Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) is the best way to be smart about writing and publishing your business content.
More formally, DITA is an open standard that describes the architecture for creating and managing information that separates the content from the formatting, allows for a more streamlined content creation process, and opens up the possibilities of introducing simpler ways of publishing to new technologies, like for mobile devices. IBM, which developed DITA originally, defines DITA as follows:
The Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) is an XML-based, end-to-end architecture for authoring, producing, and delivering technical information. This architecture consists of a set of design principles for creating “information-typed” modules at a topic level and for using that content in delivery modes such as online help and product support portals on the Web.
After initial development of DITA was complete, IBM donated it as an open source architecture. It is now maintained by OASIS, where volunteers who are experts in information continue to help it evolve.
2001: First introduced internally at IBM.
2005: Version 1 released
2007: Version 1.1 released
2010: Version 1.2 released
2014: Version 1.3 released (forthcoming at the time this article was originally published)
The Problem that DITA Solves
There’s no two ways around it—most people are being really dumb with their content and unfortunately, they don’t even realize it. Writing content in Word, email, PowerPoint, WordPress, HTML, InDesign, FrameMaker, or any other format is equivalent to writing on stone tablets. Your content is essentially stuck in that format and dumb as a rock. Dumb content can’t be easily reused or repurposed, and that’s inefficient and costly.
DITA is a way of writing and storing your content so you can manage it like an asset. It leverages XML (eXtensible Markup Language) to make your content intelligent, versatile, manageable, and portable.
For example, content that is in DITA can be published to (and fully branded) PDF, HTML, RTF, PowerPoint, and mobile–all without ever copying and pasting anything between files. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. DITA can reduce translation by up to 80%. Consistency, quality, and usability all improve. Content creation can be shared across dozens of authors.
DITA takes content out of the stone age and into the information age.
What Kind of Content?
Traditionally, DITA has been used for detailed and complex technical communication content (manuals, online help, user guides, etc.) but it is quickly spreading to other areas, including:
- training and learning
- business writing, such as proposals, whitepapers, articles, or reports
- books of any kind
There’s really no limitation on the kind of content—if it’s important to your business, then it can benefit from DITA.
The Purpose of DITA
The knowledge stored in your documentation has value. And anything that has value to the organization can be treated as an asset. Creating and then leaving that information inside a Word or PowerPoint file severely limits what you can do with it, and whatever you can do, you have to use manual, kludgy ways to do it. Creating documents with traditional tools in static files is an inefficient way of writing, updating, sharing, and managing your information. DITA is an overall approach that solves that inefficiency.
DITA positively affects your content in three main ways; it
- streamlines your content creation process
- increases the quality of your content by standardizing it
- allows you to leverage your content in many different ways (reusing it, publishing to multiple formats, translating it efficiently)
Although there are many benefits to DITA, it all boils down to one thing: being efficient with your content so you can save time and money.
What DITA Is Not
DITA is not a particular tool. Many different tools allow you to author in DITA. In fact, selecting your tool set is part of the process of DITA adoption.
DITA is not a template, although authors often use templates to make it even faster and easier to write.
DITA is not a style guide, although authors certainly benefit from one, with or without DITA content.
Don’t let the XML part of DITA scare you. It’s just the architecture underneath your content. Every piece of content gets stored inside tags—titles, paragraphs, ordered lists—whatever you need to classify your content into a defined set of topic types. DITA has a set of rules that say what tags are allowed where, which gives you standardization of your content.
DITA XML ultimately does three things.
- DITA XML organizes your content into topics. Not all XML does this, but DITA has a core set of topic types so you can put the right sort of information in the right topic type, resulting in highly usable content. Think of topics and even the XML inside topics like Lego® blocks. You use them in various ways to build what you need. In the end, they come together to create more than the individual parts.
- XML separates content from format, making it portable and versatile. Your words and your format are no longer combined, which means they can be managed and updated independently. For example, if your branding changes and you need to update the font size, color, and style in all your documents, this is going to be a central, one-time change for any content stored without format (in XML).
- XML allows the content to be transformed into many other formats. Most people author in XML and then publish to PDF, HTML, and either mobile or ePub. It’s also possible to publish to places you wouldn’t expect, like Open Office, Excel, and PowerPoint. You’re limited only by your imagination.
DITA XML is no harder to learn than basic HTML. With training, most people are authoring in DITA within a week, although it typically takes a few months to become really comfortable with it.
Making Information Clear and Concise
Information typing (the I and T in DITA) is a key facet of DITA. The concept refers to separating out different types of information are into separate places or topics. For example, a procedure only includes information directly related to that procedure. Anything that is only loosely related, like a discussion on the relative merits of a choice, is put in another topic. This is called topic-based writing—a practice that has been used ever since information started being published on the internet.
Gone are the days of laboriously reading through a chapter or manual from start to finish, with long paragraphs and obtuse instructions. This part of DITA maximizes the value of the content and makes it clear and usable. Anyone accessing the content can easily find what they need, scan and understand the content, and then go about their day.
Even though DITA lays out the types of topics you should have and the tags or elements you should use in each topic, it’s also meant to be extensible—to become whatever you need it to be through a process known as specialization. Specialization provides a way for you to write your own rules that meet the needs of your content. In essence, default DITA can be your starting point and then it can take you wherever you need to go.
May We Suggest? Resources for DITA
Elsewhere on TechWhirl
Discussions on Adopting DITA
I’d Rather Be Writing: The Appeal of DITA, by Tom Johnson