If you follow help authoring tools, you’ve probably heard that MadCap Software recently released the latest iteration of their flagship help authoring tool, MadCap Flare V7.
Flare 7 has an impressive list of new features; it seems that the folks at MadCap have had a busy year. In just less than a year since V6 was released they have released the following new features. This list is NOT comprehensive, and is roughly ranked in order of how excited I am about these features (mainly because of my project needs and constraints):
- SharePoint integration
- Subversion support (native)
- Alias Editor redesign
- External resources
- Enhanced reports
- Review and Contribution work flow changes and enhancements
- Auto Suggestion
- Accessibility Enhancements
- Equations & Vector graphics
- Other Minor Tweaks
Let’s tackle these one-by-one. (Or you can use the links above to skip to the corresponding section, below.)
If you work in a large organization that uses Microsoft SharePoint for team collaboration, then you are going to be very excited about version 7′s support for SharePoint. This truly allows you to do multi-author collaboration in a way that just works.
With SharePoint integration, you can store your project on a SharePoint site, and Flare can connect to the SharePoint site. Every author in your organization can connect to the same SharePoint source files, and they can check out and check in files as they are working on them. Or you can have a local copy of your Flare project and create mappings that synchronize the content on your machine with the content on the SharePoint site (nice for people who have the need to author content when they aren’t connected to the network).
SharePoint integration means you can publish your files directly to the SharePoint site. (Thus SharePoint will automatically index your help output so when users do a search in SharePoint they will find help content from your project!)
You can even store custom templates on a SharePoint site, so that newly created content in Flare projects can be based on the template. (Another great feature for multi-author environments.)
If you are already using Flare V7, from the View menu, select SharePoint Explorer to get started. You will need to connect to your company’s SharePoint server, then set up your project.
I use SharePoint daily at my work, and we’ve had several projects where we are working with multiple authors, so I’m thrilled to see native SharePoint integration. This makes mutli-author collaboration so much easier!
Subversion support (native)
If you don’t have access to SharePoint, you can still get the benefits of a source control tool. Previously, if you wanted to connect to a Subversion (SVN) repository, you had to purchase a third-party plug-in. Contributors to the Flare forums often complained that the process was clunky, or they couldn’t get it to work.
Say goodbye to the third party plug-ins, SVN users, because Flare will now connect to SVN natively. When you bind your Flare project to a repository,you can choose Subversion from the list of source control providers.
You then give Flare the server and project path, and you are ready to go. This makes working with SVN so much easier, and I know lots of people who are going to be cheering for this new feature.
Alias Editor redesign
If you’ve worked with Flare to create context-sensitive help, you’ve had to work with the alias editor. On a first pass through the project, the old alias editor wasn’t too bad. Where things got hard was on the second and subsequent iterations of a project when you had to go back and locate the new topics and figure out what topics didn’t have an alias added to them. Then you had to locate the topic by its name and assign an alias to it. This was a painful process if you worked in a medium-size project. It was an absolute nightmare for people who were working in very large projects.
Well, you can wake up from the nightmare, because Flare V7 introduces a completely re-designed alias editor. This feature alone would be enough for me to upgrade to Flare V7.
One of the best new features is the auto generator, which will identify the topics in your project without identifiers, and create them for you automatically. This feature will save me hours and hours of work on large projects I’m updating.
This makes creating context-sensitive help push-button easy. Where once the alias editor was deemed an “advanced” topic (for good reason), now it is easy for even novice users to create, update, and work with alias files.
Flare now supports external resources through a new External Resources panel.
External resources are groups of files that you can share among Flare projects. These files can be any files that you can access from your computer (network files, local files, etc.) When you bring a synchronized file into a Flare project, it creates a two-way mapping, so any updates are changed in both the current project and other Flare projects that share the synchronized file.
For example, you may have an image of your product’s logo that you expect may change over time. You can use that image as an external resource. Then when you change that image, all projects will automatically get that new image the next time they build their targets.
Flare V7 includes some new reporting tools that will help you find and fix problems in your projects. Several of these reports were previously available using the external Analyzer application. Now they are native to Flare itself.
When you open the Reports editor, you’ll notice that the report options are now categorized into groups of similar reports, rather than a single long list of reports (as in previous versions). This new organization makes it easier to find the reports you are interested in. (Note that several reports are available in more than one category; if the report is in two categories but has the same title, then you can know that it is the same report in two places.)
New reports include:
- Applied Conditions
- Broken Snippet Links
- Files With Annotations
- Files With Changes (includes annotations)
- Files With Concepts
- Files With Condition Tags
- Files With Equations
- Files With Glossary Term Links
- Files With Images
- Files With Keywords
- Files With Language Tags
- Files With Multimedia
- Files With QR Codes
- Files With Snippets
- Files With Variables
- Topics With Concept Links
- Topics With Concept Links Missing a Concept
- Unused Snippets
Review and Contribution work flow changes and enhancements
MadCap has added several new features to Flare and combined the X-Edit family of tools into a single tool called Contributor.
