STC Summit day 2 – Using DITA

I’m at STC 2012, the annual conference of the Society for Technical Communication. This post contains my notes from a session called “Using DITA”, by Michael Priestley, lead DITA architect at IBM.

Michael started off by telling us what DITA is and giving us some historical background.

What is DITA and who is using it?

DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture) is an open standard for designing, creating and publishing modular information, such as technical publications, help sets and websites. The standard is owned by OASIS. It was originally created for technical communication, but was designed to be more broadly applicable. We are starting to see other types of content adopt the DITA standard now too, such as learning and training. As a result, some LMS systems are now adapting to support DITA too.

The latest DITA standard, OASIS DITA 1.2, was approved in December 2010.

A public survey at ditawriter.com conducted a survey and found that around 250 companies have posted public case studies. Breaking the usage down by industry sector, around 30% of companies that use DITA are in the software sector. Geographically, the largest number of DITA users is in North America, followed by Europe.

In technical communication, a survey in 2008 found that DITA was the most popular standard, at 35%.

Michael discussed some case studies from around 2008-9,including the reasons why the companies adopted DITA :

  • Avaya adopted DITA to solve problems of low-quality for globalised content, inconsistency in content and style, and problems in training new writers. They reported improvements in these areas, as well as increased user satisfaction and happier writers,
  • CaridianBCT adopted DITA to reduce translation costs. They reported savings of $100,000 in the first year.
  • Medtronic needed to improve productivity. The metrics quoted were based on the amount of content that the team managed to produce using the new reuse model.
  • WebSphere adopted DITA for content reuse in the documentation for their application server product. They report 80% reuse of their content across the entire set. Note that the percentage of reuse required depends on the amount of commonality across the different products.

Smart content

Michael discussed a study by the Gilbane Group, called “Smart Content in the Enterprise”. One of the most interesting aspects was a shift from an inward-facing to an outward-facing view of the content. Focus on what the users need from the content, and on delivery as the starting point of design.

The core elements are providing metadata, integrating social systems with the content, and using structured content as the source.

Getting practical – DITA topics and maps

DITA is all about chunks of content called topics. This concept has nothing to do with reuse. It’s all about content use. With all types of content other than novels, people jump in and out of a book or manual to find what they need. They don’t read the book from start to finish. What we must do is understand what the user needs to do, and prioritise that over the needs of the product.

Here Michael took us through the core elements of DITA:

  • The high-level structure of a topic in DITA.
  • An example of a DITA map. A map does all the referencing and organising. You would have a map per output format.
  • A map in topic links.
  • A map with generated navigation and links. The build process takes the information in the map, and turns it into a table of contents and supported linking patterns.

Conditional processing

Michael showed us the underlying DITA tags for conditional processing. We don’t assert that you should include or exclude something. Instead, we assert that it applies to a specific product or products.

Then you set conditions as part of the build process, to include or exclude products, or to flag specific content.

Conref

In some cases, you want to reuse a fragment of a topic or a fragment of a map. In those cases, you would use a conref.

A conref is basically an empty element that instructs the build process to pull in the content from another element at publication time.

Note that you should do this as little as possible. In most cases, you would use conditional processing to include or exclude a topic. Reason: If people change a paragraph, it could mess up your content reuse. Topics are a more basic unit of structure, and so are less subject to breaking changes.

Information typing

The idea is that different types of information are best served by different structures. What’s more if a particular type of information is presented in a particular structure, that will help the user understand the information.

DITA defines a specific set of structures for tasks. For example

  • Prerequisites
  • Steps
  • Warnings

Each of the above elements has sub-elements, and rules about what can go where. The task  is a type of topic. You can use a task anywhere that you would use a topic. The task has rules unique to it. We call this “specialisation”.

What’s new in DITA 1.2?

  • Taxonomies. Michael showed us the big vision of how his team uses taxonomies to provide progressive disclosure from the product UI to the web-based user assistance.
  • Learning and training specialisations.

What’s coming in DITA1.3?

The group is working to provide a lighter-weight DITA editing experience, for technical communicators and other DITA users too.

Michael’s presentation style is easy and authoritative. Thank you Michael for an informative insight into DITA.

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 23 May 2012, in open standards, STC, technical writing, xml and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Great summary. I use DITA (medical software manuals). I like the structure it provides.

  1. Pingback: STC Summit 2012 wrapup – STC12 « ffeathers

  2. Pingback: Moving to DITA | #plesk.writer

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