MadCap roadshow in Long Beach

MadCap kicked of the 2011 season of roadshows on March 13 in Long Beach, CA, to coincide with the workshop day of the WritersUA conference.

A full-day program offered primers on topic-based authoring and single sourcing, best (and less recommended) practices of collaborative authoring, and a passionate introduction to Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Shorter breakout sessions (which don’t seem to be part of the other roadshow dates) presented tips and tricks for Flare: How to handle tables, create print output and localize, as well as a case study about moving from RoboHelp to Flare.

Mike Hamilton at the MadCap roadshow

Mike Hamilton reminds us to think topics!

More like a conference

Several aspects made the event feel more like a Flare-centric conference than the marketing or sales event it was as well:

  • Presentations address tech writing challenges in general, whether or not you use Flare:
    • How to optimize topics for reuse
    • How to efficiently publish to several media from one source
    • How to collaborate with other authors.
    • And, oh yes, how you can do these things with Flare. But the general emphasis was on: “Here’s how you can work efficiently.” In fact, the helpful introduction to CSS didn’t rely on Flare at all. The more sales-y “Wanna see what the new version can do?” came only in a longish rock video with MC Mike during the drinks reception.
  • Networking opportunities galore during breakfast, lunch, the concluding reception and to some extent even during the breakout sessions.
  • A day’s worth of Q&A. MadCap brought more than a dozen people from all teams to be able to answer any question that we present and future users might throw at them. Their answers were usually constructive and frank, though my question about the number of employees got the PR-tinted answer “fewer than 100”. When asked whether Flare can do X, Mike sometimes says: “Not at the moment.” Previously, I thought this was just supposed to sound better than “No.” But after following Flare’s development for a few versions, I now see that many of such features have been added, such as the long-awaited formula capabilities in version 7.

Taking tech comm seriously

In a nutshell, MadCap continues to take tech writers, their requests and issues seriously. Here are some examples of insights from the sessions to illustrate how they go beyond the bells and whistles of selling a new version:

  • Customer focus is important – but documentation must also recognize and satisfy the owner (usually, the company that pays for the documentation) and the manager (who needs to ensure that documentation is completed in time and in budget).
  • Create separate target definitions for separate deliverables. Don’t rely on manual steps in the production process which might get lost in the hustle and bustle. For example, don’t trust that you’ll remember to update the global variable with the correct company name…
  • When you share source files over a network, even in a small team, use either a dedicated source control system or SharePoint (which includes source control) which avoids two people editing the same file at once and allows to lock down central resources like stylesheets.
  • There is no one font size that’s always appropriate. How large a font appears depends a lot on the “x-height” (roughly the height of the letter x), and that can vary in fonts of the same size.

Wish list

Taking my cue from other conferences I’ve attended, I think MadCap could add two things to improve the roadshow:

  • Book table. There are a few books available about MadCap products. For those of us who like books with their tools, why not have at least a sample copy by the registration table, so we can check them out whether we want to buy them or not?
  • Rant & rave session. This one might not be in MadCap’s best interest, but hey, they’re generally a pretty accessible company who like to collaborate with their customers and prospects. I think they should put on a session where attendees can get one minute each to rant and/or rave about the products. Such a forum would give MadCap a quick way to see what bothers a lot of users – and what they like. Two peeves came up:
    • The previously free reviewer module “X-Edit” has been replaced by “Contributor” which requires a license per user. This is not feasible in environments where each writer easily has one or two dozen potential reviewers. MadCap needs to come up with a better licensing model for this.
    • Flare lets you define separate CSS Mediums for print and online in great detail. A field near the top indicates which one you’re editing. Yet a lot of users still manage to edit the “wrong” one when they get all engrossed in styles. Simply highlighting this better would improve usability for focused, single-minded users.

If you’ve attended a MadCap roadshow or other such industry event or are considering to attend, feel free to share impressions or questions in the comments.

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