Should I go?

I attended MadCap Software’s MadWorld 2017 conference for the first time this year and I am glad that I did. The setting was beautiful, the presenters were knowledgeable, and the ability to meet the staff from MadCap was invaluable. The conference inspired me to think about what my team can do with MadCap Flare to make our documentation better for our customers.

At first, I was on the fence about going because my work is very busy and so taking time out of a week to devote to listening to presentations has to be worthwhile to justify it. I have been to other conferences that didn’t apply too much to my day to day workflow, so I was a bit skeptical despite hearing positive things from co-workers who had attended MadWorld in the past. I knew that I needed more knowledge about advanced aspects of Flare and that swayed me to attend this year.

Why did I consider MadWorld? I am part of a team that converted from a variety of tools to Flare about two years ago. We have converted a large volume of old content to Flare, breaking it up into topics from a previous narrative approach to writing. My company has a large amount of products and so we have a Flare project per product line. Our projects inherit a CSS and some common files from a Global project. Because of the time involved with converting existing documents at the same time that I generate new ones, I have not been able to delve into some of the advanced aspects of Flare as much as I would like to, and that is why MadWorld was a great time to absorb knowledge about features and improving our CSS.

Choose your own path

The conference proceeded along four tracks and we were able to choose sessions that applied to our needs. Some people are at the conference because they are shopping for a product and want to know what Flare does for them in general terms. Others are just getting started with Flare or may be a team of one, so they need help learning about how to get the most out of Flare.

Extending Flare’s capabilities

Some highlights of the conference for me were the presentations of Mike Kelley and Scott DeLoach. Mike presented on WET versus DRY CSS. DRY CSS means “Don’t Repeat Yourself” and WET CSS means “Write Everything Twice.” Mike taught some fundamental principles of good CSS, such as keeping style separate from content. A lot of what he talked about was using the same logic that we should be using on our content and applying it to the world of CSS.  For example, he said that “DRY is the fundamental reason to use variables and functions in all programming.” If you use variables in your Flare content, you should be able to understand why you would want to use them in the CSS as well. You want to update a value once and see it cascade or ripple out to all occurrences of that value. Another benefit of DRY CSS is that webpages should load faster because browsers don’t have to parse all kinds of wasted lines.

Mike also presented on something called hover maps in HTML. This is a way of creating far better images through HTML than we are used to with standard image maps. Mike gave us a list of things that are problems with image maps:

  • They are not responsive
  • They are bad for accessibility and usability
  • They have slow loading times as the browser has to translate image map code
  • There is no visual indication of hot spots
  • Their only feature is to redirect users to a link
  • They are nearly impossible to code by hand

Hover maps draw a user’s attention. They allow us to include all kinds of information in the hotspots we call out on an image. Essentially, anything you can do with HTML can be included in a hotspot. You can see how it’s done on Mike’s site here.

Following the same theme of how to extend Flare’s capabilities, Scott DeLoach presented: “A new look at extending HTML5 targets with jQuery.” Scott gave us a quick overview of what jQuery is and the many plugins that are available out in the world. Most of these plugins are free. jQuery simplifies scripting and is already used in Flare’s HTML5 targets, so learning how to use plugins with Flare can add some great features to your online output. Scott showed us some Flare enhancements such as:

  • A way to copy samples of Prism code from HTML outputs.
  • A way to generate tag clouds in topics instead of maintaining relationship tables.
  • A way that users can easily export tables to multiple formats from the HTML output.
MadWorld 2017 Hospitality Lounge

The hospitality lounge

The ability to talk to developers and other staff from MadCap is a high point of the conference. The hospitality lounge is open thoughout the day and you can get one-on-one attention from the staff. I was able to bring several feature requests and questions to them and work through them in real time. This experience beats any kind of online or phone interaction that I have ever engaged in, and we were able to move through my team’s entire list in about 45 minutes.

You are not alone!

One beautiful thing about MadWorld is the variety of people who attend: writers, managers, and consultants. The informal times between sessions where I sat down and compared notes about challenges that we all face in our field were the best part of the conference. We have so many means of communication at our disposal today and can quickly plug in to online communities to ask questions, but nothing beats face to face interaction with other people who use the same tools you do and face the same obstacles in serving their audience.

I had at least one lightbulb moment during lunch and it happened because we were talking about issues we needed help with.  This kind of knowledge sharing is invaluable, and I compare it to what guilds might have been like for workers in a previous age. There are so many smart people out there who we can learn from, MadWorld provided a great introduction to some of them and for that I am grateful.

I left the conference full of ideas. Anything that stimulates us intellectually to take a new look at what we do and how we are doing it is worth the time in my book. Connecting with writers and learning how to do more with Flare made MadWorld worth my time. I hope I can go again and I hope I will see you there!