Move Over DITA—Chaos is Coming!

Alan Porter, WebWorks.com

I’ve never really questioned the need for hierarchical structure and imposed taxonomies until I watched my teenage daughter doing her homework several months ago.

Let me explain.

I’ve been working with topic-based authoring, structured content, and markup languages for over twenty years now. I started out in the aerospace industry and, given the exacting demands of that industry, a highly formalized approach to technical documentation has always seemed to be the right one to take in handling large amounts of complex information and delivering it in a way that enables relatively easy navigation.

Since then I’ve worked in, and with, a variety of industries, from automotive to software and a dozen others in between. During that time, I’ve continued to work with structured data and an associated alphabet soup of standards to describe those structures. I’ve seen them all come and go–SGML, DocBook, XML, CALS, DITA, plus a ton of various industry and company standards. I’ve even helped create several standards, serving on several committees and working groups in my time.

I never really questioned what we were doing; it just seems natural. For those of us raised on more traditional media (i.e., the printed word), we are most comfortable with the book paradigm. That information should come in a structured format, i.e., Chapters with Headings and Sub-Headings, and that navigation is best accomplished by either a map to that structure (a Table of Contents) or an alphabetical listing of subjects covered (an Index). What other way could there possibly be?

It was only natural that when we started to deliver information electronically we carried that paradigm over. Sure we made a few concessions to the new media (for instance, I remember having a long and somewhat heated discussion with a particular aerospace certification authority on why we didn’t need page numbers on a CD deliverable), but the underlying print-based model stayed, simply because that’s what we were comfortable with. It’s what we naturally understood, and it matched the way that we handled locating and using written information outside of the work environment.

In fact for most of my working life to date, the technology I used at work far outpaced that I used outside of work.

But not any more.

These days the technology I use at home has generally outpaced that found in most workplaces. Arguably the most powerful computing device that I currently use on a regular basis is my iPhone. Certainly in flexibility and ease of use, it outperforms the two laptops and two desktop machines I have access to. In particular, social media and the way that we look for information online has had a drastic impact on how information is retrieved and organized.

My moment of realization that the information model I have used for most of my adult life, and all through my technical publications career, was wrong came while helping my teenage daughter with a school project on Pearl Harbor. Watching her made me realize that the new generation now entering the workforce has completely different expectations, and a different paradigm, when it comes to ways of accessing and organizing information.

So when my daughter sat down to start her project the first thing she did was Google “Pearl Harbor” and start visiting links. I’ve seen online discussions about whether we should stop including indexes in online help and how the “search” button has replaced the F1 key. I’ve heard phrases like “Search is the new Help” being bandied about, but perhaps we need to be going further than that. I’d argue that “Search” is not only the new Help, it’s also the “new Book.” If most of your readers are using a search engine to find the content they want at the point they want it, then not only is the index obsolete, but so is the table of contents, the title pages, and even the hierarchical structure.

As for my daughter, after using the search engine, her next logical stop was Wikipedia. Some people will argue that she shouldn’t use a publicly contributed resource for schoolwork, but the tales of Wikipedia’s inaccuracies are wildly exaggerated. Research has shown that statistically Wikipedia is no more error-prone than the Encyclopedia Britannica. In fact, because the pages on Wikipedia tend to be monitored by people with special interest in or knowledge of the subjects, mistakes are often spotted and corrected far more quickly than they are in the equivalent respected textbooks. Think about it from my daughter’s point of view–she wasn’t just getting the viewpoint of one textbook author, filtered through the approvals process of the state school board, she was benefiting from input from a group of people both passionate and knowledgeable about the subject she was studying. Studies have shown that user-generated content is often more accurate and timely than “official” documentation and is certainly perceived as having a higher value.

But the research didn’t stop there. Next she got on Facebook and Yahoo IM and started using messaging to ask friends who were online for recommendations. These friends were literally from all around the world, so she was given access to resources that gave totally different perspectives than those given in the classroom. (Including input from our Japanese exchange student that she would never have gotten from her U.S.-authored texts.) As I watched, she soon had six different windows open on her iMac and was pulling information from multiple sources into her own document, building the structure and narrative she needed, as she went.

One friend suggested going to a social bookmarking site and searching using a variety of user-applied tags. Instead of being forced to use a pre-applied taxonomy developed by others she was now applying a folksonomy organically developed by others who had studied the same subject. This way she was able to leverage their research and notations to build on her own.

Then there were the photographs, videos, and sound clips, and as far as my daughter was concerned, the multimedia was an integral part of the content mix.

While she was massaging all this information, which had been collected in a staggeringly short period of time, I, her bibliophile father, who is also a bit of a history geek, had wandered off to my office where I had a few good old-fashioned print books on World War II sitting in my book cases. I proudly placed the books on the edge of my daughter’s desk and suggested she look through those for information on Pearl Harbor too.

She dutifully picked up a couple of the books and started flicking pages over, skimming through the contents. “Why don’t you use the Table of Contents or Index?” I asked.

“That just confuses me. I can find stuff quicker this way,” she replied, looking in bemusement at her obviously aged father.

I sat back and watched her navigate the books for a few minutes. She quickly found what she needed–and then I realized what she was doing. She was “browsing” just as if she was online.

That was my moment of realization. That’s when I started to question the paradigm that’s informed the way I’ve thought about online documentation for over two decades. The book-driven, structured paradigm may have been ideal for my generation, but what about the new generation?

For kids raised as part of the “digital generation,” where the first place they go to find out information is the internet and social networks, is the book an irrelevant model?

Yes, the information they access still needs some sort of markup and tagging so the search engines can find it. It still needs metadata to enable user tagging. But instead of strictly enforced hierarchies, what is being built and accessed is more of a flat ocean of information that users search rather than navigate and then dip into to find the components they need to build their own solutions.

So where does that leave currently favored structured standards like DITA? I believe they have a place in more rigidly defined and regulated environments today, and probably for several years to come, but how long they will remain useful is open to question.

As for more general applications, I believe we need to stop trying to shoehorn the current “flavor-du-jour” standard onto every publishing project, and instead, take a step back and look at how your kids do their homework. Because in five to ten years they will be your new workforce, and perhaps more important, your new customers.

Alan J. Porter is VP-Operations at WebWorks.com, the developers of the ePublisher Platform http://webworks.com. He is also President and Founder of 4Js Group LLChttp://4jsgroup.com, a corporate communications consulting and services company that specializes in helping companies tell their stories. He is a published author with several books, comics and magazine articles to his name; his next book, “WIKI: Grow Your Own for Fun and Profit,” will be published by XML Press in 2010. (http://alanjporter.com)