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Working with Micro Content in MadCap Flare 2019

Published in ISTC Communicator, Summer 2019.

For me, Micro Content is the stand-out new feature in the recent release of Flare 2019. It offers a way of providing quicker and more direct access to the key information that answers the questions of end-users. Micro Content also supports a growing trend towards information being delivered in small chunks through chatbots and FAQs.

What exactly is Micro Content?

The term was originally coined by Web usability guru Jakob Nielsen in a 1998 article. At that time, he was referring to key pieces of information such as headings and taglines within page pages and emails. These days, Micro Content is normally understood to be a short piece of self-contained information that answers a single question. A good example is the answer to a question within a database of FAQs.

Google's use of Micro Content

Since Google's announcement of Knowledge Graph (a huge database of interrelated facts and concepts) in May 2012, its search engine has been able to provide increasingly relevant and meaningful results. Instead of simply displaying a list of Web pages, the search results now often include what Google calls a 'Featured Snippet' at the very top. This is a piece of Micro Content that Google's algorithms have determined (based on the keywords entered) will quickly answer the user's question. The screenshot below shows an example of a featured snippet displayed as a result of search on 'boil an egg'.

Screenshot showing Featured Snippet in Google

A key point is that Google is not creating this Micro Content – the information is extracted and collated from one or more of the topics within the top 10 search results, and hence is already available on the Web within long-form pages. Google's Featured Snippets are simply shortcuts to distilled nuggets of key information, with the result that users save time by not needing to open any of the pages in the search results.

Micro Content in Flare

Flare 2019 enables you to create Micro Content files that are stored in the Content Explorer. A Micro Content file contains a collection of 'Responses' each of which is associated with one or more 'Phrases'. Responses can contain rich content such as lists, images, and multimedia and you might think of them as being the information that answers a specific question. The Phrase is the 'trigger' for that Response, so the Phrase could be the question that the Response answers.

Having created Micro Content in Flare, you can use it in a number of different ways: you can export it in HTML5 format for use within chatbots, FAQs, embedded Help, or VR applications. Or, perhaps more importantly, you can emulate Google by using Micro Content as a source of Featured Snippets displayed at the top of your search results. Note that this does not require you to use Google Search as your choice of search engine within Flare. This feature is supported by both MadCap Search and Elastic Search, and in fact is not actually available if you choose Google Search.

MadCap Software themselves have made extensive use of Micro Content to provide Featured Snippets within their own Help for Flare. The screenshot below shows an example.

Screenshot showing Featured Snippet in Flare's Help

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How do I create Featured Snippets?

There are four steps to creating Micro Content and using it as Featured Snippets within search results:

  1. Create a Micro Content file.
  2. Add Phrases and Responses using the new Micro Content Editor.

    Screenshot showing Flare's Micro Content Editor

  3. Format the Micro Content Response using new properties in the Skin Editor.

    Screenshot showing Micro Content properties in Skin

  4. In the Target, on the Search tab, ensure that the option to include Micro Content Results is checked.

Tips for effective Featured Snippets

A Response will be displayed as a Featured Snippet in search results only if all the keywords entered by the user have been included in one of the Phrases associated with the Response — so the wording of your Phrases is critical. I recommended you use Web analytics data (such as those provided by MadCap Pulse or Google Analytics) to discover which words and phrases your users are searching for.

My second tip is that, instead of creating a Response by typing new content into the Micro Content Editor, you re-use existing content held within the project. The simplest way to do this is to link the Response to a topic or snippet — however, this may result in a Response that is too long and not sufficiently focused on a specific question. My preferred method, therefore, is to create a new piece of Micro Content from within the Topic (XML) Editor. You do this by highlighting the section of content that you want to use as a Response, and clicking the new Create Micro Content icon.

Screenshot showing Create Micro Content icon

You can then add an associated Phrase and select which Micro Content file the new Phrase and Response will be stored in. For more information on this useful technique of creating Micro Content from topics or snippets, see Flare's Help.

Using Micro Content outside Flare

I have already mentioned that there are various ways of using Micro Content in other applications such as chatbots and FAQs. To export the Micro Content from Flare, you simply build an HTML5 Target. Each Response is generated as an HTML5 (.htm) file, and the Phrase(s) associated with each Response are included as meta data in the Head section of the page. All the Response files are placed in a folder named 'MicroContent'. Developers can integrate the content of these files into a range of other applications, though they will need to transform the format of the content from HTML5 to whatever format is required by the Chatbot or other application. Flare does not provide support for this process, but MadCap have stated that HTML5 is a versatile and well-structured format that can easily be transformed.

Further reading

Flare’s Help on Micro Content

Microcontent: A Few Small Words Have a Mega Impact on Business (Nielsen Norman Group)

Micro content: What is it and why do you need it? (Brafton

Mastering Microcontent (presentation by Rob Hanna of Precision Content)




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