DITA and Topic-Based writing: flip sides of the same coin?

Home/Publications/CIDM eNews/CIDM eNews 02.17/DITA and Topic-Based writing: flip sides of the same coin?

By Robert Gillespie, Nokia

DITA is often sold as a panacea for all content ills; Topic-Based Writing (TBW) as a philosophy for creating standalone chunks of content. Unsurprisingly, after DITA and TBW have been implemented, a common reaction is to wonder what went wrong. The promised land of perfectly crafted topics and customer-focused content sculptured perfectly according to a user’s real needs does not materialize. The problem is less with DITA/TBW, or even implementation planning, but an unrealistic expectation of what can be achieved. This expectation is often rooted in a misunderstanding about DITA/TBW themselves.

OASIS, as the custodians of the DITA specification, are best placed to define the nature of DITA: “The Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) is an XML-based architecture for authoring, producing, and delivering topic-oriented, information-typed content that can be reused and single-sourced in a variety of ways.” Furthermore, that: “…DITA has been designed to satisfy requirements for information typing, semantic markup, modularity, reuse, interchange, and production of different deliverable forms from a single source. These topics provide an overview of the key DITA features and facilities that serve to satisfy these requirements…”.

It is also critical to understand that the DITA specifications do not define a single solution. The specifications cannot be treated as a checklist to indicate compliance with DITA. Rather, the specifications define a smorgasbord of capabilities that can be applied but are not necessarily mandatory. The OASIS standard makes this clear: “While DITA historically has been driven by the requirements of large-scale technical documentation authoring, management, and delivery, it is a standard that is applicable to any kind of publication or information that might be presented to readers, including interactive training and educational materials, standards, reports, business documents, trade books, travel and nature guides, and more.”

Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) is not a theory of information design. DITA’s main contribution to defining an information architecture is to specify that information is to be divided into topics or content modules. Different topic types are envisaged, each with different characteristics. Different characteristics are expressed as metadata with hierarchical and inheritance relationships. Certain linking and relationship mechanisms are defined, which are potentially useful toolsets to help build a unified information architecture, but little use guidance is provided. Consideration of the intended scope of the specifications makes it clear that this was not without intention.

In short, the DITA specifications are primarily concerned with specifying the capabilities of Content Management Systems, markup, and to a lesser degree DITA-aware XML editors. They do not provide a mature template either for the introduction of DITA/TBW nor the implementation of an information architecture.

TBW shares certain basic characteristics with DITA. Most notably, it envisages a modularization of information where content is logically divided into smaller chunks. They also share common influences. The history of DITA is well described elsewhere; repetition here brings no value. The origins of TBW are more convoluted, but the interplay between core ideas is obvious. DITA brings a level of structural formalization that is not inherent in TBW theory, for instance, the proper construction of a topic and use restrictions based on hierarchical relationships, but the basic idea of content decomposition is common.

The nature of Topic-Based Writing varies depending on the person providing the explanation, but some common themes can be identified:

  • Standalone

Standalone can be defined simply as a topic that can always be read as page 1 and serves to answer one question. However, the devil is always in the detail. Standalone should never mean alone.

  • Minimalist

The essential idea of minimalist writing is to reduce the interference in a user understanding content. Minimalism is underpinned by the ideas of information mapping and cognitive understanding. The basic lesson is to construct information in task-orientated chunks and not in monolithic narratives.

In other words, unnecessary content must not be created and content that is created in a form that is appropriate for its purpose and intended user.

Minimalism has four directives:

  • Focus on an action orientated approach
  • Ensure user’s needs are understood
  • Appreciate the value of troubleshooting/error recovery information
  • Ensure that a user can find the information that they need

DITA advocates the division of content into topics but provides virtually no rationale for its reconstitution. TBW, at least on a superficial reading, is concerned only with creating carefully crafted topics. DITA can exist without TBW theory (notwithstanding its shared legacy) and TBW most certainly can exist without DITA. However, even when deployed together, DITA and TBW do not provide a roadmap for creating perfect content. DITA provides a toolkit, but a rationale to identify those tools that are required and properly employ them is not. TBW, on the other hand, is, at least superficially, preoccupied with creating content modules, lacking any clear rationale for gluing the modules together.

If we make an analogy, DITA is a vehicle, TBW a set of navigational principles, but the driver and map are lacking. It is unsurprising that people get lost on the journey.