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July 21, 2011

Content monoculture

I’m having some trouble with the idea of “extending DITA” outside the world of technical communication. DITA is obviously important in the right environment, but should we be advocating the use of DITA for more and more content?

I do believe that there is significant room for expansion in the DITA world, and that there are many, many organizations that can benefit from the use of structured authoring, XML, and/or DITA.
But I don’t think that we have been sufficiently clear about what sort of information is suitable for DITA. Consider the situation in my own very small organization. We use a wide variety of tools and technologies for content collaboration, including the following:

  • Google Docs: For quick-and-dirty non-deliverable documents, such as writing marketing blurbs for a book covers or listing our priorities for office space.
  • Wiki: For office policies and procedures, and other information that changes but is of no particular interest to outsiders.
  • Basecamp: For file exchange with clients. Also used for meeting notes and other client-related information.
  • DITA: Most of our client-deliverable content, including proposals and reports, is written in DITA. This information is carefully controlled and versioned. (And no, I’m not going to tell you where this content lives. The approach that makes sense for our 50–100 pages per month is not appropriate for our customers, so let’s just not even go there.)
  • Source control system: We use source control for code, such as DITA Open Toolkit plugins, custom XSL, and the like.
  • Word/OpenOffice/LibreOffice: Yes, really. Some of our customers require us to deliver a statement of work as a Word file.
  • InDesign: Marketing stuff.
  • WordPress: our web site

Should we have a unified place to put all of this information? Actually, no. We use each type of information for different purposes, and the tool choice reflects this.

What conclusion should we take away about DITA (and structured content)?

First, let’s acknowledge that implementing XML is expensive and difficult. That may change over time, but right now, you need a compelling business case before committing to the pain that is XML implementation.

XML may be appropriate for content that meets the following criteria:

  • It is difficult to create and valuable to the organization.
  • The content creation process would benefit from formal reuse.
  • The content is updated frequently.
  • The content must be consistent in formatting and style with related content.
  • The organization needs to control the content (because of regulations, policy, or legal issues).
  • The content is translated.

If you’re looking at these issues and not sure how to proceed, consider our content strategy analysis services.