MadCap Flare 2017 (r2) Review

Guest Author: Matthew Ellison

Since its initial release in 2006, MadCap Flare has steadily grown as one of the most popular authoring tools within the technical communication industry. Over the years we have seen the addition of major new features such as Global Project Linking (added in version 4) and responsive HTML5 output (added in version 10).

As of this year, the Flare release cycle has changed from annual to agile. This means that instead of waiting a year for the next major release, we can expect to receive regular incremental releases throughout the year.

The recent 2017 r2 release is (as the name implies) the second of these releases within the current calendar year, and it delivers an evolution of Flare’s popular and innovative “HTML5 Top Navigation” (TopNav) format as well as a small number of other new features.

Google Custom Search

In my view, potentially the most exciting of these new features is support for the integration of Google Custom Search as an alternative to MadCap’s standard full-text search facility.

Screenshot of MadCap Flare Google Search Option

Google Search Option

This enables you to benefit from the advanced search features of Google that we have all become accustomed to, such as auto-suggest and fuzzy matching. I welcome this development as I have been critical over recent years of the limitations of full-text search, as provided by Help Authoring tools such as MadCap Flare and Adobe RoboHelp, compared to the more flexible and “intelligent” search experience provided by Google and Bing.

For example, a user who types a misspelling or typo into Flare’s search is likely to receive zero results, whereas the more forgiving Google search engine presents a helpful set of results.

There are some drawbacks to using Google Custom Search as a substitute for MadCap’s own search. For example, you have to wait for Google’s crawlers to index your content, and your search will not work until this happens. Also, whereas MadCap’s search will find index keywords that you have assigned to topics (which is a great way to associate with topics the “unofficial” terms that users search for), Google’s search ignores these keywords. As a result, there may be scenarios where you get fewer results from Google Custom Search than they would have from MadCap’s standard search.

HTML5 TopNav Output

Most of the other new features in 2017 r2 relate to the HTML5 TopNav output and represent an evolution or fine-tuning of this popular aspect of Flare. My favourite new TopNav feature is the option to fix the header (containing logo, menus, and search bar) at the top of the topic so that it remains in view as the topic is scrolled. This means the top navigation menus and search bar are always available.

This option is on the Setup tab of the TopNav HTML5 Skin Editor, and can be turned on for specific mediums (such as mobile or tablet), or for all mediums.

Screenshot of MadCap Flare Fixed Header Option

Fixed Header Option

I’m pleased to say that the fixed header is achieved through advanced CSS, and Flare retains its frameless implementation of the Top Navigation output (which is important from an SEO point of view).

Another potentially useful TopNav tweak is the option to change the side menu (normally floated to the right of the topic content) to show links to headings within the current topic instead of links to other related topics.

Screenshot of MadCap Flare Heading Option in Menu Proxy

Heading Option in Menu Proxy

In combination with a new option to fix the menu in position so that it does not scroll, this provides a way to add a sticky control for navigating within a topic. I would find this useful when writing API documentation that often consists of long topics with multiple headings.

The final TopNav enhancement is a new option to synchronize navigation elements with TOC entries – this ensures that the bread crumb and side menu accurately reflect the TOC entry from which the topic has been opened. The downside is that the URLs displayed within the browser address bar are longer and more complex, and you would probably choose to select this option only if your TOC included multiple references to the same topic in different locations.

Salesforce Integration

Of the remaining new features, possibly the most significant (for Salesforce users anyway) is support for an optional new plug-in that enables you to publish articles directly to Salesforce Knowledge.

Screenshot of MadCap Flare SalesForce Option in Destination Editor

Salesforce Option in Destination Editor

There are some limitations on the content (JavaScript and external stylesheets are not supported), and the Target type that you must use is Clean XHTML Target. Although you can try out the plug-in for 30 days without charge, there is then a subscription fee of $200 per month if you wish to continue using it.

Additional Enhancements

Miscellaneous other enhancements include support for Favicons, custom installation of Flare (enabling you to choose whether or not to include a local copy of Flare’s Help system and the Salesforce Connect plugin), and support for FrameMaker 2017.

Overall, MadCap Flare 2017 (r2) is a stable and useful addition to the MadCap suite of authoring tools.

About the Author

Matthew Ellison has 25+ years of experience as a user assistance and eLearning professional in the software industry and is Director of UA Europe, a UK-based consulting company. He is a MadCap Flare Certified Instructor and an expert in many other user assistance tools and technologies.

Matthew has also been a part-time lecturer at Portsmouth University for the MA Technical Communication course, and he is a past winner of the prestigious Horace Hockley award that is presented annually by the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC).

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