What is DITA and where can it help?

October 27, 2015 11:24 am Published by

We live in the information age where information is created with incredible speed. According to recent studies 90% of all world’s data was created in last two years. In this context the issue of managing huge amounts and varieties of information is looming, sucking the life out of both the workforce and the higher-ups. But, a problem appears, also there is a solution, and in this case the solution is the Darwin Information Typing Architecture, or DITA for short.

What is DITA?

DITA (Darwin Information Typing Architecture) is an OASIS standard (Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards), which provides an XML-based information architecture specifically developed for maintaining complex multipurpose documents and information. DITA is designed for managing complex documentation or documentation arrays with a unified content reuse mechanism.

A DITA based document is not written sequentially as a complete document but built from several components called DITA topics. Each topic is a selfsufficient, reusable piece of content. Several topics are glued together and structured by a DITA map. Structure and sequence of content can be controlled by different maps.

Technically, DITA maps and topics are XML files and thus, DITA provides all benefits of an XML solution: content is separated from structure and layout. Differently strucutred documents in a variatey of layouts can be published from a single source by only a few clicks using transformation profiles.

Why to use it?
Since DITA’s introduction, many organizations have realized significant time and cost savings, as well as increased quality and flexibility, by using DITA for managing documents and providing reuse in areas like:

  • Technical documentation and service manuals
  • Learning documentation
  • Legal documents
  • Marketing material
  • Process descriptions
  • Compliance documentation

Organizations have seen other benefits from DITA as well, including more collaborative development environments helping in case of engaging external content providers, integrate content of acquired companies and working with translation agencies. Today DITA has gained widespread adoption in the technical documentation world, in companies such as Cisco, IBM, Nokia, SAP, Oracle and many others.
DITA uses the advantages presented by XML and even beyond that. Below are just a few examples of how DITA is invaluable in today’s environment:

Easy global changes through customized transforms

With DITA you can update the structure and presentation of an entire information set by applying a consistent, core transform. You can automate tasks like building summary tables and listing linked topics. And because these global changes get applied during output generation, you can apply different sets of global changes for different output. In this way you can generate customized outputs for print versus online, or for different platform or branding requirements, without having to edit and adjust the source each time. You can quickly respond to customer demands for new and updated product information.

Portable through standards

Using DITA, product groups and external business partners can easily share and exchange content. Third parties can use common transformation and presentation models with DITA, or create specialized processing to offer views and presentation of content that is company- or brand-specific, or to transform content for reuse between DITA and other XML formats. This content portability is critical for maintaining arrangements with third-party partners and for ensuring that a writing team remains productive through business reorganizations, mergers, acquisitions, and spin-offs.

Linking and Web management
DITA makes it possible to create and maintain cross-topic links from outside the topic itself. You can apply different sets of links in different situations. For example, when your topics are included in product A, the appropriate links for that product are included. For product B, a second set of links are included. Similarly, when you’re incorporating content produced by another team, you can add appropriate links to their topics during processing without editing their source. You can even add links after topics have shipped to translation.

Conditional processing and Variables support
With DITA, you can tag parts of a topic by product, audience, or other characteristics. You can then include, exclude, or otherwise flag that content for reuse or specialized presentation.

You can reuse topics in different collections using maps, and you can reuse content between topics as well, maintaining common elements like definitions, warnings, and product names in a central place. With DITA, writers can assemble topics about a specific set of issues and publish them as a unique on-demand deliverable. For example, a customer support team might compile from existing, diverse sources a particular set of topics (such as server load and performance) that provide a customized solution to a problem reported by a major customer.

Focused content and better writing
Topic-based authoring produces better writing. Categorizing content into concept, task, and reference topics ensures that users can perform tasks faster because the information is focused. Delivery tools that handle metadata can enable users to search for information based on their company role, their job responsibilities, and their task goals.
Should I use it?
Here are some questions to ask when deciding whether or not a DITA authoring environment could be of benefit in your situation.

      • Do you have a large body of content to deal with – have you found yourself doing a Google search to find content that you should be able to locate through a content repository search?
      • Are there standard words, phrases, or paragraphs that you repeatedly use – do you often search and copy phrases or even whole sections from elsewhere in your body of content?
      • Do you maintain a set of documents that differ slightly from one context to another? Similar documents that are almost the same but still different for different markets, target audiences, products?
      • Do you have ongoing issues with consistent use of language between topics – for example, certain sentences or paragraphs that should be identical in a large number of instances?
      • Is the content subject to change volatility – that is, the organization changes the names of features or products on an ongoing basis?
      • Is your organization in an industry where compliance is an issue – accuracy is important?
      • Does your company have multiple product lines where descriptions could be quite similar but with key differences?
      • Is your content highly structured – that is, do you create many of the same type of content, where formalizing the schema could be beneficial?
      • Can your content benefit from being created in a modular way that has mix-and-match qualities to the topics?
      • Is your organization a target of lawsuits – so you need to be able to find all of your content and update immediately when products, services, or market or legal conditions change?
      • Does your organization need to respond to market conditions quickly by gathering and modifying existing content – for example, if your organization has a rapid adoption rate for new products with similar features?
      • Does your organization translate into multiple languages, making a key consideration content consistency in the source language?
      • Do the writers in your organization have the skill and discipline to learn an XML editor and work in a structured authoring environment?

If you have little content and little or no re-use, then DITA is likely not the solution for you. However, if you have answered yes to at least two of these questions, and you are looking for ways to manage the content lifecycle more efficiently, then you should seriously consider using DITA on a regular basis.

For further information about DITA and how your organization can benefit of it, please contact us.

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