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November 10, 2011

Orthodoxy versus nuance

Simple answers are appealing and are easy to remember. [Refrain from gratuitous political joke here, mostly.] But the real world is full of complex issues that are not easily reduced to soundbites. This also applies to technical communication and XML adoption.

Here, in a nutshell, is why we need content strategy:

[Person A:] “What made you want to choose DITA in the first place for your project? ”
[Person B:] “Everything I read about how DITA will facilitate single-sourcing, content reuse,
etc. I’ve used RoboHelp and Doc-to-Help in the past. I have no budget for purchasing
dita-users group, November 8, 2011

DITA (and for DITA you can substitute Any Tool in the World) is not a magic cure-all that will solve your technical communication problems, cook dinner, or do your laundry. It may be free, but it’s not cheap.

If you have zero budget for software purchases, I hope that you are extremely technical and have unlimited time. Because that is the software bargain: you spend money to save time. There are valid (!!) reasons to favor open-source software over commercial software, but you must recognize the tradeoff.

DITA discussions seem to devolve into two basic camps:

  • “DITA is awesome and everyone should use it.”
  • “DITA sucks and nobody should use it.”

The truth is much more complex. Here are some things to consider:

  • DITA is XML. XML supports structured authoring, which is a fundamental shift away from desktop publishing.
  • DITA implementation is a complex and usually expensive undertaking. If you don’t spend money, you’ll spend time.
  • If you localize content, moving to XML or DITA can save you money.
  • DITA provides support for reuse, which can save you money.
  • The DITA Open Toolkit provides rudimentary output to PDF, HTML, and other formats. Getting production-ready output is a significant investment.

More facts:

  • Not all organizations should implement DITA.
  • Some organizations should use XML but not DITA.
  • Some organizations should not use XML at all.

It is inexcusable to advocate DITA implementation without considering whether the organization has a business case for implementation. This business case may center around content management, reuse, localization, or other issues. It is equally inexcusable to dismiss DITA solutions outright.

If the business case for DITA is compelling, the next prerequisite is technical talent. This can come from employees or consultants. Organizations that do not have DITA expertise available to them should not implement DITA.

I am seeing a lot of frustration around the DITA Open Toolkit and how difficult it is to configure. Yes, the Open Toolkit is a challenge. However, this issue should be factored into the business case. If the challenges of the Open Toolkit come as a roadblock and a surprise during implementation, then somebody didn’t do their homework.

Your business case must be sufficiently compelling to overcome the implementation effort.