What I've Been Learning in Flare
Right now I'm immersed in an online help project in which I've been using Madcap Flare. Here a few tips I've picked up in the past month or so.
To embed video into Flare, you have to insert the video as an image file. As long as the video is a SWF file, it embeds directly on the page. In order to keep the Flash player buttons on the video, use Camtasia Studio's Express Show format. Express Show packages the Flash player buttons inside the SWF file, without requiring multiple files to play the video.
Note that you have to include the height and width dimensions for the "image" (which is really a video); otherwise, the video will expand to fill the entire browser. Also, the expand-to-full-frame view won't work inside Flare -- not sure why.
With the video embedded, you can easily include the video inside a drop-down hotspot. Just make sure the video is small so that it loads quickly on the page.
I'm fascinated by relationship tables. Relationship tables give you one (or more, if desired) tables where you can manage your related links. By adding topics to the same row in the relationship table, the links can become part of the same family. Links in the same family appear on the topic in a reciprocal way. You can also specify other linking options, but the family setting is easiest to maintain.
When I first created my relationship table, I styled its display to appear on the right rather than at the bottom (similar to a sidebar on a webpage). But as I looked at the help from a 1024x768 perspective, I realized that the side display crowded out too much screen real estate (leaving me with about 400 pixels after the TOC). So I moved the relationship table to the bottom of the topic.
In the master page for the project, I also added drop-down hotspot code around the relationship table code so that it would expand when clicked. I think it's pretty cool looking. Unfortunately the project is behind a firewall and confidential, so I can't display it without creating Greeked text and dummy screenshots, which I don't have time to do.
I've been using Flare for 2 years now, and up until last week I turned up my nose at Madcap Capture. I was perfectly happy with Snagit, so why should I bother with a new screen capture tool? Now that I've explored and started using Capture, I'm kicking myself for not using it earlier. Capture provides you with several distinct advantages if you're authoring in Flare:
- Shapes you add to an image remain in layers. They aren't flattened, so you can return later and update any callout or bubble text on the screen. This is a major advantage. You can also add variables and conditional text in the callouts if necessary.
- You can add nice-looking callouts and bubble captions to the images. The bubbles are vectors, so they resize nicely. You can also choose to round the corners of the callout handle in a cool way. Previously, I inserted my callouts into numbered figure captions below the image. But in browsing Madcap's help, I realized that I was drawn to the visual experience of the caption bubble directly on the image, with its handle pointing to a specific spot that the caption explains.
- Capture integrates nicely with Flare. You can initiate a screen capture from within Flare, and the image is inserted at your cursor's position. If you initiate the screen capture from Capture, it saves the image directly into your Flare project's Resources > Images folder (as long as you indicate that path in your Capture profile). To edit the image file, just right click the image and choose to edit it in Capture. Every aspect of the image is still editable.
Capture is robust and I'm still learning how to use it. I like to take 800 x 400 pixel screenshots and resize them to 75%. You can do this by setting your background scale to .75 and your canvas crop settings to 600 x 300 in your profile. When you add a caption bubble to the screenshot, the text in the caption retains its regular size (as long as you take the screenshot with your profile that has the background scale setting). Because the text isn't resized, it doesn't lose crispness. By the way, it's nice having Doc-Guy, a Flare trainer, on our team. He gave me that last tip.
Exporting to DITA, Importing to WordPress
I've been fixed on the idea of authoring in Flare, exporting to DITA, and importing into WordPress using a DITA Import WordPress plugin. I finally set up a test site to do that on a secure server at work. It actually did import decently. Beyond that import, though, I haven't done much with the idea. (The test server is the only server with the PHP/MySQL technical setup that I can publish to at work, so that's also an obstacle.)
It's cool that Flare is starting to handle DITA, and I know the intent is to import to DITA, not export to DITA. But sometimes when you have your content in DITA, you have more options for manipulating it.
Flare now has the option to resize images as thumbnails. But not just any little thumbnails. When you move your mouse over the thumbnail, the image resizes with a lightbox effect -- the background dims and the resized image seems to pop out at you.
I'm not sure how I'll use thumbnails, but it's a neat option that Flare now has. It might be useful in release notes, where you're explaining a lot of new features but you don't want to include full-size images everywhere. Or it could be useful if you're writing a post in Sarah Maddox style, or if you have narrow columns without much room for full images.
Flare is a robust tool with a lot to learn. One thing I'd like to experiment with is incorporating jQuery effects into the topics. This ProPhotoBlogs support site seems to use a ton of jQuery. If you're using jQuery in Flare, I'd like to hear from you. Or if you have other insider tips and tricks with Flare, I'd also like to hear about them as well.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.