Monthly Archive for September, 2006

Flare review - Interface (part 1)

Image copyright MadCap FlareMy project team has just completed our first “major” user assistance (UA) deliverable created with MadCap Flare. Actually, it was a set of deliverables, which we’ve been plugging through for the past several months. I’ve talked about Flare before, but now I think I have enough experience with it to offer a thorough assessment of the application.

Rather than dump everything into a single post, I’ll divvy up the review into several posts, according to a semi-standard workflow that most UA developers go through. The interface is the first thing users encounter, and I’ll cover that in this first post. Later, I’ll offer some comments on the experience of using Flare to:

  • Create/prep the UA system
  • Create content
  • Add extra features
  • Build and publish the system

Make no mistake - Flare is designed for a dual-monitor system. This is good and bad. It’s good because most users nowadays are (wisely) adding a second monitor to their systems. Most video cards today support dual monitors, and the added cost to a desktop system is negligible. Furthermore, study - after - study shows that adding a second monitor increases productivity by huge amounts, 20 to 30 percent in some cases. Once you go dual-monitor, you never go back.

Compared to RoboHelp, my other authoring tool, developing UA with Flare’s dual-monitor capability was quite refreshing. Any palettes I needed could remain on-screen, within easy reach of my cursor. And, of course, the layout can be completely customized, so you can arrange the palettes and windows any way which suits you best. (For a complete discussion of Flare layouts, see Andy’s posts on the subject over at Tech Write Tips.) You can also save a customized layout, so if things get moved around, you can re-load your layout to its preferred state. In fact, Flare allows you to save multiple layouts. This can be useful if you wish to have different palettes and windows at the ready during different parts of the development process - e.g., perhaps you have a preferred layout for writing, another for applying styles, and even a third for creating indices. You have complete control.

Why is this also “bad?” Well, it’s great to provide this capability, as long as you make sure it works consistently. Unfortunately, this part of the software has a few remaining bugs. Layouts don’t always appear properly, even if you’ve saved them. It gets a tad frustrating to hunt down & open the one or two palettes that you always use, each time you open the software. Another issue is that, while Flare works beautifully in dual-monitor systems, you actually have to open the software (or project file) from a shortcut or window on your primary monitor. If you launch the software from your secondary monitor, the layout tends to barf on you. Having said this, I should mention that these issues are present in the 1.1.2 version of Flare, and MadCap has repeatedly said that the “real” version of Flare will be its 2.0 release. Version 1.0 is primarily aimed at helping folks to migrate from RoboHelp. So, hopefully these layout issues will be resolved in the next version.

Another unique aspect to the interface is the ability to have multiple documents open at the same time. Flare arranges everything you open in a separate tab, much like Firefox’s tabbed browsing feature.

Anything you open loads in its own tab

This is great for tasks like cutting-and-pasting between topics, seeing instant results after changing a CSS style, or for viewing a page’s code alongside its counterpart in the visual editor. It’s a nice touch. Flare never closes the tabs, though, so if you don’t close them manually, you could eventually get “lost” in the sea of tabs stretching across the top of your screen.

Regarding the visual editor: This is where MadCap is blazing new territory. To the left of your visible content are “tag bars,” visual indicators of your document’s structure. (Remember, Flare develops in XML, so structure is paramount.) In the example to the right, you can see that my cursor was located in the second line item of the second ordered list, which was itself contained within a drop-down control. Slick, huh?

Content can be moved around simply by dragging its corresponding tag bar to another location. The benefits of this type of approach should be obvious to those of you who work regularly with XML. It’s fantastic when working with tables.

As for the remaining interface elements, Flare uses a very common approach to menus and icons. Common tasks are easy to find in the menu system, residing generally where you “think” something should be. Labels are not ambiguous or confusing. Any icons that are unfamiliar are rather easy to decipher, and tooltips abound. Toolbars have a definite Microsoft “feel” to them. It looks to me like the application was developed using C#, and it takes advantage of the nice features of the new .NET and WPF frameworks. Overall, the UI is essentially transparent, as it should be.

— end of part 1 —

Inside a cell

Click on the image to view a most intriguing scientific video. You’ll be shrunk to the size of a molecule, and transported away to spend a couple of minutes watching the complex happenings that occur inside a living cell.

The oddest machine to me is the molecular “walker” that’s towing the rubbery bag up and down the axon. According to the comments on the initial BoingBoing post, it’s called a kinesin.


Video created by Harvard University’s BioVisions.

Site update nearly complete

I’m nearly done with configuring and updating the site. Whew! Muchas gracias to the Buttonmasher for his guidance with the update, and especially for his continued generosity in hosting monkeyPi. Please go to his site and click on all of the Google Ads.

I still have plenty to do, but most of the remaining changes will occur “behind the scenes,” in the underlying code & such.

