Alan Pringle: Welcome to the Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize and distribute content in an efficient way. In episode 31, we discuss use cases for the DITA standard and how its adoption has spread beyond product content. What industries are using DITA and for what kinds of content?
Alan Pringle: Hey everybody. I am Alan Pringle, and today I have Bill Swallow with me.
Bill Swallow: Hi Alan.
AP: Hey there. And today we’re going to talk about the DITA Standard and how its adoption has really gone much further than the traditional use in technical product content. First Bill, I’m going to ask you, if you would, to kindly give us a very brief definition of what DITA is.
BS: Sure. DITA stands for Darwin Information Typing Architecture, and it’s a structured model for content. What that means is you work with modular based content, little fragments of content that are tagged semantically, or with meaning, rather than with formatting instruction, for example. And this allows people to produce content or to develop content that has specific meanings and isn’t tied to a specific delivery format itself.
AP: What I’m hearing, basically, it’s a way to create content that enables you to create smaller chunks, pieces of information that you string together to make a bigger information deliverable, information product, whatever you want to call it.
BS: Right. Instead of authoring in a chapter based format or a long document format, you’re dealing with very concise, specific chunks of information, what DITA calls and are commonly referred to as topics. Generally, you will have one file that has all the information that you want to talk about regarding a very specific topic. It might be a couple sentences. It could be several paragraphs. But generally, it’s concise and contained within one specific topic.
AP: And having things in those small chunks allows you to mix and match and reuse things a lot more easily. Traditionally, what kind of industries use DITA and for what kinds of content?
BS: DITA basically was born out of a technical environment, so a lot of the content that is being developed in DITA has traditionally been technical content. So you have your hardware and software manuals, online help. So the DITA standard for a while has been tailored to technical content. And what’s interesting about the standard is that it’s been evolving over time. They’ve recently launched a whole other domain of information that can be used within DITA, and that would be learning and training content, so being able to produce things like instructor guides, e-learning modules, and so forth. The DITA standard isn’t just a generic platform for developing content. But it has specific models that you can use that kind of fit specific types of content.
AP: Sometimes I hear–and I’m going to kind of play the devil’s advocate here–“Why on Earth should I use DITA for this kind of content, because isn’t it just for technical content?” How do you address those kinds of perceptions, which are not entirely wrong, I might add?
BS: No. It’s not wrong. The first letter in DITA is D, and D is for Darwin. When we talk about Darwin as part of an information typing architecture, we’re looking at being able to evolve the standard without divorcing the standard. A lot of times in a lot of different, whether it be XML models, or code bases, or so forth, if you modify the core of that model too much, or sometimes even just a tiny bit, you are therefore divorced from that model and now have your own thing that is captured in a snapshot in time that you must now maintain 100% on your own. With DITA, it’s not the case. There’s a thing called specialization, which DITA employs to make sure that any changes that are made to the model can conform to the model’s rules.
BS: And what specialization does is, it’s kind of like the evolution of finches, when we talk about Darwin. But you can take an existing content type and create a new one from that, that behaves in a very similar manner, but has a very specific use case. In DITA, we have a domain for technical content. We have a domain for learning and training content. But that’s not to say those are the only two that are allowed in DITA. You can have a domain for many other types of information as long as you’re careful about constructing those new elements and that new structure based on the rules within DITA.
AP: Basically, DITA has a built in framework for adaptability. It is made to be customized.
BS: Right. And so this way you’re not trying to shoehorn your content into a model that doesn’t fit your content.
AP: Right. Now we’ve already talked a little bit about how DITA had its beginnings focused on technical content, which makes sense because IBM created it and then turned it over to Oasis, the committee, to keep it going. But even though it has those roots in technical information, it certainly has spread its wings, its finch wings, I guess we could say, quite a bit because I know in the decade or so that we’ve been using it here at Scriptorium, I have seen a lot of different types of companies adapt and adopt … I should say adopt and adapt DITA in some really surprising ways. And one that I can think of immediately is in education, which you’ve already touched on. We have clients who are actually in education as in schools, K through 12. We also have worked with companies that they prepare the materials to help professionals and students on their tests, so that sector of education as well.
AP: And that information that I’m talking about here in a lot of cases is not remotely technical in the sense of, it’s not a user manual. Yet, DITA fits it very well. What are some of the other things that you’ve seen, Bill, that people have done with DITA?
