Second day at MadWorld 2014

A well-rounded program and excellent organisation at the second MadWorld user conference avoided many of the traps that can mar a sophomore effort and point to a way of growth into the future. The second day again saw great informative sessions and networking around doc issues and careers, not to mention lunch and drinks under the San Diego spring sun… 🙂

At MadWorld 2014 welcome event

Advanced single sourcing of content in Flare uses a clever combination of snippets and conditions which are called, not surprisingly, “snippet conditions”. These allow you to maintain reusable chunks of content with slight variations – which one is ultimately displayed is controlled on the topic that contains the snippet.

In his single sourcing presentation, Paul Pehrson had many more tricks up his sleeve:

  • To repeat a topic in the same TOC (with or without variation), put the topic content into a snippet and embed it into an empty unique topic container – else your breadcrumb trail in online help goes haywire, because it cannot know which of the two occurrences it should refer to.
  • To reuse similar front matter across several PDFs, you can put the front cover, the copyright page, and the table of contents into a TOC of their own, import it as a nested TOC into each target and control the individual differences with variables.
  • To maintain individual project styles and corporate styles, create your project CSS and import the corporate CSS into it by using the @import CSS command.
  • To share condition sets or variable sets across two projects, store them as External Resources where you can keep them in sync with one another.

The lightning talk round was a very colorful fast-paced session. Passionate speakers addressed widely different topics, including

  • A MadCap version of Jeopardy by Pam Coca (“Who is our tech comm game show host?” 🙂 )
  • Several ways to avoid inline formatting with the help of Chuck Norris by Scott DeLoach
  • MadCap’s latest group of spokespersons: Dentists who recommend Flare for more smiles than any other help authoring tool by yours truly

The 6 topics wouldn’t necessarily have warranted a full session each, but they were fun and valuable to have in a compressed 5-minute format.

Our addiction to meaning gave attendees food for thought as I led them through a quick overview of semiotics and mental models which included Japanese restaurants and misheard song lyrics. In the Q&A session we explored how we could apply such insights into cognition to offer users confidence in their tasks along with meaningful instructions.

Writing, editing and translating topics is frequently done by people who don’t have Flare and don’t need it either.

Mike Hamilton at MadWorld 2014

Mike Hamilton showed several scenarios to address special demands in authoring workflows:

  • For writing and editing users of Contributor, you can customize exactly which Flare files, such as snippets, condition and variable sets, are available to them. You can also lock down certain text in Contributor templates to enforce structure and labels.
  • For reviewers using Contributor, you can now apply conditions and variables when creating the review package, for example, to keep internal data out of packages for external reviewers.
  • For translators of Flare topics, you can create customized export packages and choose to preserve the code of snippets and variables or to convert them into flat text.

For MadWorld 2015, my guess is that we might see fewer sessions on basic Flare techniques which are well-covered in available webinars and other information online. Instead, I’d recommend more sessions that show how MadCap supports tech comm workflows and business cases. These could cover, for example:

  • How to integrate documentation and training content with Flare and Mimic
  • How to build a business case around single-sourcing topics that can turn tech pubs into a profit center which leverages content as corporate assets
  • How to use MadCap’s products in corporate, large-scale products, like Lynn Carrier has shown this year.

Overall, MadWorld was a very instructive, very fun event! The user conference format affords a welcome focus which sometimes gets lost in industry-wide conferences which have to try to satisfy more disparate needs.

CEO Anthony Olivier spoke of welcoming us all to the “MadCap family”. I think that metaphor is stretching it a bit. For me, it feels more like a versatile community of dedicated, often enthusiastic users who get to hang out with one another and with, say, a band we like – and we get to spend some time back stage in the hospitality suite. 🙂

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First day at MadWorld 2014

The applicable advice about MadCap products from speakers and staff, the profound discussions about tech comm in general, and attendees’ enthusiasm to share and learn from another make MadWorld 2014 a perfect combination of a tool-centric user workshop and a “regular” tech comm conference.

The hip Hard Rock Hotel adds a flair of giddy excitement – after all, some of us 200 tech writers are a little too nerdy to feel comfortable when they’re treated like rock stars… 🙂

The welcome event started with a tongue-in-cheek video: MadCap’s signature cartoon figure Simon has become addicted to – the horror! – inline formatting. His brave MadCap colleagues stage an intervention to save him… I hope this video will soon come to a Youtube channel near you because it’s a lot of fun to watch!

At MadWorld 2014 welcome event

Product Evangelist Jennifer White introduced many of the MadCap key players in attendance, then MadCap CEO Anthony Olivier welcomed us and encouraged us to join the “MadCap family” to learn and network.

To turbocharge our authoring, Nita Beck showed us how we could bypass some of the pretty, but slow-to-use Flare ribbon features for faster alternatives:

Nita Beck's session at MadWorld 2014

  • Custom templates for topics and snippets can include  much of the recommended structure and formatting. Filling in such a template saves the time to manually reconstruct such structure and formatting in just about every template.
  • Contributor can be used by tech communicators as a low-distraction alternative to Flare for initial drafts which keeps many of the more complicated features of Flare out of the way for the time being.
  • Keyboard shortcuts for many Flare features are faster than doing the same with the mouse.

Pattern recognition elicited a lively Q&A session from the capacity crowd in my presentation. We found that, whatever patterns we recognize, they generally depend on their context in which the retain meaning. From there, we branched out to discuss information architecture and user experience design and how they also rely on patterns.  We also tried to tease out the pattern why my slides had broken the nice arrows and replaced them by the average sign in all places – but one!

Flare projects can support a scalable content architecture, as  Lynn Carrier showed. She described her employer’s project of introducing single-sourcing with Flare to cope with 3000 pages of docs per writer per year. The keys to her successful project were:

  • Ownership to involve all writers and tap into each writer’s skills and interests to assure them they weren’t writing themselves out of a job.
  • Infrastructure to make sure they have the tools and processes in place to create the deliverables in the structure and quality they customers need.
  • Reuse to ensure the most efficient way to single-source content, they carefully mapped out where and when to use snippets, conditions and variables. Conditions are heavily applied on folders and topics move around in the folder structure so they are available for the products and versions where they are needed – and only there.  They use few variables because in-sentence, they create problems during translation.
  • Publishing based on TOC templates and target templates ensures consistency in structure and easy maintenance.

Since we have very large projects as well, this was a very valuable session which gave us lots of ideas how to use Flare’s reuse and template features in a corporate environment. Lynn will have another presentation on the second day to show how a wizard enables customers to compile exactly the documentation they need into a PDF. This is something we’ve long thought of doing, so seeing her solution will be a great inspiration for us!

Face-to-face support beats written documentation any time which is why the “hospitality suite” is so great. It’s like walking into MadCap’s helpdesk as if the smartest MadCap users were your colleagues in the next room.

A good balance between sessions and networking opportunities allowed us to trade quirky, but powerful solutions around Flare that users have come up with, to trade career stories and make new friends among a group of technical communicators as diverse and friendly as you could hope to find at any tech comm conference.

Chilling in the early evening at MadWorld 2014

Well done, MadCap, I’m psyched for day two!