First Looks

Madcap Flare 2.5: Create Stunning Help Files

Check out this innovative documentation tool that produces most common documentation file formats from a variety of sources.

Documentation is the bane of most developers, yet it is critical to successful software projects. Madcap Flare version 2.5 represents a new generation of documentation tools. The tool was created by RoboHelp developers who left the company when Macromedia bought RoboHelp. This team took what it learned at RoboHelp and used it to develop an innovative product.

The first thing I did after installing Flare was to explore the online help. I figured that its own documentation would be a reliable indicator of the quality of the full product. It was a good first impression, with a healthy mix of graphics, well-designed topics and indexing, and lots of cross links. The authors don't get carried away showing off everything the product can do, but instead concentrate on providing a variety of ways to learn the product.

The user interface is complicated and a bit busy, but laid out well. It uses a combination of toolbars, menus, and tabs to keep everything organized, with a handy interactive graphic that displays the structure of the page to make it easy to navigate to different elements. One nice touch, indicative of the thought that went into the UI, is the ½-toggle button, which expands the explorer window to fill half the workspace then restores it. This saves the trouble of constantly rearranging window sizes.

MadCap Flare can produce DotNet, Web, Microsoft HTML (.chm), and printed help (Microsoft Word, PDF, and FrameMaker output). You can include almost any kind of input files, including Microsoft Word, Adobe FrameMaker, and HTML documents, as well as RoboHelp and HTML Help projects. Flare converts them all to XML and XHTML, or you can create your own content directly in its editor.

You spend most of your time in Flare in the XML editor, which you use for most content-editing tasks (Figure 2). This takes some getting used to, but once you learn how it works, it provides a lot of help in writing content while getting the XML or XHTML tags right. The company says that it was designed "by writers, for writers," and it's the first product where I've felt like the XML markup wasn't getting in the way of my writing documentation.

The company touts how easy Flare is to use, and I generally found that to be true. But that doesn't mean that you'll be productive instantly out of the box. This is a complex product, and it will take some time to learn, even with the innovative user interface.


MadCap Flare version 2.5
MadCap Software
Web:
www.madcapsoftware.com
Phone: 858-320-0387
Price: $899.00
Quick Facts: An innovative documentation tool that produces most common documentation file formats from a variety of sources.
Pros: Well-designed user interface, plenty of configuration options, easy project and content navigation, reasonable price, excellent documentation.
Cons: Occasionally overwhelming variety of ways to accomplish tasks.

About the Author

Don Kiely is a senior technology consultant in Fairbanks, Alaska. When he isn't writing software, he's writing about it, speaking about it at conferences, and training developers in it. Reach him at donkiely@computer.org.

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