Full transcript of Lightweight DITA podcast: part 2 with guests Dr. Carlos Evia and Michael Priestley
Gretyl Kinsey: 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 36 we talk about Lightweight DITA and more with Dr. Carlos Evia, and Michael Priestley. This is the second of two podcasts featuring these special guests.
Gretyl Kinsey: In the previous episode we were talking about the development of Lightweight DITA, and how you were able to test it and make sure that it works, so can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Michael Priestley: Carlos organized a study with his students, seeing whether the basic communication issues that DITA was designed to solve came through, and continued to be solvable for students who are working in an HTML5 platform as opposed to an XML platform, and Carlos, if you want to sort of take the baton back on that?
Carlos Evia: Yeah, when Michael and I started talking about “Where do we take this theoretical idea of lightweight DITA,” I started talking to my students about the HTML5 version of DITA, and my students in this class had never seen XML, so they didn’t know anything about XML, and for them, the HTML version of Lightweight DITA was the only way that they knew how to create these chunks of information, and create the maps that will organize them, and the experience was very similar to what I have in my more advanced classes, when I was teaching DITA through XML.
Carlos Evia: So what that proved is that, in this small class that I had, I cannot make generalizations, I did not work for everybody, but in the case that Michael and I were studying, it proved to a degree that the students were getting a similar experience working with HTML5 based Lightweight DITA than what my students in more advanced classes will get with full DITA XML.
M. Priestley: And I should add, I think if I recall correctly, the students that were you working with actually mapped to one of the target audiences for Lightweight DITA, that is, developers, or subject matter expert types, whose main job wouldn’t be authoring content but who might have sort of a side responsibility, feeding content into other strains. Am I remembering right?
Carlos Evia: Yes, that is correct. Whereas in my advanced classes the students would take Creating User Documentation, our students would probably want to be technical communicators. In this experiment we had students who were mainly from engineering and sciences who are taking one introductory technical writing course, so they probably will not be technical communicators after graduation, but they will be the subject matter experts that will occasionally have to make a contribution to a content repository.
Gretyl Kinsey: And that actually goes really well into what I wanted to talk about next, which is the intended or target audience for Lightweight DITA, and we’ve seen several clients in this kind of situation that you’re describing where they are very heavy on subject matter experts for their content contributors, or they maybe have some kind of a split where they’ve got some people who are full time content creators, but they do have a significant number of subject matter experts as well, or in some cases even volunteer authors, and they have to figure out how to bring all those people together and bring all that content together in a way that makes sense for them. So I wanted to ask if you’ve seen any patterns, or if you have ideas about particular types of organizations that might benefit from something like Lightweight DITA?
Carlos Evia: We did some work in the subcommittee, when Michael and others–I was not part of the subcommittee then–started planning where we were going to go with Lightweight DITA. They started doing an audience analysis and that’s when I joined, and we identified different sectors in industry and non-profits and academia that could use the different flavors of Lightweight DITA. So, for example, I’m not going to tell you that everybody who is going to use Markdown to create these chunks of information and maps is also going to use XML, because as Michael said, the silos sometimes are there for a reason, and people write in the language that they prefer, and we don’t want to force people to write in XML, HTML, and Markdown, so we have identified some audiences that already use XML, like technical communicators, technical information developers, and we have identified audiences who already use HTML5, like marketing writers, bloggers, people who develop content for the web, and we have identified audiences who write Markdown, including software developers, that can create these topics and maps and organize them in the language they prefer and they don’t have to learn a new language.
Carlos Evia: And another thing that we have identified is that by using Markdown and HTML5, we also make the process of creating content in DITA more attractive to non-english speaking authors who find XML too verbose, and they have to memorize and remember how to spell “shortdesc,” for short description. Instead, in Lightweight DITA they can use Markdown or HTML5 to represent those things.
Carlos Evia: So Michael, what else can you say about the audiences we want to address with Lightweight DITA?