Now when you send topics for review, you can track changes, like you can in Microsoft Word. You can see all the changes that the reviewer made and you can choose to reject or approve the changes.
For this functionality to work, your reviewers will need to upgrade to MadCap Contributor, which is not a free tool (that is a major downside, unfortunately), as the X-Edit family of tools does not support track changes.
From a functionality standpoint, it might be interesting for you to know that track changes keeps all annotations and changes in the source code. So when a reviewer deletes text, it is still in the document’s source code, it just isn’t displayed in the text editor. Once you accept the change, however, the deleted text is removed from the source code.
Prior versions of Flare had a feature called IntelliSense, which frankly I found annoying, so I turned it off. Apparently I wasn’t alone, because in Flare 7, MadCap has removed IntelliSense from the product and replaced it with Auto Suggestion.
Auto Suggestion is like an intelligent version of IntelliSense. Like IntelliSense, Auto Suggestion monitors what you type and tries to help you with suggestions you may find useful. However, with Auto Suggestion, you only see select suggestions. There are default suggestions (like date and time options, to help you be consistent in the ways you enter and use dates), but you can add to this list. For example, you can add your company and product names, words you commonly misspell, or specific terms from your company’s style guide. When you begin typing these terms, Auto Suggest will offer its help. (IntelliSense, on the other hand, used ALL TEXT from your project to offer help, which really wasn’t helpful.)
In addition, Auto Suggestion will offer variables and snippets from your project, helping you single-source your content. There are some important limitations, however. For example, matching a snippet file will only happen if (1) you turn on snippet matching in the Flare options dialog, and (2) you begin typing the text exactly as it is in the snippet file. I hope to see this feature grow in future iterations, so that if you have a partial match to words in the snippet file, or if key words are there, but in a different order, it will still show you the suggested text in the snippet file.
For example, if your snippet is the text “Parts and labor are not included”, I want the Auto Suggestion to match even if I start typing “Labor and parts”. As it is currently implemented, Auto Suggestion will only match the snippet if I start typing “Parts and labor”. So while this feature is a promising look into what is possible, it isn’t quite as useful yet as I hoped it would be.
However this is a step in the right direction, and I’ve found it especially helpful when I’m using a product name as a variable, since when I type in the product name, Auto Suggest gives me the option to replace the product name with the variable, with very little additional work on my part.
There are a bunch of enhancements related to section 508 compliance (regarding accessibility of web pages and PDF guides for vision-impaired customers). WebHelp is now section 508 compliant, but you may see errors when you generate your output (for example, if you didn’t include ALT text for a graphic you inserted into your project). The target editors now have a separate tab called Warnings that allows you to set which warnings you want to see when your target is compiled, so you don’t have to see warnings for “errors” you know about and are ignoring.
Probably the coolest new feature related to accessibility is that when you insert or edit an image, you can set an image’s ALT text and make that ALT text apply in every place in the project that the image is used. This single-sources the ALT text for a given image, making the output more consistent, 508 compliant, and cheaper to translate.
Equations & Vector graphics
Flare V7 now sports a new Equations editor, so you can include mathematical equations in your projects. These equations are stored in vector format in the project, so Flare now supports vector graphics natively in the application. Insert your EPS, PS, and SVG graphics directly into your topics. When you generate your online output (WebHelp, etc.), the images are automatically converted to PNG (rastor-based) for increased browser compatibility. However, since vector-based images are supported in PDF output, the native vector images are used for PDF targets.
Other Minor tweaks
There are several minor tweaks that provide a big bang-for-your-buck that I think you’re going to like. They include:
New Paste functionality
In early versions of Flare, when you pasted content into the editor, you simply got a block of inline text with no formatting, no line breaks, or anything. I converted an entire project copying content from the source material and pasting it into Flare. A couple of revisions ago, Flare introduced a new paste dialog that appeared every time you pasted content into the editor. This was a big improvement, because you could now paste inline text, formatted text (retaining any HTML properties, for example), or unformatted text that retained paragraph breaks. In version 7 Flare makes pasting text into a topic even easier.
Now when you paste text into a topic, the text just appears as unformatted text with paragraph breaks. At the end of the pasted content, a little paste icon appears (like you might expect in Microsoft Word). When you click that icon, you see a window that allows you to change the way the text will be inserted into your topic. If you tend to paste text of a certain type, you can even change the default behavior. If you have spent time pasting text into a Flare topic, you’ll understand how exciting this little change can be.
Another paste enhancement in Flare 7 is that you can now paste an image directly into a topic. If the item on the clipboard is an image and you paste it into a topic, Flare opens a dialog that asks you where you want to save the image (with the Resources/Images folder selected by default). Save the image in the project, and the image is stored locally in the project, and it appears in the topic.