BS: One really big one that we’re seeing quite a bit of is in the medical and life sciences field. And even though you can argue that it’s technical content, it’s not technical in the way that DITA was traditionally designed. If you actually go to the case studies area on our website, you’ll actually see some of the use cases for DITA in the life sciences world. And again, it’s not that the content was shoehorned into an existing framework in DITA, but that it was determined that there was a very specific content model that was needed for that information.
AP: But the core of DITA provided a good enough springboard that they … By they, actually, we can say their names because we’ve actually had them on our podcast before. It’s the American Joint Committee on Cancer. And as Bill mentioned, there are in our case studies on our website, there are some summaries of that. And I’ll link to those in the show notes. But yeah, they recognize that the core was good enough to start with, and then they adapted it to fit their very specific needs on cancer diagnosis.
BS: But really, any industry can essentially leverage DITA to solve a nagging content problem. Usually, those content problems stem from a few different areas. One, there’s a need to consolidate information, so being able to take all of the content they have in many different formats currently, and boil it down to a single source of information. And then further boil that down and figure out what components of that content are identical across different uses. And then start employing some smart reuse rather than copy, paste, and so forth. A lot of times, a company will come in complaining about localization problems that it just costs too much money and takes too much time to translate all this content over and over and over again. And they’re finding inconsistencies in how things are worded, which is costing them more money and producing a localized output. So they’ll move to a model such as DITA and be able to leverage reuse and be able to therefore employ consistency across their content.
BS: Likewise, there are a lot of cases where very similar content deliverables are needed for very different audiences. They may have just slightly different wording. They may have different types of information in them, such as an instructor guide versus a student manual.
AP: Sure. There are lots of compelling reasons to move to DITA. And anytime that you move to XML, where you’re basically separating formatting from the actual content itself, it’s a whole separate layer that’s supplied later, or applied later, that’s going to save you money in localization. But I think with DITA, the modularity of it and the focus on reuse is something that does make it stand out.
BS: Right. And in harking back to the specialization aspect, if there is a particular piece of content that really needs to be handled separately or identified uniquely within your content, there’s an ability to create a custom tag for that so that, one, you can find it easier when you’re authoring. And two, it has a much different meaning than all the other content that’s there. So you might have a particular type of paragraph that is incredibly important. There’s the ability to specialize the paragraph tag to create a new specific tag that behaves just like a paragraph tag, but has a very specific meaning and purpose. And depending on the use case, it could result in different formatting in the output. It could result in different handling. It could be an internal only thing, for example, versus a customer facing bit of content, or what have you. But now that you have this custom tag that you’ve created, you’re able to do more with it.
AP: Right. And that adaptability is also a huge plus. As far as different kinds of content go, we’ve talked a little bit about technical content, it’s always been a big part of DITA, and still is. I think it’s also worth mentioning, we’ve seen a lot of movement in marketing, in MarCom, to standardizing their content in the DITA standard.
BS: Absolutely. A lot of times the adoption of DITA within a marketing team usually comes with a requirement to start blending technical documentation and marketing information together. Likewise, we’re starting to see other types of information making its way into DITA, such as policies and procedures, lookup tables that traditionally have been done in, let’s say, Excel. To go deeper into the technical rabbit hole, we’ve seen programmatic information, not just interface labels. But we’re actually seeing almost user experience level design information start making its way into DITA to inform how applications work and interact with people.
AP: Okay. This convergence of all these different information types, it certainly has really pushed this expanded use of DITA. What are some of the other things that we haven’t talked about beyond, say, reuse and remixing content that have also driven the expanded use of DITA?
BS: There is also the ability to tailor content because it’s in XML, to a more programmatic use. We’re starting to see companies start moving their content into APIs for specific programmatic uses, whether it’s to be able to interface with another application and inject content into it, or being able to provide information in a different type of lookup for customers, and not just flat content with a smart search behind it.
AP: Yeah. Basically, there is now intelligent communication among all these different systems, and they’re connected by APIs. So for example, you could pull in real time inventory information into content and things like that.
BS: Exactly. You can just tie right into any of your other systems to pull content into your DITA based content, or to push DITA content into those systems to display it.
AP: Right. It’s another really breaking down of silos and barriers. On that note, Bill, I think we’ll wrap up. Thank you very much.
Bill Swallow: Thank you.
Alan Pringle: Thank you for listening to The Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, please visit scriptorium.com or check the show notes for relevant links.