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Is DITA the Only Choice for Structured Content?

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

In a series of previous posts, I wrote about using structured content as an enabler for content automation. For many, especially for technical writers, structured content usually means DITA. The question is whether it has to be necessarily DITA or other structured content formats can be also used.

It definitely depends on your goals, your industry, and the existing information infrastructure, but here are some arguments why DITA could be a very good choice.

1. DITA is an internationally recognized open standard, and it’s live. This means it’s being constantly evolving, and new features are being continuously added. There are a lot of implications of this openness, which makes DITA a good target for a long-term investment.

2. Big choice of tools. One implication of DITA’s openness is that there are a wide variety of authoring, management, and publishing tools that support DITA. This means you are not locked-in to a specific vendor. Plus, you have a solid choice when it comes to tools selection. In the current landscape, you can find a tool or an entire toolchain virtually for any budget (including free options). Additionally, DITA is supported by a big community of experts, which means you won’t have a problem with finding a consultant (either an independent consultant, a consultancy firm, or a software vendor) who would help with your DITA implementation.

3. Ability to use different tools for different teams while having a common content infrastructure. As an open standard supported by various vendors and tools, DITA can be deployed in an organization as a cross-department content infrastructure without forcing different teams with different goals and different working habits to use the same tools. Indeed, while Oxygen seems to be a nice authoring tool for technical writers, it probably wouldn’t work well for marketing teams or reviewers. The latter teams would be looking for something that wouldn’t expose to them all the complexity of XML.

This means that your toolchain may include heterogeneous tools working with the same content infrastructure, DITA. They all may have a different UI exposed to the user, but the same engine under the hood. For example, authoring tools that hide DITA under the hood and expose a non-technical user interface to non-technical users are already available.

4. Technical complexity of DITA doesn’t have to be exposed to content authors. Back in early 2000’s, you really had to know HTML to build a website. In our days, you can create a stunning website with zero coding. In recent years, we’ve been observing a similar trend on the DITA market: the growing number of tools that make DITA authoring and publishing easier and less expensive are coming in.

To name just a few:

  • Fonto, a web-based editor for DITA authoring and reviewing

  • Content Mapper, an add-on to MS Word for authoring DITA in MS Word

  • MiramoPDF, a powerful tool for setting up layout and formatting for a PDF output without XSLT coding

5. DITA is not just for technical documentation. Although early DITA adopters were mainly software companies and used DITA primarily for technical documentation, thanks to new tools that move DITA to under the hood and expose a more user-friendly interface, in our days, DITA is spread across various industries. Just a few examples we saw in 2020:

  • Education: reports for colleges

  • Healthcare: medical information

  • Insurance: descriptions of different types of insurances

6. DITA can be adjusted to your needs. One more implication of DITA’s openness is that it can be extended to make it fit your specific goals and needs. There are mechanisms in DITA that allow you to do it:

  • By specializing DITA, you can create your own custom information types, content structures, and elements. In one of our projects for the aerospace industry, we went as far as we created a specialization that mimicked a content standard for flight operations called ATA2300. This allowed us to use the existing DITA tools to implement a full-scale solution for creating, managing, and publishing aircraft documentation which pilots can access using an electronic flight bag.

  • By subsetting DITA, you can limit the vocabulary of elements available in DITA to only those that are actually used in your documentation. This can reduce the learning curve, facilitate authoring, and make your content more consistent.

7. DITA enables you to control complexity (and budget!) of your implementation. You don’t have to aim for a full-blown content automation from the very start. DITA lets you use a phased approach where you are gradually moving from simple goals whose return-on-investment can be measured quickly (for example, content reuse and multi-channel publishing) to a full content automation (for example, when content is automatically personalized, assembled, and delivered). You can choose your own pace and milestones that fit your business requirements and budget constraints.

There are quite a few beliefs about DITA. One of them is that DITA requires implementation while non-DITA solutions do not. Or that DITA would be an overkill for small teams. Or that adopting DITA requires big budgets. In the next post, I’m going to focus on checking some popular beliefs and explaining why each of them is true or false.

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