

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.

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