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Taking Risks with a New Online Help Tool
2007, Q1 (July 12, 2007)
By Ann-Marie Grissino, Carolina Chapter Senior Member with Keypoint Consultants, and Rebecca McMurry, Documentation Manager with ChannelAdvisor

Ann-Marie Grissino
Ann-Marie Grissino

Some might not think that converting FrameMaker content into online help and user documentation would involve taking risks. In this article, we tell our story of what risks were involved with one of my recent projects, how we overcame them, and what benefits we reaped by using state-of-the-art technology.

About the Project

ChannelAdvisor is headquartered in Research Triangle Park, NC. It empowers industry-leading retailers and manufacturers to sell their products across multiple ecommerce channels, including eBay, Amazon.com, Google, Shopping.com, and Shopzilla. The company’s flagship product is ChannelAdvisor Merchant™, an on-demand platform designed to give retailers an automated way to manage and grow their sales on online marketplaces. Recently, the firm added SearchAdvisor™, a paid search marketing solution for managing large, complex search engine marketing (SEM) campaigns across multiple search engines.

In August 2006, ChannelAdvisor decided to enhance its customer support by providing a context-based online help system that would complement the company’s print documentation. We converted legacy Word documentation to FrameMaker and sought a help authoring tool solution.

Rebecca McMurry
Rebecca McMurry

Adobe RoboHelp lacks direct FrameMaker integration, ePublisher's output is outdated, and AuthorIT requires a steep learning curve. ChannelAdvisor has limited documentation development resources and aggressive two-week deliverable schedules. We looked at MadCap Software's Flare. MadCap Flare. After obtaining additional counsel from several well known online help experts, we selected MadCap Flare. With its XML architecture, tight integration with FrameMaker, and its cool output, Flare was it.

Acknowledging the Risks

We used Flare to transform content created in Adobe FrameMaker into context sensitive online Help systems. So, you've heard of Flare, and even though you might not have used it, you ask, "Where's the risk?"

Flare is the first native XML content authoring application for single-source, multi-channel publishing. Because of the aggressive deadline that ChannelAdvisor committed for its online Help system in Fall 2006, if we wanted to use MadCap, that meant that we would have to begin developing the Help system with the Flare 2.0 beta version. Flare 1.0 was just released earlier last year and 2.0 was barely into its beta. And, FrameMaker testing? We were doing it.

As of early September, we were using a barely-in-beta product. We needed to develop context sensitive help at ChannelAdvisor for the first time. We were working with developers who had never created online help calls before. We were preparing documentation for releases every two weeks and getting to document a new product. ChannelAdvisor's documentation had not yet been written with online help calls in mind. While ChannelAdvisor's management team at first encouraged us to use a product that had been around longer and was not in beta, they supported our decision and restated their expectations of an online help deliverable due by early October.

I don't see a problem. Do you? ;-)

We also experienced a learning curve of using a new product that has an interface that is very different from other help authoring tools. While we had to overcome these hurdles, MadCap played a major part in helping us meet the deadline — their helpful technical support and fast responses to our questions were invaluable.

Search Advisor's Online Help (click for full-size image)
Search Advisor's Online Help (click for full-size image)

Reaping the Benefits

One reason that we decided to use Flare is the use of variables. These variables allow us to make a change once and update that text throughout all of the output. The change is made throughout the online Help system and our multiple PDFs.

Search Advisor's Online Help Search Feature (click for full-size image)
Search Advisor's Online Help Search Feature (click for full-size image)

Another reason we decided to use Flare is the ability it gives us to connect a source FrameMaker document to a Flare project. We can edit the Frame files and reimport them into Flare. We matched conditionalized text in FrameMaker to Flare's conditions to select which content was published across the different outputs.

We also used Flare's master page proxies to store information that would be on every help page. For example, we inserted code on each page that captures how often users select that online help topic. With these statistics, we hope to make those topics more robust, if needed.

As one of the world’s leading solution providers for online marketing, ChannelAdvisor recognizes the value of content that is timely and tailored to the needs of Internet retailers,” says Anthony Olivier, CEO of MadCap Software. “We are honored to play a role in ChannelAdvisor’s delivery of right-time, best-in-class online Help and documentation through Flare, which provides an important bridge between the power of single-source, multi-channel publishing and the rich legacy content in applications like Adobe FrameMaker and Microsoft Word.

We are providing retailers with state-of-the-art solutions for marketing and selling on some of the world’s most prestigious ecommerce channels, so it’s important for our online Help and print documents to have a modern look that is in keeping with what they see on their websites,” says Rebecca McMurry, a documentation product manager with ChannelAdvisor. “MadCap Flare provides the attractive, up-to-date image we’re looking for, and it is very easy to color-code our Help content in line with our branding: orange for Merchant and red for SearchAdvisor. Flare is also the most intuitive product we evaluated, and the integration with Adobe FrameMaker is very clean."

We have been able to achieve some important milestones since launching our first Flare project. We have rolled out the latest Help project in record time — it took us just six weeks from original content development to publishing the online Help system and PDFs. We also can now publish updated online Help content for our newest on-demand solution, ChannelAdvisor SearchAdvisor, every two weeks rather than our traditional updates that went out only with major releases. This is important because now our updated publication schedule falls in line with the solution’s bi-weekly enhancements.

Merchant Online Help (click for full-size image)
Merchant Online Help (click for full-size image)

Another Example of the Merchant Online Help (click for full-size image)
Another Example of the Merchant Online Help (click for full-size image)


Going with the first version of Flare to support FrameMaker might have been considered a risk, especially with a major deadline fast approaching, but we wanted to put in place the right solution for the long-term. Flare has the right functionality, and equally important, MadCap has some of the most knowledgeable experts in the industry. With MadCap’s support, we made our deadline, and the ChannelAdvisor developers were so excited by Flare’s cool, colorful context-sensitive Help that they immediately started suggesting new projects.

Ann-Marie can be reached at amgrissino at keypointconsultants dot com. Rebecca can be reached at rebeccam at channeladvisor dot com.End of article.

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