Hey everybody! It’s that awesome time of year when MadCap releases the latest and greatest iteration of MadCap Flare. This year, we’re getting MadCap Flare 12, with a host of new features and enhancements that improve the authoring experience. One of the great things about Flare 12 is that there is a nice mix of features that help our customers, as well as features that help us as help authors create and manage content in Flare.
If you haven’t already, I recommend you peruse the MadCap Flare 12 page on MadCap’s website to see the features that they are promoting in Flare 12. I can’t possibly comment on every new feature; I don’t have the time, and I’m sure you don’t have the patience (grin), so instead, let me tell you the features that I’m most excited about in Flare 12 with the reasons why I’m excited about them.
For the Help Author
In this section, let’s look at some features that make it easier for you to do your job. These are features and enhancements that affect your ability to create quality help efficiently.
Advanced Style Sheet Enhancements
In Flare 12, the Advanced Style sheet editor gets a welcome overhaul. Now you can see multiple media sections in your style sheet–at the same time! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made a change in the style sheet, then looked at my topic, only to find that my changes weren’t applied like I expected. When I looked back at the style sheet editor, I (eventually) discover that I was in the print media section, rather than the default section.
Flare 12 supports multiple media sections as columns in the advanced style sheet editor. You can pick which media types are visible, and as you scroll through one media section or expand a group in one media section, all media sections are synchronized, so you can quickly and easily see your settings across media types.
This feature alone is a good enough reason to upgrade to Flare 12, in my opinion. (Click the image below to see a full-size version.)
In the image above you can see how I have three media sections open at the same time. Note that the font-family setting is different between the default medium and the print medium. Also note that in the third column, the font family option is grayed-out rather than in black like in the other two columns. This tells you that the setting is being inherited from another location; it has not been explicitly set for this media type. In this case, the font is being inherited from the default section for this element.
You’ll also note that the third column is a media query. That’s right – the Flare style sheet editor now recognizes and lets you work directly with device media queries! I’ve been doing this in the CSS code for a while now, so it is very nice to see this feature float up into the main Flare interface. You can define media queries in Flare, and you can view and edit those that have previously been defined. If you aren’t familiar with media queries, they are a feature of CSS 3 that allows the browser to deliver different CSS settings when certain conditions are met. In the screen shot above, the settings defined for this media query will show up when the user is on a screen, and the width of the browser window is smaller than 500 pixels. There is a lot on the web about media queries, so I won’t try to teach it all here. The key phrase to search on is ‘media queries.’
Also of note in the advanced style sheet editor is a new section in the bottom left that shows you any comments you’ve made for a style, as well as information about the property you have selected. It’s inline help for CSS in the editor, which is pretty nifty.
Finally, there is a cool new feature available in the advanced style sheet editor: you can link a style to a condition. When I first saw this feature, I wasn’t sure exactly how it would be helpful. Now that I’ve spent time working with it, I’m pretty excited about it. A lot of my clients have certain content that should only be viewed by help authors (notes to self, sources of information, etc.). They have other types of content that should only be viewed by people internal to their company (bug numbers or feature request numbers that were responsible for certain changes in the content, etc.). In the past, you’ve had to do two things to make this work. First, you have to apply a condition to this content so that it won’t get included in the wrong output types. Second, you’ve (optionally) had to apply a style to this content so it stands out when you are working on the content in Flare. Now, you can just apply the condition to style in the style sheet, so that whenever you use that style, the linked condition is invoked. If I have a paragraph style for “do not distribute” content with font in bright red, or something, I can apply the condition to the style, so that any time I use that style, that content always uses the associated condition.
If you are looking for that style setting, it is kind of hidden. Open a style in the advanced style sheet editor, view the All Properties option, and expand the “Unclassified” group. You’ll see a setting: mc-conditions, with a menu button to choose which conditions apply to this style.
Flare 12 also introduces support for style IDs. In the past, Flare’s editor would only work with style classes. Now throughout the system you can now either apply and work with classes and IDs, giving you more powerful control over your layout, and allowing you to use the semantically-correct constructs how they were designed in CSS and HTML.
