Review of MadCap Flare V6

If you are a technical communicator who pays attention to the latest releases of help authoring tools, dosage you probably heard that MadCap Software released a new version of its flagship product, information pills MadCap Flare.

I’ve been using Flare V6 for a couple of months now, and this review is to give you an end user’s review of the features and enhancements Flare V6 has to offer. You may be asking yourself if it’s worth it to upgrade your existing Flare installation to the latest version. Let me give you eight reasons to upgrade, if your budget allows.

Reason 1: WebHelp Mobile Output

Flare V6 includes a new target: WebHelp Mobile. This target creates a web-help output designed for mobile browsers, particularly the iPhone.

If you are trying to produce help content in a way that is accessible in the increasingly-important mobile browser market, this output format is exactly what you need.

To leverage your existing content in this new output format, it is as easy as adding any other target. You add a target to the project, and select WebHelp Mobile as the target type. The first time you add a WebHelp mobile target, you will also need to create a mobile skin. If you leave the default values, Flare creates a skin that matches the native iPhone skin very nicely. (There are actually thee different mobile skins to choose from including gray (default), slate, and green.)

Now, set your skin in your mobile target file, and build your project. In about 30 seconds, you’ve created a mobile-friendly target. The results look great:

Reason 2: Batch Generate and Publish

This is a feature that I needed about two years ago, and I’m thrilled to see it built directly into the Flare interface.

Consider the following use case: you are working on your help system in the same cycle as the developers who are coding the application. Nightly, an automatic build of the software takes place. You want to be sure that the latest changes to the documentation get pulled into the nightly build so they can be tested in the application.

Prior to version 6 of Flare, you had to create a script and run Flare from the command line. Your script would build each target, and then would copy it to the production environment where it would be captured by the nightly application build script. Then you had to create a Windows Scheduler task to run the batch file at a specific time.

If you didn’t know much about coding, you this was a manual process. Flare could build to a “build” location, but couldn’t publish to your “publishing” destination. And it was a manual, outside-of-the-application process.

No more.

With Flare 6, MadCap introduces batch targets. A batch target is pretty much what it sounds like: it is a batch of targets that get built and/or published by a single process.

I create a batch target like I create a normal target:

When I create a batch target, I select which existing targets should be included in the batch. Now I can choose to build all the targets in the batch, publish all the targets in the batch, or both build and publish all the targets in the batch.

What is even more powerful is that you can schedule these batch builds directly in Flare. No need to use Windows scheduler.

It is as easy as adding a task, and deciding when the task should run.

Then, of course, you need to leave your computer on during the build time, because clearly the process can’t run if your computer is not turned on.

Reason 3: Multi-Topic Review

Maybe you’ve heard about using MadCap’s review tool, XEdit, or maybe you’ve actually tried it, but found that it didn’t meet your needs. In any case, now it is time to look at it again, and closely.

Flare V6 now supports the ability to send multiple topics out for review at the same time. In prior versions, if you had a lot of topics to send to a single person, you had to go into each topic and start the review process for that topic.

Say your printed guide contained 15 topics, and you wanted a SME to review the entire chapter at once. You had to send out each topic separately for review.

Now you can open a single topic, click to send it for review, and you get the following dialog box:

Here you can add more topics for review, and then save the entire batch to be sent in a single file to the reviewer.

If you wanted, you can send the entire project out for review in a single file. This is going to make getting reviews more efficient and allow you to be even more productive in Flare.

Reason 4: File Tagging

Closely related (for me at least) to the last reason to upgrade, there is another great new feature that makes working with projects much, much easier: file tagging.

With file tagging, you are essentially creating additional metadata about a topic such as the topics author, the progress of the document through the review process, or any other tag you want to associate with a topic.

As an extreme example, I show how this would be useful by giving a real-world use case. A friend of mine (we’ll call him “Steve”) was recently working on a Flare project. He had seven different authors contributing content to him in Word format. Each document had to go through six different reviewers which included at least 4 different drafts of each document.

Steve didn’t get to choose the process, but he had to manage the flow of documentation through the process and into production. He had to create a massive spreadsheet to track the progress of each document through all the iterations of reviews and approvals. Time was spent every morning getting all the writers together to update the status of the spreadsheet document. By the end of the project at least a cumulative 150 hours had been spent trying to keep track of the status of the individual topics. Multiply that by the average hourly wage of the people who were in the meetings, and you see that somewhere in excess of $5000 was spent in those meetings, simply to track the progress of topics through the pipeline.

Too bad they didn’t have Flare V6. With Flare V6 you now have the option to add tags to individual files. In Steve’s case, he could have added a tag for the topic author, and a tag for each review phase. When a document passed through each phase of the pipeline, the author could update the flag for the topic. With Flare’s built-in reports, Steve could run a report and know instantly where each topic was in the pipeline, where each contributor was in their progress, and provide that report to the managers. There is still some maintenance involved in tracking the individual topics in Flare, but at least with Flare you are doing it in a single location. In Steve’s case, his project could have saved—literally—hundreds of hours, and thousands of dollars.

True story.

Reason 5: Improved Template Management

Have you ever tried to create a template in Flare? Prior to version 6, it was a real pain. You had to go out into the Windows file system, and create your own file structure in a specific location with everything spelled exactly correctly or the template files couldn’t be seen by Flare.

No longer. Now you can create your templates right in Flare and manage them from within Flare’s interface.

Here are three menu options in Flare V6 that apply to this discussion:

File > Save As Template…
Project > Save Project as Template…
Tools > Manage Templates…

The first, Save As Template, allows you to save any item you are working on as a template that you can re-use later, be it a topic, a target, master page, etc.

