Elizabeth Patterson: 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 50, we talk with attendees at the CMS/DITA North America Conference about how they have used DITA in their career and the challenges they have overcome. This is part one of a two-part podcast.
E. Patterson: Hi, I’m Elizabeth Patterson, and I am joined today with Gretyl Kinsey.
Gretyl Kinsey: Hello.
E. Patterson: We are going to do a couple highlights from the DITA North America Conference. We took the time to interview some people about their experiences with DITA, trends that they’ve seen with DITA. So, in full disclosure, you will hear some background noise because we did record these during the actual conference.
E. Patterson: We are joined with Greg Stauffeneker. Greg, could you tell us a little bit about how you have used DITA in your career?
Greg Stauffeneker: In my career, I have used DITA in two instances. Once during a conversion. Both shops that I worked in, we went to a structured authoring methodology from … one from InDesign and the PDF publication with no content management, where we adopted DITA across nine countries with 15 writers. And it was painful, it was early, just because the tool or the DITA structure was fairly new still, and thus it was kind of hard to sell to the writer as something that was real useful to not just the company, but the career, for them.
G. Stauffeneker: And the other time now, we’re going to … The company I worked for was acquired by a corporate that is using DITA, and not in a terribly evolved way, but they’re getting there. And so, us integrating from a single authoring structure word into that, we’re able to affect new changes into their DITA systems. So hopefully that will be an evolution, and that’s why I’m here.
G. Kinsey: So speaking of evolution, I want to ask how you’ve seen DITA evolve during your time in the content development industry?
G. Stauffeneker: It’s evolved in the tools that’s used around DITA. While the standard 1, 2 has stayed the same, everything around it has … the products, the vendors, the attitudes, the mind sets, we’ve seen the spectrum go from small 20% of the whole spectrum user to now it’s kind of nearly a defacto standard, that if you have any kind of DITA framework experience, you can pretty much work in any shop. It’s just the tools will change. Some of the methodologies will change.
G. Stauffeneker: So, I see it as a logical evolution of product information and delivery for all industries that actually need to get that kind of information out, and plus multimedia. That’s changing everything as well.
G. Kinsey: What kinds of advancements do you hope to see in DITA in the future?
G. Stauffeneker: Simpler personalization of documentation. I think the modular structure of DITA lends itself to how do we extrapolate what we need and deliver it to the customer in a specific targeted format. And we keep our full doc set, but we know, like right now we’re working with Disney, and so we’re pulling a lot of things out of our product set using DITA structuring to create customized deliverables for them. Because they don’t need everything, and as a customer I would not want anything more than what I need. You know, don’t treat me like a number.
G. Stauffeneker: The more we personalize, the better our information and our product documentation and delivery is.
E. Patterson: Well, great. Thank you so much for talking with us today. We really appreciate it.
G. Stauffeneker: Thank you.
E. Patterson: So we’re joined with Jacqui LaLiberte today. Jacqui, could you tell us a little bit about how you have used DITA in your career so far?
Jacqui LaLiberte: Sure. So, I’m a technical writer at Graco Inc, a company in Minneapolis. And we are in the pre DITA stages. So right now we are authoring in Adobe Framemaker, and we are dipping our toe in the water of the DITA migration, which is why I’m here at the conference. So, Graco had a previous DITA implementation that never really took off. So they attempted to use Arbortext on a shoestring budget with a single resource who sort of self-taught DITA as much as possible. And it took a while to die out.
J. LaLiberte: So, right now we’re taking a step back and rethinking our tools and our needs, so we can move in and actually find a DITA implementation that works. So, my actual experience is very bare bones, but I’m very excited to continue learning more about it. As I really think it’s the best way to write tech docs.
G. Kinsey: How has the learning curve been going from your education into your career?
J. LaLiberte: Sure. So, I graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor of Science in Technical Writing and Communication. I took a class that covered DITA, but the real emphasis in my degree program has been on being flexible and learning new things and having a really strong background. So I feel like it’s a very good foundational basis for learning more about new tools. And it’s made me really interested in a bunch of different disciplines.