Some changes that will affect my loyal readers…

  • You now have an ability to be notified when someone responds to your comment(s). Just select the check box before clicking Submit and you’ll get an email any time someone posts a comment after you.
  • Notice the new nav tabs across the top of the screen. Yay! I no longer have to embed a “home” icon in every post.
  • Don’t be surprised if you see the sidebar change/evolve/barf on you. K2 has tons of built-in support for fancy sidebar modules, and I might try to play with some of them.
  • Speaking of built-in support, the new theme also has much more powerful support for tags, so you’ll start to see me use them religiously. Check out the “tag cloud” on the archives page for an example of this. (It’s a bit thin right now, but I’ll be making an editing pass over my previous posts to apply tags to them, so it should get better and more complex as time goes on.)
  • There is one negative with the recent updates… the K2 structure seems to load the main page much more slowly. I’m guessing it has something to do with all the pre-processing that goes on before the page is displayed. Once you’re in to the site, everything zooms along. I’m going to strip and thin out all of the code I don’t need, and see if it speeds things up a little. Until then, if the site is too slow for you, you might as well subscribe to my feed - I publish 100% of each post’s content there.
  • To kick off the new theme, I’ve posted the inaugural strip of theIcons, a webcomic that features the twisted, hidden world of visual communication symbols. Hopefully, I’ll be able to bring you their adventures semi-regularly.



Site update

Just a heads-up… I’ll be making some adjustments to monkeyPi over the upcoming days. Don’t be surprised if things are a bit shaky for awhile. I’m making the change over to the new K2 release.

The more things change…

On any given Saturday in the 1970s, my father would be fixing something on the car. He wasn’t necessarily a gearhead - he didn’t work on the car for kicks, only for repair jobs. Typically he would find out during Thursday’s supper what needed fixed that week.

“The car’s making that clanging sound again,” Mom would say.

My father would pick at his potatoes. “What kind of clanging?”

“Like clickclickclickclick when I turn the wheel.”

“Clicking or clanging? You said clanging.”

“What? oh- sort of a click-clangy thing,” Mom would say, before addressing me. “Give your father your leftover potatoes.”

So that Saturday, by the time I came up after morning cartoons, Dad would already be underneath the car. I never really knew what he was doing under there. From my nine-year-old vantage point, he was just a pair of legs, knees to feet. Every fifteen minutes or so a curse word would float up from underneath the car, after he banged his thumb or stripped a bolt or got rust in his eye. Occasionally he would work for hours and come up for air, grabbing at a tall glass of iced tea that was always stained with greasy fingerprints.

Sometimes I’d get to help. He’d invite me to lay down on the grimy mechanic’s blanket, scooch under the car, and threaten my life with dire warnings about even touching the carefully-placed jack. Like most nine-year-old boys, though, ‘helping’ usually meant being the tool caddy. “Hand me that 5/8ths. No, that’s a 7/8ths. The 5/8ths!” he would say. “There! Right by your hand!”

‘Helping’ also meant that I often got to accompany him to the parts store. We’d enter the freezing cold store, stride up to the counter, where Dad would start fingering through the catalog until the rep came over to him. “What can I do for ya?” Gotta replace my rocker arm. “What type?” Ford. “Model?” Brougham, Ltd., 1971. “No problem. Got ‘em in the back.” Then dad would pay, and take the change and buy us both a Pepsi - if I had been good.

Times are different now. Cars are made to last forever. When they do break, it’s often something that’s too complicated for a weekend mechanic to fix. Even my father, who spent a lifetime of weekends on his back, staring up at the grimy rust of one car or another, now prefers to take it into the shop. The mechanics hook the car up to a computer and instantly diagnose the problem. No trial and error, no unnecessary trips to the parts store, no guess-timation. A computer doesn’t tell you that the car is “click-clanging,” and give you a list of possible problems. Just drive in, hook it up, and there’s your problem, Mac; that’ll be $150.

Computers and advanced technology have made so many things easier. Kids nowadays don’t have the same experiences I did. I often wonder if they’re missing something that people of my generation shared.

I was thinking about this just last Saturday, while I was installing a new router on my home network. My wife had been complaining about some sporadic problems with the old setup, so on my day off, I crawled underneath the desk, through the spaghetti strings of computer cabling, to access the back of my primary PC to see if I could figure out the problem. My six-year-old crawled beside me, and I threatened her life with all the dire warnings of what could happen if she even touched the surge protector. “Pass me that ethernet cable. No, that’s the USB. The ethernet!” I instructed. “There! Right by your hand!”

After some fruitless tinkering, I gave up and decided that it was probably time to go ahead and make the upgrade to wi-fi. So I threw my six-year-old in the car, and headed to CompUSA.

“What can I do for you?” Gotta replace my router. “What type?” PC. “Model?” Wi-fi, 802.11b, g. I paid up - and yes - I took the change & bought a Diet Coke for us to share on the way home.

It’s amazing what can change in thirty years.

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What’s Up for September 2006

Many apologies for being about a week late on this article. Hard to believe that a week of September has already passed us by…

Continue reading ‘What’s Up for September 2006′