Single Sourcing Enhancements
Flare 12 provides a lot of new features and enhancements related to content single sourcing that advanced users of Flare are going to absolutely love. If you’ve used snippet conditions in the past, Flare has new snippet condition superpowers. In the past, when you inserted a snippet into a topic, you would then open the topic properties, and specify which conditions would be applied to all snippets in that topic. Now, you can set snippet conditions separately for each snippet that is inserted into a document. That means, you could use the same snippet in two places in the same topic, and get different information from the snippet, based on the conditions applied to the snippet each time it was inserted.
Snippets can also now be pinned, so you can keep track of your most-commonly used snippets and find them easily. In addition, the insert snippet window also shows you the most recently used snippets, making it easy to find recent snippets and insert them into a new location.
Another new feature tied to snippets includes the ability to set variable definitions for snippitized content when the snippet is inserted into the topic. So if you have a snippet that has installation location for Windows and Linux, you can insert the snippet once, and set the variable definition to be the Windows installation location, and you can insert the snippet a second time, and set the variable definition of the second snippet to be the Linux installation location.
In the past you’ve had to have separate glossary files if you wanted to only generate some glossary terms for a given output. Now you can actually apply conditions to glossary terms within the glossary editor, so you could conceivably have a single glossary file that generates many different outputs depending on the conditions applied to the target that uses the glossary file. Another enhancement in the glossary is the ability to add variables to either a glossary term, or a glossary definition, giving you more powerful single-sourcing capability with your variables.
Links and Cross References
When you are creating links to content, you’ve traditionally had to either link to a heading in a document, or go into the target in advance and create a bookmark that you can link to. In Flare 12, there are additional options when you create a link or cross reference to a topic in the help system. The link window now shows a variety of items you can link to, including individual paragraphs, ordered list items, unordered list items, drop-downs, expanding text, or even stylized items. When you select one of the items here, Flare opens the target topic and generates the bookmark automatically, saving you a step, and making the process of creating links or cross references much simpler and faster.
This new feature is available wherever the select bookmark window appears, including in the TOC, links, cross references, etc.
Flare 12 addresses an issue from previous releases related to cross references with variables. In previous releases, if you created a cross reference, and the target heading had a variable in it, the variable text was ignored and left out of the heading. So, for example, if the target heading had “Discover <Product Name>’s New Features” where “<Product Name>” was a variable, a cross reference to that heading would be generated as “Discover ‘s New Features”. That bug has been resolved, so cross references to content with variables now render with the variables as you would expect.
Responsive Layout Editor
If you want to create responsive layout in Flare’s editor, there is a new editing panel for working with responsive layouts. Flare will create the divs and help you style them so that content can move dynamically on the page, based on the viewport size. I anticipate that this will be widely used for creating home pages with TopNav output, but I don’t know how often the average user will be working with this panel. Creating responsive layouts doesn’t seem to me to be something that you are likely to do for individual help pages in your system, so this seems most useful for the main landing page in the product, but it is nice to see this functionality baked into Flare.
Flare is now a 64-bit application. This means Flare will be better able to access the resources available to a 64-bit operating system and its programs (utilizing 4GB of RAM or more, for example). In theory, this should make Flare run faster even when you are asking it to do memory-intensive tasks. In practice, I have a pretty powerful machine and I don’t see any noticeable difference between versions 11 and 12, but I’ve seen reports from some users who say Flare 12 is significantly faster for them, so your mileage may vary here.
The move to 64-bit may cause some people heartburn, because MadCap is not publishing a 32-bit version, as far as I am aware. Comments in the MadCap forum suggest that people who want a 32-bit version are being asked to contact MadCap Support directly. It will be interesting to see if there is a 32-bit version, or if those using 32-bit operating systems will need to stick with Flare 11.
Update: (3/17/2016) It appears there is a 32-bit version, but you need to contact MadCap to get it.
