Many companies are considering DITA because of potential content reuse, content variations, multi-channel publishing, and savings in translation costs.
The truth is when you focus on goals rather than on a specific technology, DITA doesn’t seem to be the only solution that lets you achieve these goals. There are many non-DITA tools that provide an authoring tool, publishing engine, and sometimes even a content management system (CMS) all-in-one. This brings documentation teams (and especially management) to compare DITA vs. non-DITA solutions.
Eventually, they come up with a legitimate question: if a non-DITA tool gives me an environment where I don’t have to learn any XML elements while providing all I need, like reuse, conditional content, filtering, publishing to multiple formats, and even managing translations, why should I ever consider DITA at all?
By the way, the argument that with an open standard, like DITA, you can avoid vendor lock-in doesn’t sound relevant for everybody. I used to hear a response something like “I don’t mind to be locked-into a specific vendor as long as they provide what I need”. DITA’s openness is still important, though, just from another perspective that we’re going to discuss later.
There are a lot of articles out there about how to build a business case to evaluate whether your investment into DITA will be justified (for example, you may want to check out this one and this one), but in my post I’m going to focus on those goals that you wouldn’t be able to achieve without DITA.
Here’s an illustration from my personal life. As part of my social responsibility, I’m volunteering in our church community by playing organ on Sunday masses. I was never trained to play organ, though. I used to play piano when I was a kid. This is what I was initially doing: I was playing organ as if it’s piano (but I’ve improved my skills since then). And you know what? It was pretty nice. Even when you play organ as if it’s piano without using all these organ-specific features in a Gothic-style church, it sounds really really good. The only problem is that organ is not an advanced version of piano. It’s a completely different thing that lets you do things that you can never do with a piano.
Do me a favor: watch this video. If you would just listen to the audio, you would probably think that you are listening to a small orchestra. But it’s just one guy playing one instrument. If you would try to reproduce the same effect with a piano, you would need to take a few more people with different instruments to accompany you.
The same thing with DITA. DITA is not just about doing the same things better than you do without DITA (doing the same things better doesn’t always justify the investment). It’s about doing things that previously you would be unable to do at all.
Let’s see now what these things are.
DITA Open Toolkit (DITA OT) is known as a DITA publishing engine. It lets you transform DITA to a wide variety of output formats. However, the content will remain more or less the same in all formats. Right, you can conditionalize a screenshot to make it appear in the PDF and disappear from the WebHelp or you can make a piece of content to be exposed or hidden depending on the product model. But fundamentally, no new content is created.
Unlike a DITA OT transform, where the look-and-feel of the content changes, but the content itself is still the same, semantic transformations enable you to generate new content and thus, create a totally new value. The DITA’s structured semantic markup opens literally unlimited possibilities for semantic transformations.
For example, manufacturing companies are widely using bills of materials that describe components from which a particular product is assembled. Wouldn’t it be great if you could have a publishing engine that gets a bill of materials as input and automatically generate the entire documentation set from individual DITA topics spread across your content repository? You wouldn’t even have to manually create a DITA map. Out of DITA topics, you get a new value, your publication.
Or imagine a set of troubleshooting topics that explain the process of fixing an issue. The process might involve a series of procedures where the result of each procedure determines the next steps. Troubleshooting may also involve several people, such as end-user and support engineer. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if you could automatically transform the troubleshooting topics into a clickable diagram that visually represents the entire process for the different roles?
You may think of it as magic, but here’s a good news. We, at Intuillion, have created a development toolkit for DITA that allows you to create such semantic transformations while reducing the development time and facilitating the entire development process. The transformations described above have been built using this toolkit.
By the way, we are going to discuss semantic transformations and showcase the implementations of the automated document assembly based on bill of materials and generating a diagram from troubleshooting topics at our presentation at the upcoming CMS/DITA conference in Reston, VA, April 4-6.
Your company’s website might be one of the channels where you want to publish content. Just recently, The Content Era developed a technology that lets you just put your DITA map and topics on the server without doing any transformations from DITA to HTML in advance. An adaptive HTML5 page is generated on-the-fly only when the web browser sends a request for the page. So there is no need to re-publish the entire website when just a minor change, like fixing a typo or adding a new paragraph, is done.
Scott Abel of The Content Wrangler interviewed Thomas Aldous, the CEO of The Content Era, and Thomas explained in detail why this approach is much more effective than traditional HTML publishing. I recommend you to read it, it’s really interesting. Click here to read.
In our days, PDF as an output format doesn’t meet the growing needs of customers. The fixed structure, very basic search capabilities, and sometimes a big size of the publication don’t really match the customer’s needs to find the required information quickly and easily. And if you have different types of publications (like, user guide, administrator guide, etc.), are you sure that your readers always know in which guide they should look for the required information?
If you have structured content, you can benefit from online delivery platforms, such as DITAWeb, FluidTopics, and SuiteShare. These platforms deliver your content online in a way that lets your customers use metadata-based search (for example, they can run a request like “Find troubleshooting procedures that I need to follow if the installation of Product ABC Release 5.0 fails”), assemble personalized publications, and generate output formats – all using a web browser.
Technical writers are not the only ones in the organization who can benefit from DITA. For example:
So DITA can become an organization-wide content standard. It’s quite unlikely, however, that an engineer or a marketer would ever want to use the same authoring tool that technical writers use. While technical writers can feel comfortable to author content in a professional DITA editor, like FrameMaker, Oxygen, or XMetal, other people will likely prefer to stay in Word or Word-like environment.
Here where the DITA openness comes to the picture. With DITA established as a common content infrastructure, content creators from different departments don’t have to use the same tools. In the same way as HTML is an open standard that lets you access any Web site using any browser from any browser maker, DITA can become available to any user of any DITA-aware authoring tool developed by any vendor.
Different DITA authoring tools don’t have to support the same level of functionality. It would be enough if the tool provides features required by a specific type of the user. For example, while technical writers can use a fully featured DITA editor with all bells and whistles, a marketer or engineer may use an editor, like FontoXML or SimplyXML. These editors offer a set of features that SMEs actually need and hides the complexity of DITA behind a nice looking WYSIWYG interface.
Overall, I think all these possibilities together with widely discussed content reuse, multi-channel publishing, and translation capabilities can make DITA really attractive.
And by the way, authoring in DITA is a way easier and requires a way less training than playing organ. Believe me, I do both so I know what I’m talking about. After all, when you write in DITA, you need just two hands and one keyboard. With an organ, you get at least two manual keyboards, another one for foot, and a bunch of tabs for each keyboard. Not even close.