J. LaLiberte: So, I’ve done some graphic design work, I’ve done some work in accessibility, which is actually what my senior thesis was on. And I think it’s made me very comfortable with a bunch of different, overlapping practice areas, that has come in handy as we started looking at DITA. Because Web output is very different from print output. So, it’s been pretty smooth so far, if I say so myself.
G. Kinsey: That’s great. So what kinds of content challenges are you overcoming or maybe hoping to overcome as you kind of start to make this transition over into DITA?
J. LaLiberte: So I work for a manufacturing company and manufacturing companies are a little slow. I think they’re very tentative, they want that ROI, they want a very clear use case. And I think we’ve started to see that our customers require more than PDFs and print books, even if that’s what we’ve been doing for the last 50 years. So I think the content challenge for me is really expanding our network and providing things that users actually require. And I think service technicians in the field are not going to be pulling out a stapled booklet of paper.
E. Patterson: Thank you. So, could you tell us a little bit about what advancements you’d like to see in DITA in the future?
J. LaLiberte: I think advancements is an interesting topic in DITA. I think there’s a bunch of trendy topics right now. Everyone wants to talk about AR and VR and Chatbots and AI and how it integrates with translation, and how we can make everything really cheap. But what I would really like to see is a continued focus on building really great HTML 5 accessible output.
J. LaLiberte: I want to see output that is responsive completely on a mobile, not just using media queries, but like legit responsive. And I want to see people who are using ARIA tags to actually provide content the way that people need.
G. Kinsey: Thank you so much for joining us.
J. LaLiberte: Yeah. Thanks for having me on. It’s very exciting.
G. Kinsey: We are here now with James Clyburn. James, how are you?
James Clyburn: I am tired.
G. Kinsey: And we’ve got just a few questions for you.
E. Patterson: So, James, what are some of the reasons that your company adopted DITA?
J. Clyburn: So, what we were using before, clients had a very hard time finding our content. Using search was very difficult for them, and it wasn’t customized in a way that they could easily locate exactly what they needed to see. Some of the titles were off, and it was nice to have a way in mind to kind of start over with all of that and think of ways to help our clients find exactly what they need. That was our biggest issue, and I think that was the biggest thing that we took to the stakeholders before we made the switch.
G. Kinsey: What challenges have you been overcoming by using DITA, and how has that kind of helped you in your day-to-day life as a writer?
J. Clyburn: Well, going back to what I just said, the filtered content is a huge help for us right now. That was a big challenge. Of course we haven’t figured out everything yet, but we are, and it’s happening and it’s working. It’s making our job a lot easier. And another thing that people maybe they don’t often think about the standards that they have in place. Before, when things were unstructured, we didn’t have this list of best practices that we need to follow. We did have one, but it wasn’t as robust as what DITA gives us.
J. Clyburn: It gives us a set standard that we need to follow and it’s a lot easier to kind of go by their guidelines, kind of let them take the wheel … I say them, but it. And we just follow that and it makes things a lot easier.
G. Kinsey: And kind of on the flip side of that, what sorts of challenges have you faced with the learning curve of DITA? Because I think most of you had not had any experience with DITA or structured authoring before this change.
J. Clyburn: Yeah, so, again with the filtered content … So, our story is, or my personal story is, that my part of the product that we write for is completely separate from everything else. So, filtering my stuff out was a huge challenge, because it could be sold on its own and stand alone and not have to interact with anything else. So that’s been a challenge.
J. Clyburn: And like I said before, I don’t think we’ve figured out everything, but we know that it’s possible. And yeah, that’s the biggest one for me, I think. Yeah.
E. Patterson: So, James, moving forward, what advice would you give to people who are just getting started in DITA?
J. Clyburn: So the advice that I would give myself, if I were to go back in time a couple of years and prepare for this, is definitely have a plan, know what your problems are and how you want to fix it. If you have to make a list, make a list, bullet it out, like get it all together. And what was helpful for us was coming together with that initial meeting and kind of airing out our grievances and our problems and what we could fix.
J. Clyburn: I think having that communication first before jumping into it and making the decision is a really good idea. So, definitely plan ahead.
G. Kinsey: Thank you so much.
G. Kinsey: Alright, we are here with Larry Kunz, and we’ve got a couple of questions. So the first one is what are some of the main reasons that companies you’ve worked with have adopted DITA?