GIT Support for SSH
There are several new features in terms of source control, but the one I was most excited about was an SSH connection for GIT source control. Our GIT repository can only be accessed via SSH, so we couldn’t use the previous GIT integration with Flare. In the end, I still couldn’t get Flare 12 to authenticate with GIT (GIT was returning authentication errors), but our team already widely uses Smart GIT, so I didn’t pursue the issue.
Something new in Flare 12 for source control in general is that Flare now recognizes if a project is bound to source control when you open a project file. If Flare detects that a project is connected externally to source control, Flare will give you the option to automatically set up source control in Flare. This is nice if you want to automatically connect, but I suppose that if you DON’T want to connect the two, this dialog would get old quickly, and I haven’t seen a way to turn it off (yet).
XML Editor Enhancements
There are several enhancements to the XML editor. First, the XML editor now lets you choose any of your media types in the Media drop down list. This means you can easily switch your WYSIWYG editor to show you how the topic might be rendered in mobile, or tablet view, or even based on a media query, if you have one defined in your style sheet, which is pretty handy.
My other favorite enhancement to the XML editor is Flare has simplified the process of inserting drop-down text. Previously, you would write your content, and then you would select the entirety of the content that would be in the drop-down. Then you would click on the drop-down button, and Flare would verify that you wanted the first ‘paragraph’ to be the drop-down head, and the rest of the content as the drop-down body. Now Flare skips that last step. It automatically converts the first ‘paragraph’ into the drop-down header, and puts the rest of the content into the drop-down body. A minor change, but it saves a click and makes the process that much faster.
For the Help System Users
Runtime skins allow you to change the skin that is being applied to the topic via a parameter you pass through the URL. Madcap’s main help example shows how users could switch their skin by clicking a button in the interface. While this is interesting, I don’t think it is as practical as the next example, which is allowing you to call, via URL a specific skin. So you can have a plain skin, that doesn’t have a header or menu or whatever, and you can link to that for field-level context-sensitive help. But main links open in the regular skin. This isn’t groundbreaking in terms of new functionality, but it does improve the experience for our customers.
If you generate Word output, check out the features list for Word from Flare 12. There are a host of new features including how Flare treats floated DIVS, rendering of transparent PNGs in Word, as well as the ability to take tracked changes from Flare and convert them into Tracked Changes in Word (which isn’t useful for your customer, but can potentially be very useful for reviewers.
I haven’t worked very often in multi-lingual projects, but for those of you who do, you will be very interested to see how Flare 12 improves your workflow. Flare will now render multiple languages for each of Flare’s output types. The language tab in the target lets you select multiple languages (via linked targets), and specify which order they are built in the target.
Smart Quotes per language
Many Americans may be surprised to learn that quotation marks vary by language. In the past, Flare has just inserted American-style quotes into your content. Flare 12 is smarter, and based on the topic’s language, Flare uses smart quotes that are applicable to the language. It is important to know that Flare doesn’t automatically fix existing quotes in a project. It takes new quotes and applies the smart quote feature as the quotation mark is inserted into the topic. If you want to update the quotes in your project, MadCap recommends that you use “Find and Replace in Files” to search for the existing quotes (either smart or straight) and replace them with smart quotes.
I’ve been using Flare 12 for about a month and a half, and I’ve been very pleased with this release. There are features in this release that make an immediate positive impact on our documentation team, and I can see how they are going to benefit many longtime (and new!) Flare users. If I were using Flare 10 or older, Flare 12 is an obvious upgrade. If you’re using Flare 11, you may wonder whether you should upgrade or not. If it were up to me, I’d upgrade from 11 for a couple of killer features: (1) advanced style sheet editor, and (2) single-sourcing enhancements. Flare 12 also corrected the annoying bug for variables in cross reference titles, which made our doc team lead shout for joy.
If you are interested in learning more about Flare 12, I encourage you to visit MadCap’s website where you can see the new features, as well as see some upcoming webinars on the new features that are included in Flare 12. In addition, I wrote a separate article on Flare 12 that will be appearing in the April 2016 Intercom magazine from the Society for Technical Communication.
What are your favorite features in Flare 12? Let us know in the comments!
Edit: 3/17/2016 – Hat tip to Austin Wright for pointing out some typos that have now been corrected.