DITA, Darwin Information Typing Architecture, is an XML-based standard that is used primarily for technical documentation and increasingly for other types of documentation too. TechWhirl provides an overview of the basics in our “What is DITA?” article. Once you’ve gotten the answer to the “What,” you’re probably ready to think about “Why Should I care?” And it’s a question you should be asking yourself if you work on creating technical content as part of your day-to-day job.
The answer is deceptively simple: There’s really no getting around it; if you’re not applying DITA as your documentation standard, then you’re working much more slowly and inefficiently than you ought to.
Does DITA adoption take time, effort, and intelligence to implement? Why yes, yes it does. And then you reap the rewards for the next…let’s see…foreseeable future.
- Saves time
- Introduces quality and consistency
- Increases usability of the product and the documentation
- Opens up the door to a wide range of publishing options
- Saves money
DITA Saves Time
If you and your writers are forever mucking around with Word style, templates, footers and headers and generally wasting your time on not creating content, then you should seriously consider moving to DITA.
DITA separates content from formatting so that writers write; they don’t format. Formatting is applied automatically and consistently as part of the publishing process.
That extra time gained from authoring in DITA doesn’t mean that you can reduce the writer headcount, because the extra time should be spent focusing on writing the right information, the information the user really wants and needs…which leads to the next reason you should care about DITA: increased quality.
DITA Introduces Quality and Consistency
DITA gives writers a clear, repeatable, yet customizable model to write from. For example, DITA requires every topic must have a title; pre-requisite information for performing a task always precedes the context of a task (and the steps); and a task result always follows the steps.
With DITA, writers have (just) enough structure to consistently write according to best practices, like telling people what they need to have or know before telling them the first step. It’s not uncommon to find a step that surprises the reader with information they should have known before they even started the task. That sort of information is now clearly placed before the steps begin.
Writing using DITA leads to clear, consistent information. In fact, most writers take this one step further and start to identify real user goals and then write to those goals instead of writing based on features. This further increases the quality and usability of the content.
At the same time formatting discrepancies disappear because formatting is applied centrally and programmatically at publishing time, rather than randomly throughout the content creation process.
DITA Increases Usability
DITA introduces a shift—from chapter- or book-based writing to topic-based writing, where each chunk of information is clear and complete on its own. Furthermore, each chunk, or topic, has a clear purpose. The core of DITA includes different topic types, each written to fulfill a specific users’ goal: concept to explain, task to instruct, reference to inform.
Separating content into discrete, highly usable but clear topics makes them more findable. Users can navigate right to the information they need, read just the pertinent information (because the rest is there, a click or swipe away), and then go about their day.
Happy users make really good customers and no one is happier than the user who finds exactly what they need in the documentation.
DITA Opens Up the Door to Publishing Options
By having content in XML, you’re freed from the constraints of one particular output format, like HTML or PDF. You are limited only by your technical skills at transforming XML into any and all other outputs that you need (and that your users need).
From ePub to Excel or PDF to PowerPoint, creating the outputs you choose is a matter of mastering transform languages (or hiring someone who can create what you need using those transform languages). Your outputs are entirely configurable, looking and behaving exactly as needed.
It gets trickier when you try to integrate DITA outputs with other tools, like publishing through WordPress or Drupal. However, it’s usually a matter of time and money rather than an impossibility.
DITA Saves Money
By not messing around with formatting and by having a clear standard to write and reuse content, writers can write faster. When content is in DITA, it becomes an object that can be used anywhere it’s needed. No more copy/paste. This means savings when you’re writing new content, updating existing content, or assembling new product documentation.
Translation also becomes a major source of savings in a DITA environment. Instead of translating complete documents over and over, you only need to translate the specific content that has changed. Organizations regularly see a savings of 50% or more when they translate DITA content rather than Word, FrameMaker, or InDesign.
These are just the high-level advantages of DITA. We haven’t even touched on the ability to tailor content to a particular type of user, make content even more findable through faceted search, or make reviews faster and easier (and on time!).
If you care about the quality of your technical content, you should care about DITA, and start planning how to move your documentation to a new level.