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Published on July 15th, 2013 | by Rahel Bailie


DITA: Not Just for Technical Content

Now that some readers urged me to declare a Summer of DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture), there’s no pressure to squeeze in all the points I wanted to make about structured authoring in two or three posts. During the summer of 2013, expect a new article each Monday, each with an aspect of DITA that applies to content during its lifecycle. (And if anyone wants to contribute, I’m happy to consider guest posts in the roster.)

There is a widespread misconception that creating structured content in DITA (and other Help Authoring Tools, though I will confine myself to DITA) is for help and other technical documentation. In a recent discussion group thread, there was even a declaration that the work done by the “old guard” should be ignored to let a new generation re-invent the wheel – it was actually “solve the problem for themselves, in their own context”, but let’s call a spade a spade. I would posit that this is how the industry has gotten itself into the content mess it’s in, by ignoring sound foundations and spinning its wheels to find new ways of using duct tape and binder twine.

The first problem with the notion that DITA is just for help and technical documentation, with the implicit implication that it’s not for the Web. The problem with that statement is that it creates a dichotomy of “Web” content and “technical” content. But there is no dichotomy. Help and technical content goes on the Web just as much as the other content. And what is that content? These are the folks who use Web content as a euphemism for marketing content. That is the silo approach to content: marketing content vs technical content vs training content vs customer support content. These distinctions are based on corporate departments and internal budgets.

Publishing content to match the corporate structure has been called “showing your corporate underwear”. User experience and usability professionals have preached the folly of showing your corporate underwear for decades now. Consumers don’t care where the content comes from or what internal silo produces it. They look at a brand as just that, not the marketing arm of the brand and the technical part of the brand. They just want the content that they need to make a decision, and they want the right content at the right time, in the right medium, for their particular location, and so on.

For corporations that have relatively simple content demands – mint.com comes to mind, as basically a software-as-a-service site wrapped with some single-language web-based marketing content and web-based technical instructions and help content – the investment in content to be structured beyond basic HTML may be overkill. But for the large, thorny problems of multinational brands – multiple products, multiple product lines, multiple languages, multiple locales per language, multiple audiences per product line and locale and language – the complexities of content production become very painful, very fast. And that’s for all content – product content and marketing content – delivered in all contexts: on multiple devices, for multiple products, in multiple locales, to multiple audiences.

Here are some examples of how using structured, semantically content can help alleviate those pain points.

Consumer content – travel advisories

A travel industry body publishes travel advisories for tourists. These travel advisories get syndicated onto many sites, to warn travellers about dangerous conditions that have arisen (disease outbreaks, political uprisings, etc.) and how to take precautions. They have multiple audiences: tourists, travel industry professionals, and out-of-industry professionals such as doctors. They have multiple locales: the SARS outbreak had different implications in different countries, for example. They have multiple output devices: large screens and mobile devices. The issuing body can create a single advisory that looks like this:

HXNX Flu in [locale=”mlc”]Mainland China[/locale=”mlc”] and [locale=”tw”]Taiwan[/locale=”tw”]

The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed human cases of an avian influenza virus identified as A(HXNX) in [locale=”mlc”]Mainland China[/locale=”mlc”] and [locale=”tw”]Taiwan[/locale=”tw”].

[audience=”travellers”]The Agency recommends that travellers reduce their risk by following these tips.[/audience=”travellers”]

[audience=”industry”]The Agency recommends that travel agents advise travellers that if they show NXHX symptoms, they should contact a local doctor.  [locale=”tw”]If a traveller has been infected in Taiwan, that traveller must return directly home, and not travel to other locations. [/locale=”tw”][/audiences=”industry”]

[audience=”doctors”]The Agency has recommended that travellers contact a local doctor if they shown symptoms. When treating a traveller with symptoms, please issue a doctor’s letter that the traveller can present to the airline.[/audience=”doctors”]

Content Production Benefits

In the example above, the text has been kept short, for demonstration purposes. However, the advisory text on the actual site can be quite lengthy, which makes the use case more compelling because the more tiny bits of information need to change in a larger topic, the more risk of introducing errors. The business benefits of using this method is that:

  • The advisory can be published, without the distraction of extraneous information,  to multiple websites
  • The advisory can be syndicated to content feeds for the three different audiences
  • The lack of visual formatting means that it can be viewed just as easily on a mobile device as it can on a website (that is, if responsive design is used at the receiving end)
  • The information is in a single place, so if there are changes during the preparation of the advisory, making the update is done once, which means:
    • A more efficient way of working
    • More confidence that the change has been made in all the places
    • A better audit trail if there is ever concern about what was published and when

Marketing content – international service provider

A fashion retailer that sells into multiple markets is building its online presence.  Their claim to fame is that they offer a superior delivery service on women’s apparel.  Each topic (web page) has mostly the same information, but there are certain variants. They need to have an easy way, without cut-and-paste between web pages, to show:

  • US > Shipping and handling > the US Post Office > US clothing sizes
  • Canada > Shipping and handling > Canada Post > US clothing sizes
  • UK > Postage and packing > the Royal Mail > UK clothing sizes

Consumer benefits

The production benefits are the same as in the previous example, but here, there are some consumer-side benefits, as well.

  • Topics are more easily found through search when the locale-appropriate terms are used.
  • The copy is more easily understood.
  • There is more trust in the content when questions are eliminated (“when they say clothing sizes, which sizing system do they mean?”)
  • There is a better connection to brand. This is a particularly sensitive situation to Canadians, who often get included in US messaging. We go to the site and fill in a bunch of information, only to discover that the service is available only in the US, at which point we mentally write off the brand.)

The possibilities are endless, but for this week, I’ll end here. Next week, I’ll discuss some of the more interesting ways that DITA gets used to leverage content on the side of product content.

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About the Author

Rahel Anne Bailie is a synthesizer of content strategy, requirements analysis, information architecture, and content management to increase the ROI of content. She has consulted for clients in a range of industries, and on several continents, whose aim is to better leverage their content as business assets. Founder of Intentional Design, she is now the Chief Knowledge Officer of London-based Scroll. She is a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, she has worked in the content business for over two decades. She is co-author of Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits, and co-editor of The Language of Content Strategy, and is working on her third content strategy book,

2 Responses to DITA: Not Just for Technical Content

  1. Jeff Eaton says:

    Rahel, I love the example you’ve chosen here — it’s exactly the kind of “fluid structure” that database-style chunky content modeling often has a problem with.

    We built something almost exactly like this — down to the locale and audience targeting — for a previous project in Drupal, and it worked out really well. Even though we weren’t using actual DITA tags, the style of markup you describe was a perfect fit. Since then, I’ve been investing more time in DITA and related technologies.

    I’m curious if you think that DITA proper is always the right way to go for these kinds of reuse and audience-tailoring situations, or if it’s just the most mature approach in the XML/structured-document family?

  2. rahelab says:

    Jeff, I’ve done some Web content modelling but haven’t been able to get anywhere near the type of granularity that I’ve gotten with DITA. And the scalability with a DITA implementation is incomparable. DITA hasn’t been around as long as some of the other XML standards, but it’s certainly well thought-out.

    DITA isn’t for everything (see my previous article on content re-use and narrative flow at http://intentionaldesign.ca/2013/01/06/content-re-use-and-narrative-flow/) but for content re-use, content variants, and particularly for content that has to be tracked and/or translated, DITA is pretty slick.

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