M. Priestley: I think you summarized a lot of it. We did some audience analysis. I’ll add that what a lot of it was about, what people brought to the subcommittee. We didn’t try to do audience analysis for audiences that we didn’t have representation for, but we had some vendors and consultants on the call who had worked with marketing implementations of DITA and training implementations of DITA, as well as working with technical communication with SME connections. And so those were sort of the three main ones that we pursued forward, and so we tested out, or spin off activities focused on testing the Markup standards that we were creating with marketing content that was real marketing content and real scenarios, and the same with training content and training specializations within the Lightweight standard. And that was sort of our way of making sure that we weren’t eliminating features that were necessary for the adoption of Lightweight DITA in those industries.
M. Priestley: And it’s interesting, because I mean we were using existing DITA implementations in those industries as examples, or as sort of our foothold, but it was also about recognizing that there were larger opportunities in learning and training, and in marketing, beyond the footholds it had established there, where there really was some resistance that we wanted to address by simplifying and diversifying the standard.
Gretyl Kinsey: Right, and that resistance is definitely something that we have encountered plenty of times when we’ve gone in to help organizations figure out where to go with their strategies, and that’s kind of what I want to talk about next, is some different possible scenarios for organizations that might be considering going to something structured. So let’s say we’ve got a company that’s saying “We know we want to go structure, we’re looking at whether we should adopt the full DITA standard or Lightweight DITA.” What are some of the factors that you would think could help them decide which might be a better fit for them?
M. Priestley: So I would say, I mean realistically, that one factor right now just has to be that full DITA is a lot more mature. Lightweight DITA is still very, it’s a very recent committee note, and there are some tools that are already supporting it, but if you’re looking for a full end to end implementation, right now you have to be looking at full DITA. That said, if you’ve got a requirement that full DITA cannot meet, and Lightweight DITA does, like you need to be working with Markdown, or you need to be working with HTML5, then be an early adopter. That’s how we’re gonna grow.
M. Priestley: The other point is that I don’t think it’s necessarily an either/or. There may very well be cases where you’ve got someone, or you’ve got a team that’s using full data for their technical communications, and they need to work with SMEs who are not willing to move to XML, and so you move to Lightweight DITA Markdown for them, co-existing with a full DITA technical communication implementation that uses the more mature tooling, and that should work.
M. Priestley: Again, you’re going to be working early phase tooling, but there are pathways through the DITA open tool kit, for example, that allow those. Or if you’ve got SMEs that are willing to work in XML, and need a lightweight operating system, there are already XML vendors, authoring vendors, who are supporting the lightweight standards. So that’s an option as well.
Carlos Evia: And as we continue to work on the Lightweight DITA standard, our hope is that we’re gonna get software developers and vendors interested, and they’re going to create tools that will allow people to use whatever they want. If the specific situation that an organization asks the content needs can be solved, or satisfied, with HDITA or MDITA, that’s perfect, but many of the existing tools are also implementing modules for the adoption of Lightweight DITA. And that means that if you start on MDITA or HDITA and you realize that you need more structure, that you need more power, you can do quite a painless transition to full DITA. I don’t want to promise that there’s not going to be pain involved, there will be some conversion, but it will not be like, say, going from Microsoft Word to full DITA, because you will already be thinking in the terms of topics, and the specific elements or components that we want to include in all the Lightweight DITA flavors that you can just go ahead and transform or convert to DITA without a lot of pain.
M. Priestley: And I’ll reinforce that “without a lot of pain,” point, that the goal here is that everything in Lightweight DITA really is a proper subset of what’s in full DITA, and there’s, I think there’s only three elements that we’ve even done specialization with, and, or sorry, two elements. And those ones are on track as well to become part of the main DITA standard as well. So if you’re working just with the out of the box standard, the transition should be completely painless. Like literally it’s a matter of changing one line at the top of your file to say “stop validating against Lightweight DITA, start validating against full DITA,” all of the sudden your editor, it’s an XML editor, gives you more options.
M. Priestley: If you’ve done specializations, to create more specific types or semantics in your content, then you will have to just provide an equivalent module in full DITA, in order to provide a migration target, but it’s still not rocket science. If you’re used to working in DITA, and working with content in different specializations, this is no different than that.
