Author’s Note: I’m always on the lookout for new DITA tools and techniques, so when I heard about Fluid Topics I was eager to take it for a test drive. Antidot kindly worked with me to get a test site up and running to allow me to do the research for this article. Thanks guys!
What Is Antidot Fluid Topics?
Fluid Topics is a DITA publishing option that delivers content to your customers on a website of your choice. It’s one possible answer to the “what do I do with my XML content” question that every DITA newbie runs into at some point.
However, Fluid Topics is more than simply saving XML as HTML—it encompasses management of a whole user experience through content—an experience that most people are just starting to think about. The user experience includes creating an entry point to the content, adding usable navigation and related mechanisms (like bookmarks and custom arranging of topics), and providing functionality that facilitates targeted feedback to open the dialogue between your users and your authors. If you’re looking to take your DITA content delivery to the next level, Fluid Topics may be the perfect solution for you.
Antidot Fluid Topics helps fill an important gap in DITA content delivery options—mostly that there aren’t very many. For publishing, you’re likely using the DITA Open Toolkit (or equivalent HTML/PDF/mobile publishing tools) and then have to figure out your own delivery. Delivery includes such things as building a usable website, adding a search algorithm that works, adding the ability to perform advanced search and filtering, to navigate easily—basically all the functionality so users can find the content they want.
Antidot’s solution is a quality product that can let you take your user experience to the next level.
It may not be for everyone because it is an HTML-centric solution that is not inexpensive, but if you are still trying to decide how best to deliver your DITA content, then you should definitely attend a demo.
- True DITA publishing. Literally made for DITA content, this solution lets you actually publish XML directly without transforming it to HTML. This means you can leverage DITA to the absolute maximum. With other publishing options you lose some semantic value by flattening the XML to HTML. Working with XML opens up a world of opportunity for being able to control and query your content and metadata.
- Metrics. The Fluid Topics solution includes some very good metrics (the Antidot team is willing to build out metrics even more fully), including who is accessing the site; how often, from what devices and browsers; search terms; stale content; and just about any other website metrics you can dream of.
- Development support. The Antidot team is friendly and eager to get your feedback on the product. They think the value of having content delivered in raw DITA is its versatility and they’re willing to work with you by whatever method you choose to get everything working the way you want. They’re eager to break into this market and, as such, are willing to listen to suggestions and enhancements. My favorite interaction with them was over the “PDF on demand” feature. Despite my intense dislike of delivering content in PDFs (it’s so darned STATIC!), our users, bless their flabby little hearts, often demand their nice, portable, downloadable, printable PDFs. I admit; it’s a convenience that we just can’t get away from yet. Antidot was of the same opinion on wanting to ditch PDFs, but will be adding “PDFs on demand” to their product soon—you don’t have to create pre-packaged PDFs (unless you want to) but users can get PDFs of their own, cherry-picked topics. It’s a win-win.
- User experience. From faceted search to richmarks (bookmarks that let you assemble your own “books”) to the future “save as PDF” functionality, this product maximizes your options for building a great user experience. If you’re looking for users to be able to see custom content based on who they are, assemble their own “books”, and generally do whatever they need and want with your content, then this is the solution for you.
- Infinity scrolling. This takes some getting used to, but as they move down through a DITAmap (aka book), the user simply keeps scrolling down to get from topic to topic. We’re used to each topic being on a separate page, but infinity scrolling is definitely the wave of the future—fewer clicks/navigation needed—the next piece of content is just “there”, waiting just out of sight. Authors can still chunk content into topics, but now users don’t have to jump around and get lost. All of a sudden, the user gets their connection between last and next topics—a connection that is at risk when every topic has its own page. Infinity scrolling puts the “fluid” in Fluid Topics.
- Localization. Have multiple languages? Fluid Topics can handle that too. They actually make it easy to switch from one language to another right in the interface—a drop down in the top corner lets users switch languages in real time.
Responsiveness. The responsive design of the default site is not great, which means that your users can’t really use any device to access your content. Major gaps include the ability to navigate when using a small screen, or automatically see a wider view of content when rotating a device. If a great user experience on any device is your goal, you’ll probably find, as I did, that this aspect of the solution needs work. However, this is a solvable weakness—in fact, it’s on their current product roadmap, and they expect to release an enhancement soon.
- Customer Base. The Antidot Fluid Topics solution is relatively new with few existing customers, although the company, Antidot, is well established, particularly in Europe.
- Integrations. I would like to see more robust (two-way) integrations with DITA CCMSs as well as Support ticketing and tracking systems.
- Price. As always, a quality solution like this costs money. Is it cheaper than building the same solution from the ground up? Certainly in the short term, but less so in the long term. Do you get what you pay for? Absolutely.
- Back-end Control. Some of the control over what you do on the site (like connecting login accounts to profiling attributes so users see their specific content) must be configured by the team at Antidot. I prefer to get very hands-on with all my DITA tools, so this really annoys me. If you’re less concerned with doing the heavy administration work yourself, you may not be quite as annoyed.
Comparison to MindTouch
Fluid Topics is similar to MindTouch in many ways. They are the same sort of solution—a way to deliver a great user experience for content. They have different strengths and weaknesses—the “best” solution for your company will depend on your specific goals and requirements.
Antidot Fluid Topics can leverage the heck out of your XML (for example, if you’re using a Subject Scheme Map to introduce a taxonomy so users can browse content by category, then Fluid Topics can put a front end on that functionality), whereas MindTouch can only convert to HTML—losing some of the value of working in XML. However, Fluid Topics doesn’t have MindTouch’s integration with a ticketing system to tie into Support, nor does it have any out-of-the-box ability to connect to embedded/dynamic help.
The cost for both solutions is comparable—you’ll need a healthy budget to deliver this excellence to your users.
Review of MindTouch: http://techwhirl.com/product-review-mindtouch-tcs/
DITA Tips and Tricks:
Fluid Topics’ website: http://www.fluid-topics.com/
The DITA specification in Fluid Topics: http://dita.fluidtopics.com/
Don Day’s mobile DITA in Fluid Topics: http://mobiledita.com/#FluidTopics