Next time you are creating an item of that type, the template will be there to choose from.

The second, Save Project as Template lets you save the current project as a template. This allows you to create lots of boilerplate content that you can save at the project level, and have ready and available for each new project that you create. This is handy when Master Projects (available since V4, I believe) are overkill. Sometimes you want to start from the same baseline, but be free to develop a project that is significantly different from another.

Finally, the third, Manage templates, lets you manage all your template files in a single window, so you can see what templates you’ve created and what you still might want to develop or modify.

Reason 6: Link Viewer

My colleague, Tom Johnson, pointed out this feature to me, and I think it is great. In earlier versions of Flare you were able to view dependencies for a given file. The link viewer gives you that same functionality, but more.

With the Link viewer you can easily see what topics link to a given topic, and where that topic links to. You can double-click any topic in the list to go directly to that topic to see if any changes are needed.

For example, maybe in version two of your product, you enhance the widget feature. It now works differently, or is invoked in a different way. With the link viewer, you can quickly see what topics link to the widget topic. Then you can open each of them and see if any text needs to be modified to accommodate this new functionality.

This may seem like a minor feature, but when it comes to making updates to documentation, I think you’ll find that this is really rather useful, saving you mouse clicks, time, and mental energy.

Reason 7: Improved PDF Support

I love the new PDF support in Flare V6. In Flare V4 MadCap gave us the ability to publish directly to PDF without needing Word or Framemaker. In Flare V5, they enhanced this capability and included options for including your own metadata in the document. In Flare V6 you can now add additional metadata and can control PDF security options from within the Flare PDF target editor.

This really makes publishing much easier for me. One of the final, manual processes I always had to do on my PDF documents was to modify the security settings and ensure that all the metadata was set in the PDF document. This was a pain, because in many cases, my PDF was pulled into the build nightly based on the batch process I outlined earlier in this article.

Now with Flare V6 I can set all the PDF settings I need in the target, and with the batch builder and publisher I really can let my automatic, nightly build be released without any post-build work at all.

Reason 8: User Interface Enhancements

Flare V6 has several user interface enhancements that don’t seem to be much individually, but in the aggregate make the whole experience smoother and nicer. For example, the target editor has been updated so that you only see the options that are relevant to the type of target you are creating. Icons have been modified throughout the application to make it easy to identify the different types of files you’re working with (each target type now has its own icon associated with it, for example).

While this probably isn’t a great argument in itself for an upgrade, it is a nice bonus.

Conclusion

In this article, I’ve given you eight reasons why you should upgrade your existing Flare installation to version 6. Flare is my first choice help authoring tool, and this latest version makes me like it all the better.

I’m interested to hear your take, as well. Please comment below and tell me your favorite new features in Flare, and sound off about the features that are missing that you’d like to see added in a future version.

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Full disclosure: I am a certified MadCap Flare trainer and an MVP in the MadCap user forums. I received a free copy of Flare V6 because of my assistance in the forums, NOT because of this review. This article represents my personal opinion and is not influenced by, nor does it necessarily represent the opinion of my employer, or of MadCap Software.

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8 Responses to Review of MadCap Flare V6

  1. John Barnes March 17, 2010 at 1:49 am #

    Nice review, glad to see that some of the useful functionality that has been in RoboHelp for some time is now in Flare’s new features. I use both RoboHelp and Flare in my work as a technical writer, so it is always good to see cross-fertilisation of ideas! This might make me friendlier towards Flare. Thanks!

  2. Deb March 17, 2010 at 5:48 am #

    Great review, we’re scheduled to upgrade in after April 1 due to deadlines. I can’t wait as I plan on pushing the mobile target as an option for support personnel doing installs.

    I’m curious about the PDF output size. It was one of the items mentioned in the “What’s New” webinar. Is the smaller size due to the option of compressing? Does the new PDF engine create smaller files using the default settings? This is the main reason I’m recommending the upgrade.

    I’d kill to have keyboard shortcuts for snippets and variables! It takes so long to insert them via the UI. I have a 250+ page document using them throughout. I’m trying to get used to doing them in HTML.

  3. Roger Sharp March 17, 2010 at 1:41 pm #

    Good points. Thanks. I recently attended the V6 Roadshow by Mike Hamilton and Neil Possner. Very good. One thing I will add regarding Interface Enhancements is the split screen feature: R-click the topic tab > Floating. I don’t know if this is new for V6. Also, the X-Edit viewer for sending out reviews is a great feature. The free version doesn’t allow editing, only comments. Sounds good to me.

  4. Deb March 18, 2010 at 5:44 am #

    @Roger Sharp

    WOW It’s available in V5! Just have to make sure you have the topic opened in text editor first. You can’t open the topic in text editor once it’s floating. Doing the happy dance here as I hadn’t found this little jewel yet. This will help with hand coding! (How I work in DW most of the time.)

    I’m hoping to make the Atlanta Roadshow even if I have to pay for it myself and take vacation time. I did the Jumpstart class and feel it should be required for all first time users. Soooo many things I could have been automated once I understood snippets and variables better. Mike H gave the class it was awesome, best 4 hours I’ve spent in a long time!

  5. Alistair Christie April 4, 2010 at 2:47 pm #

    Fingers crossed that v7 will see an overhaul of the editor. In particular the way you can manipulate structure. The structure bars in Flare are not easy to use, difficult to select and allow limited dragging from one place to another.

    To see an example of a really great user interface for manipulating the structure of an XML document, look no further than FrameMaker’s Structure View: it’s really simple and it just does what you need it to do.

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