Carlos Evia: Something important though is that right now, as of today, if you want to be an early adopter and start working with Lightweight DITA you will find more pain that we anticipated, because the tools are not there yet, but you can start working on Lightweight DITA today, but if you want to wait, we are hopeful that by next year, there will be a better integration of the Lightweight DITA authoring form, I think, to existing DITA tools, and also into existing HTML5 and Markdown tools that are going to allow and enable the creation of topics and maps in Lightweight DITA.
Gretyl Kinsey: Right, and the whole idea of being an early adopter kind of goes along with a podcast we did pretty recently about risk management and risk overall. That’s definitely a good example of that, that if you’re going to be adopting something, a standard like this, and you’re going to be one of the first adopters of it, then there is that risk, you know, of encountering issues, and encountering pain points, but there could also be substantial reward for you as well if you try it out and it does work, and so that’s a really good and interesting point to bring up, is that this is kind of a time where you might, if you’re looking at your own strategies, you’re looking at your own position and you realize we are in a position where we can try something new with minimal risk to where things are now, then that might be a good reason to consider it.
M. Priestley: And I’ll add a very selfish reason on our side, it’s the early adopters who are gonna help us validate and revise the standard as it develops. And to flip the selfishness again, I’m just gonna keep juggling motivations, if you become an early adopter, you actually have, I think, in some respects, a better chance that the eventual standard will support you requirements, because you’re actually directly, and early on, engaging with those requirements, and we want that feedback, we’ll engage with you and be very, very interested to hear. So there is that advantage to being an early adopter, that you get a little bit of glory, and you get a little bit of visibility, and you get some influence.
Gretyl Kinsey: So another point is that everything that we do in the sub-committee and Oasis is open, so it has to be approved not just by the DITA technical committee, but we make it open to the general public for approval and comments, so if you and your organization are interesting in Lightweight DITA you can follow the development of the proposed standard and give us your feedback, give us your input as you early adopt, and if you see any bumpy points and you want us to notice, you can comment, you can send us feedback, and we will take it seriously. We have the responsibility of commenting and addressing all the feedback we receive from the general public.
M. Priestley: And I’ll add one more thing. In addition to being sort of open in the sense of transparent, we’re also open in the sense that anyone can join, so if you’re willing to become an Oasis member, which has a varying fee structure, depending upon whether you’re a large company becoming a member as a company, down to an individual just wanting to be involved as an individual. But the Lightweight DITA sub-committee in particular, we’re made up of some people from large companies, some individual consultants, some people in between, and it’s a mix of vendors and users and consultants, and we’re very interested in having more people who can help us. And you don’t have to be a super techy person, we’ve got some super techy people, but people with real business problems and business requirements who are working with the content, just as important, and we welcome anyone who’s interested to get more involved.
Gretyl Kinsey: So I think we have time for just one more question, and I want to ask what each of you envisions happening with both DITA and Lightweight DITA in the future, what kind of path do you see both of those standards going on?
M. Priestley: So certainly the hope is that over time we’ll add to the standard, sort of from our side, and create some additional mapping, create potentially an easier platform for specialization based on the simpler starting point. But from the user standpoint, I’m really involved as a user, I’m not representing any IBM products, I’m not representing any IBM consulting services, I’m interested in what DITA can do for my clients within IBM, who are authoring content in various disciplines within the company. And what I’m really excited about there, is the possibility of opening up content sharing and collaboration, and getting to the point where we can plug and play different tools across different life cycles, and really get to the point where we can support a coordinated, collaborative, content life cycle within IBM that supports the end to end customer journey outside of IBM. And for me I think Lightweight DITA is one of the missing pieces in terms of having a content standard that can operate not only across technology platforms, but also across markup formats.
