XML (EXtensible Markup Language) saw the light of day at the very end of the 1990s and became a best-seller. Like a tidal wave, it permeated all sectors of industry because it was easy for information producers to use, because it was easy for machines and humans to read, and because it had the ability to store text as well as data of all kinds.
Using the UTF-8 alphabet (the one that allows you to surf Japanese or Russian websites), XML is also universal, ready for “global” applications
However, the different “configurations” of the XML language – called DTDs, Document Type Definitions – proliferate in an organized mess no doubt in proportion to the creativity and specificity of its users: automotive, medical or simple literature: each one makes its own “standard”, which is often limited to a single company.
DITA was born in the wake of this assessment: exchanges between partners (internal, external) are increasingly frequent and indispensable; the Web is developing, so are mobile devices, and what we all need, in the technical writing sector and regardless of the industry, is an XML norm that allows us to deal with specific use-cases and at the same time meet universal exchange needs: in other words, a standard.
This was a concern to which the European defense sector had already responded with the AECMA S1000D specification. But at the time, S1000D was not yet using XML…
What is DITA : The birth of the standard
At the beginning of the 2000s, an IBM team developed DITA, inviting external expertise to obtain a broad consensus, and then transmitted its research to OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards), with a view to its open dissemination: thanks to a few pioneers, the DITA v1.0 standard was published in 2005. It then rapidly spread in the USA to global companies, and then to others.
In addition to extensive customization capabilities that retain its ability for easy exchange (interoperability), DITA implements modularization, a method used by S1000D, which consists of dividing publishing information into small units that can be reused in several publications, and of outsourcing certain data to specialized files.
The adoption of DITA has, however, tended to progress… slowly, on our side of the Atlantic. Today, in 2020, it can be said that awareness has risen, and some European companies have even become world leaders in the movement to adopt DITA and promote it.
How does DITA work?
Does DITA produce my content?
DITA is not a production tool, it’s a standard. But there are many tools that support DITA and its methodology, via two main interfaces: an XML editor, and a CCMS (Component Content Management System), such as the DITA FACTORY suite from 4D CONCEPT.
To facilitate its adoption, DITA is published by OASIS with the “DITA Open Toolkit”, a set of “XSL transformations” allowing DITA content to be published regardless of configuration or language.
But back to DITA: DITA uses topics, maps, and various techniques to produce custom content.
What are topics?
The basic unit of content in DITA is called a topic.
According to the standard, a DITA topic is a unit of information with a title element, which can be (re)used in several contexts because it is short enough to deal with only one subject, but long enough to make sense on its own, and to be a self-contained unit.
DITA topics follow a structure defined by DTDs. Each DTD defines a topic type with a constant structure, promoting authoring consistency and overall quality.
For example, a task topic, describing a task (procedure), may include, in this order:
- Prerequisites (what the user should know or have done before executing the task)
- The performance steps
- The expected result
- Le résultat attendu
- The post-requisites (what the user should do after completing the task).
DITA goes further in this structuring because you can include general information, sub-steps, examples, intermediate results, etc. at each step in a standardized way.
Eventually, you can develop transversal structures for your own company, explicitly naming the items you need: spare parts, tools, ingredients, but also types of engines, or materials, or special procedures, or any other category of your choice depending on your sector of activity.
In XML, these categories of document objects are marked with “tags”.
Although there are complex aspects of DITA, the basic mechanisms for writing (about) a subject in DITA using tags are simple, intuitive and consensual.
With DITA’s “semantic” markup, you indicate the nature of the content, and leave the formatting for a later stage, at the time of publication. Authors are relieved of all formatting operations, which are automatically performed at the end of the process.
Topic road maps: Maps
While the topics are the content units provided for in the DITA standard, a DITA map is essentially a list of links to each of the topics to be included in a deliverable: a print publication, a website, a mobile app, etc
A single DITA map can include information relating to several products, audiences or contexts: for example, you can include in your map, topics for three products. Some topics will apply to all three products, others will apply to only one or two products. Topics are filtered at the time the deliverable of the product(s) concerned is created.
This filtering mechanism, known as applicability, even allows you to select the content of the topics to be published sentence by sentence, word by word or image by image, with unparalleled flexibility.
In addition, maps can reference not only topics but also other maps. This allows several authors to write on the same set of topics.
It is common practice to use 60% or more of the topics in several maps, which results in cost savings as well as quality and time-to-market gains.
Variables and data
DITA allows you to manage your brand names and labels, products, ranges, software interfaces, or any associated and repetitive content or content that must have a fixed value, by factoring them in the form of libraries (See libraries in the diagram).
You can also manage variables, combined with applicabilities, to obtain optimal customization of your publications, and maximum quality of your content, which is thus truly “single‑source”.
And what about the CCMS in all this?
As soon as the number of topics and the number of languages into which they are translated becomes large, a CCMS is essential to automate all the tasks resulting from the variety of topic states and their successive versions (workflow states: version in progress, to be validated, to be translated, etc.), the filters to be applied and the checks to be carried out before and during publication.
The CCMS can provide benefits from the moment the content is created, through automatic creation processes, import of external data (design office, etc.) and subsequently, alerts for contributors, previews for validation, validation of translations and translation estimates, etc.
Repositories, coded in DITA, can also be used: thesauruses, phrase banks, as well as additional writing rules and an unlimited set of metadata.
And, of course, the CCMS manages all the images and media used to illustrate the documentation produced, with their different versions, definitions and sources.
By adopting DITA, many organizations increase the quality of their “Customer care” documentation, save substantial time and money, and have greater flexibility to build customer loyalty with new applications that are increasingly adapted to trends and needs.
They have also seen other benefits of DITA, such as a more collaborative development environment, better control over schedules and smoother translations.
Teams involved in content production often operate in separate silos: after‑sales service, communications, marketing, design, etc. Although technology alone does not solve the problems of strategy and content value approach, the examples of the ways in which DITA is profitable can be very compelling.
Is the implementation of DITA easy and, above all, fast? Yes, as long as a professional accompanies you.
Is it profitable in the long term? Yes, even in the short term!