Our friends, the authors of “Five Steps to MadCap Flare” warn that if you are pasting a large image, you will probably want to continue copying the file manually into the project, as Window’s clipboard isn’t known for optimizing image sizes. (Stay tuned in the coming days for my review of the Version 7 Supplement to “Five Steps to MadCap Flare.” I’ve seen it, and it is fantastic. But more on that in a future post.)
Table style sheets have been enhanced, which will be useful for those who use table style sheets. Flare now has the option to sort rows by a column. There is a new toolbar button for inserting a table. There is functionality that allows you to convert text to tables and tables to text. Additionally, you can now modify a cell’s background color. You can find detailed information about these and other table changes on MadCap’s website.
XML editor modifications
In Flare V7 you’ll notice several changes in the XML Editor. First, Flare has removed the table blocks (or structure bars) from the left and top of the XML editor. You now interact with table rows and columns using the standard XML structure bars. This is a good change; it increases screen real estate, simplifies the editor for users, and gives you more options for interacting with rows and columns without having to click inside the table first.
Next, you should note that in V7, the XML Editor has two new buttons on the editor’s tool bar: insert snippet and insert variable. This is a minor but welcome change for people who insert snippets and variables, as there is less mouse movement needed to add snippets and variables to a topic.
QR Code support
QR codes are those funny box bar codes that you see popping up on signs, billboards, websites, and business cards. They allow people with QR-code-reading software on their mobile phone to scan the QR code to get information. For example, a link to my blog is embedded in the QR code to the right. Somebody with QR software can scan the code and be taken directly to my blog’s website in their phone’s browser.
I’m not exactly sure what the use case is for adding this to Flare, but I’m guessing that you could, for example, use a QR code as a context-sensitive help link. Then when users wanted help on a specific feature, they could browse the answer on their mobile phone, while keeping the application open.
Or the reverse case is also possible, in each topic, you can enter a QR code that will take users to a particular place in your product, or to your website for more information. I think this feature strikes my fancy simply because I have a phone that reads QR codes, and I’m always looking for a QR code to scan.
Preview in any target
In prior versions of Flare, when you clicked the preview button in the XML editor for a topic, you saw the preview based on the default target. Thus, if your default target was a PDF document, you always saw all previews as PDFs.
Now in Flare 7 you can select what type of target you want to preview in. Simply click the down arrow next to the preview button, and select your target (it will only show you targets you have added to your project).
What is cool about this is that since you are previewing a specific target in your project, any conditions you have set for that target will be automatically taken into account in the preview. (Of course you can always edit the conditions using the expression editor above the preview window, like you are used to doing.)
View Output in any browser
When you clicked the View Output button in prior versions, Flare automatically launched the default web browser. Now there is a down arrow next to the View Output button that lets you select any installed browser on your system.
This option is nice, because it lets you pick the browser to check any cross-browser compatibility issues.
Flare now supports local viewing of projects in Google’s Chrome browser. In earlier versions of Flare, Chrome’s security settings wouldn’t let it display Flare’s WebHelp output if the output was stored locally on the machine. Now Flare V7 supports viewing of WebHelp output in Chrome for both local versions and remote versions.
(I’m including this one specifically because Google Chrome is my default web browser, and two weeks ago when I was at a client site giving Flare training, I kept having issues when I would view my local output, and Flare would automatically launch Chrome, which wouldn’t display the WebHelp output.)
Flare V7 is a fantastic iteration of my favorite authoring tool. I’ve been lucky enough to be a beta tester of Flare V7 for a couple of months, and I’m excited that it is now live and available.
If you are wondering if you should upgrade, I think this article has provided several specific features that will save you time and money as you work with Flare projects. (And when you are justifying a software upgrade, those are two key components for the holder of the purse strings: time and money.) For example, the new alias editor will save you hours of time each time you need to update your project. The accessibility enhancements make providing content to vision-impaired customers much easier. The new reporting tools will save you time as you QA your own projects to ensure links and other content are properly working in the project, and will deliver a higher-quality product to your customers with less work on your part. The Auto Suggestion tool, if used properly, can help save you time and effort and can improve accuracy by helping you re-use content already in your project. It will also save on localization costs as you only have to localize snippets one time. If you use SVN or SharePoint there are project backup and versioning enhancements that will secure the content in case your local machine dies. SharePoint and SVN integration also enhance multi-author environments, making your team more productive. The list goes on and on. If you can, I highly recommend an upgrade to Flare 7, and that is speaking as a help author, not as a Flare trainer.
So what changes are you most excited about in Flare V7? Are there any enhancements you are looking forward to that I missed? Are you already using Flare V7? (It’s been out for about two weeks already!) If so, what do you think about it? Answer these questions, or share other thoughts and ideas in the comments thread below.