Carlos Evia: From my part, I have been teaching introductory DITA for about 10 or 12 years, and when I first talk about it with students at any level, graduate students, undergraduate students, even 2000 level courses. When I talk about it and I present the potential and actual benefits of implementing DITA to solve content problems, the student get very excited, but when we start working with it, there’s a certain level of geekiness that is expected of those early lessons when we start working with DITA, when they have to understand the concept of the DITA open toolkit, or they have to understand what is behind an editor that you’re using to create your topic and your maps. What I hope that happens with Lightweight DITA, and the future of DITA and DITA 2.0 is that the tools that allow that early introduction to the standard are easier, speak the language that the users will speak, that even work on mobile devices or tablets immediately without any major modification and that people have the power to create their content, and organize it, structure it, and then publish it in different ways to address their specific needs. So that’s what I would like to see, that this barrier of, okay now you’re certified and now you’re okay to work with DITA, becomes lower and becomes easier to get into, and you don’t have to be…
Carlos Evia: Like when you go on a roller coaster ride, you have to be this tall to ride, you have to be this geeky to use DITA, so I want that to happen with Lightweight DITA.
Gretyl Kinsey: And that would definitely, I think, change the way people decide to adopt DITA or not, because we see that learning curve, very very steep right now, and being an impediment to people trying to decide, you know “Do I want to adopt DITA or not? Is it the right time to adopt DITA or not?” That’s definitely, I think, one thing that people bump up against is, “Are we geeky enough to learn how to use this?” And there is a lot of resistance that happens when people first start learning it, and then a lot of confusion, I think. So that’s a really good point, about how hopeful in the future, over time, that barrier will become a lot lower.
M. Priestley: And one other quick thought, just that, you know, Carlos is spot on with removing the geek barrier to working with DITA is a key advantage here, hopefully, as the tools evolve to support the standard. There’s also, just going back to that core value proposition for full DITA, that it’s structured content, and it’s reusable across contacts, and new contacts and new channels keep emerging right? We’re looking at cognitive chat bots now, we’re looking at voice as a channel, so the value of having future proof content is huge, and Lightweight DITA is really just a way of expanding the pool of content that can buy into that future vision and sort of have some future proofing as part of its structural investment.
Gretyl Kinsey: Alright, any final thoughts from either of you?
Carlos Evia: Well, Lightweight DITA’s not gonna solve all the content problems in the world. I want to be clear about that. It’s just going to be one of many available options. It’s going to be an open standard. You can implement Lightweight DITA now or in the future without a lot of money, or you can go crazy and invest a lot of money and get a lot out of it, but it’s not the only option available, it’s not going to replace full DITA XML. There will be some instances, many instances, in which Lightweight DITA is not gonna be that powerful, but again, if you realize that you need something different, you have many options, so we don’t want to force-feed Lightweight DITA into anybody’s organization.
Carlos Evia: I’ve seen people who claim “I’m already using my specific flavor of Markdown, and I’m very happy doing this, why will I adopt Lightweight DITA?” And the answer is you don’t have to, take a look at it, see if it works for you, see if it allows you to interact with a new dimension of users or developers that you want to share content with, but if it doesn’t work for you then you can stay where you are, so it’s not solving all the problems. That’s not the promise.
M. Priestley: And the other thing I’ll add is that it is just a tool, actually it’s a standard for tools, so it’s not even just a tool, so a lot is gonna depend on how the tool developers work with it, but even more is gonna depend on what the people driving the adoption in an organization do to prepare for it. And if you start with a full analysis of what your requirements are, where you want content to flow, what your content strategy is, how it’ll map to business goals for your company and sort of value for your users, that’s what you need to go in. And then DITA, hopefully, and Lightweight DITA hopefully, can be available to you as options in implementing those requirements, but it’s not gonna come and solve your requirements before you know what they are.
Gretyl Kinsey: Right, and there really is, as both of you are saying, no one size fits all solution for every problem, so it really is just a matter of evaluating your specific needs and seeing what’s the best fit for solving the problems that you have.
M. Priestley: Right, we’re trying to solve more kinds of problems than full DITA was doing, but that doesn’t mean we’re trying to solve every kind of problem.
Carlos Evia: And there are some individuals and organizations that they don’t even know the problems that they have, so if I show up and say “Here’s Lightweight DITA,” if you have not identified those problems, that’s not gonna help you.
Gretyl Kinsey: Alright, well thank you both so much for joining me on the podcast.
M. Priestley: Thank you for having us.
Carlos Evia: Thank you.
Gretyl Kinsey: And thank you to everyone for listening to the Content Strategy Experts Podcast, brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit Scriptorium.com, or check the show notes for relevant links.