– by Ken Schatzke, Senior Member
MadCap Software recently announced the release of the newest version of its flagship software, MadCap Flare 12.
Over the past decade, MadCap Flare and similar applications have evolved from relatively simple help authoring tools into increasingly sophisticated single sourcing platforms. In the past, these applications primarily supported authors working in the software industry who needed to create help in specialized formats like Windows Help and HTML Help. Now, authors in almost any industry can use these same applications to build technical content in a variety of formats, particularly HTML5 and PDF. At the same time, audiences have come to expect nearly ubiquitous access to technical content—in any format, on any device, anywhere in the world. It’s for this reason that technical writers working in Alberta might be considering MadCap Flare or a similar application as a possible replacement to their traditional word processing and desktop publishing software.
MadCap Software provides extensive information on new and enhanced features in MadCap Flare 12 through live and recorded webinars, online help files and a 316-page What’s New Guide. Instead of replicating this information in this article, I will summarize some of the major trends that MadCap Flare 12 addresses and analyze their implications for Alberta technical writers.
Are you reading this blog post on a computer, a tablet or a phone? Regardless of which device you’re using, you likely don’t need to scroll horizontally or zoom in and out. In fact, this blog post likely looks like it was laid out specifically for your device—even though it wasn’t. This is what responsive design is all about: Enabling readers with different devices to view the same content with no visual compromises.
MadCap Flare and similar applications have been supporting responsive design for the past couple of years. MadCap Flare 12 expands on this support by allowing you to lay out topics in a grid. Readers with larger displays will see the content laid out in a series of columns, like in a newspaper. Those with smaller displays will see the same content laid out in a single, continuous column, like in a novel. To get a sense of how this works, visit a popular website on your computer and then slowly reduce the width of the browser window. At certain widths, “or breakpoints,” the layout of the page changes.
In addition to modifying the layout of your content for different breakpoints, you can also customize where those breakpoints occur (though you’ll likely want to use MadCap Flare’s default values, which are in line with generally accepted web standards) and you can define the appearance of text, graphics, and other elements at each breakpoint. For example, you might want to increase the size of buttons and links when viewed on phones and tablets to make them easier for users to tap with their fingers.
If you’re a writer’s writer, these kinds of features might seem trivial. After all, content is king. But you need to present your content in an attractive form that works with your readers’ devices. Otherwise, you’ll end up with an empty castle. Tools like MadCap Flare enable you to create these kinds of layouts without having to learn the nuances of HTML, CSS, or web design.
We live in a bilingual country that increasingly exports its wares to a multilingual world. For this reason, if you aren’t already translating your technical documentation, you likely will be in the not-so-distant future.
Like almost all technical communication software, MadCap Flare is evolving to support translation of documentation. In MadCap Flare 12, you can combine content from a source project in your default language and the content from one or more translated versions of that same project into a single deliverable, whether that deliverable is HTML or PDF. If you’ve ever visited a website that is translated into more than one language, or purchased a product that comes with instructions in more than one language, you can appreciate the usefulness of this feature.
Of course, you could always combine content from multiple projects after building it in MadCap Flare. This new feature streamlines the process, saving you time as a result. It also directs readers of your HTML outputs to their preferred language, if available, or a default language, if not. As a backup, you can add a button that enables readers to select their preferred languages.
As our employers continue to enter new markets and customers in those markets demand documentation and other content be translated in their languages, expect MadCap Software and other vendors to continue improving their multilingual support.
As you become experienced with a software product like MadCap Flare, you come across features that you find useful but nonetheless wish were simplified or even automated. If you’re a particularly dedicated power user, you might have even sent a wish list of features to the software’s vendor.
Many of the improvements in MadCap Flare 12 are in response to the suggestions of power users. In particular, the CSS editor is significantly improved, enabling new users to set up style sheets for their projects without having to view CSS code and power users to view styles for multiple media at the same time, create styles for IDs in addition to classes and use all of the available CSS units of measure.
MadCap Flare 12 also allows you to create drop-down effects with a single click, insert Microsoft Word-style page breaks, customize variables and conditions for individual snippets (small, reusable blocks of code), and more.
Although the benefit of these individual features might seem small, the cumulative effect is an increasingly sophisticated but streamlined authoring platform that can ultimately satisfy the needs of more and more technical communicators.
Mastering an application like MadCap Flare is by no means synonymous with being a great technical communicator. With the right knowledge and dedication, you can do amazing things with even a basic word processor. However, if you do have access to software like MadCap Flare, take the time to learn more about its features and how to use it to create content for your increasingly sophisticated, diverse audiences.
For more information on MadCap Flare and to download a trial of MadCap Flare 12, visit www.madcapsoftware.com.
There is also a local MadCap Flare user’s group if you are currently using the software or would like to learn more about it from writers who are using it. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.