Larry Kunz: Well, thanks, Gretyl. I recall several companies adopting DITA and one reason is it’s an open standard. It’s pretty easy to sell that way. It doesn’t frighten writers and it doesn’t frighten their managers when you tell them it’s a standard and it’s well established. I think the efficiency is a big reason. You have your reuse, you have consistency with the DTDs and you can easily enforce terminology and style type consistency. And so that’s a big benefit for the end user, as well as for the writer’s efficiency.
L. Kunz: So I think it’s a pretty easy sell. And really, among the writing community, I think most writers are happy to … once they get over the initial idea of structured authoring, which nowadays is not too hard of a sell, maybe in the past it was, I think they’re happy to embrace DITA.
G. Kinsey: That’s actually a great lead in to the next question, which is how do you sell the idea of DITA to executives?
L. Kunz: Well, again, efficiency, reuse, it’s not a big investment. They don’t have to buy a huge software product. DITA, of course, is a free standard. Of course you have to invest in the output transforms. So that’s a little bit of an expense, and the authoring tools cost a little. Although I think they’re very, very economical. And you really sell them on customer satisfaction. You sell them on high quality.
L. Kunz: One big way to sell them is varying output formats. Look, you can take the same content and single source it to PDF, to HTML, to online help. And then they’re eyes kind of open up and say, “Oh, well, that certainly is much more efficient and my writers can do much more.” And I think those are key ways to sell it.
E. Patterson: Okay, great. So what are some challenges that you faced in transitioning to DITA and how have you overcome some of those?
L. Kunz: Well, personally, I didn’t face a whole lot of challenges because I started really, really early, like before it was called DITA. I was working at IBM and they brought in this SGML solution that ended up being DITA, and it seemed logical. We’d been noodling around in some structured authoring stuff before that, so it was a pretty easy adoption.
L. Kunz: I have seen writers, though, who had trouble making the leap from unstructured to structured, and that throws them sometimes. And the whole idea of elements and having to arrange your elements in certain hierarchies can be a challenge. I’ve seen a lot of confusion over concept, task, reference. Most people know what a task is, but should something be a concept or a reference, and what happens when it’s neither?
L. Kunz: And then some of the real great efficiencies of DITA, like conref and keyref, sometimes are a barrier for writers and they struggle with that. Especially keyref. It’s just not really intuitive, and once you get it you’re like, “Oh, yeah, now I can do it.” But it’s hard at first, and even when you get the concept, doing the markup right sometimes is hard. And there’s different ways to do it, as you know, and not always appropriate for what you’re doing.
L. Kunz: So I guess the biggest one is the really powerful stuff like conref, keyref, and I haven’t even tried scoping keys yet. I think a lot of writers would be thrown by that, honestly. And the output transforms. I think you usually have to bring in a specialist, somebody like Scriptorium, to help with those. There’s not a lot of in-house expertise in really making the output look suitable.
G. Kinsey: Okay.
E. Patterson: So you said that during your time at IBM, you started working with DITA before it was even called DITA, which leads into the next question. How have you seen DITA evolve during your time in industry?
L. Kunz: Well, I’ve seen it move into the mainstream. Of course it started as a software documentation tool and was really conceived of that way and I think developed that way for awhile. And then it broadened into other parts of the industry, and I really like that. I’m glad it’s shown itself to be flexible and scalable that way. How else has it evolved? Well, of course, the features have been added over the years. Although not a lot, I mean, fundamentally DITA is still DITA.
L. Kunz: And a lot of the stuff that’s been added is kind of bell and whistle-y. But I think moving into the mainstream is the biggest thing. It’s proven itself to be adaptable to so many environments. And now we have Lightweight DITA, which is making it even more adaptable to more situations. And those writers who may be held back about structured authoring or their managers who held back saying, “Hm, I don’t know,” when they hear about Lightweight DITA, they might feel, “Well, that fits my situation. I’m more comfortable with that.”
L. Kunz: And so, it’s expanding the market for DITA and the opportunities for DITA even more, and I like that.
E. Patterson: Okay, great.
G. Kinsey: All right, thank you so much for joining us.
E. Patterson: Yes, thank you.
L. Kunz: You’re very welcome. I’ve enjoyed being with you.
E. Patterson: Thank you 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.