Great Content in a Wonderful Context

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Jang Graat, JANG Communication

After visits to Munich and Vienna, the DITA Europe conference was almost headed for another German speaking town this year. When I met Lisa Lambert at CMS/DITA NA in Baltimore this spring, she asked me which city I would prefer for the European DITA event: Berlin or Prague. There was no doubt in my mind about this. Not that Berlin is an ugly or boring city, but Prague is hard to beat. It seems that every single building in the center of town is a classic work of art and, even more importantly, you can walk anywhere. And, especially important for a Dutch guy: prices are a lot lower.

From the stylish venue for the conference it was a 15 minute walk to the famous old city square with the astronomical clock—which made it into one of the presentations and thus amazed everyone at least twice. Many conference visitors from overseas had not been to Prague before and I have not met anyone who did not like what they saw.

As for me: I have seen Prague twice before but would go back there in a heartbeat. I have seen a couple of local bands and walked around town just to take in the lovely atmosphere, even when it was getting a little cold this time of the year. But then, if you visit Prague in summer you have to fight your way through the crowd.

And in the middle of all this classic beauty there was the conference. Two days packed with quality information, not centering too much on technical DITA matters. Of course there were the technical topics as well, but there was never an overload of technical details. And if some of the presentations tended to run over a little, there was plenty of delicious food in the breaks to make up for that.

The presentations I liked best were thought-provoking (by Frank Shipley and Joe Gollner), showed how powerful a well-chosen project approach can be (by Keld Jellesen and Dorthe Sonne), demonstrated how to make new use of existing technology (by George Bina) and amazed us about some of the strange ways the human mind really works (by Erika Webb and Ultan Ó Broin).

The Bigger Picture

Frank Shipley always takes you to another level of thinking about what we are doing. This time, he showed the benefits of zooming out and getting “the big picture”. Using existing technologies and standards that are in use in various scientific and technological fields, he demonstrated how automatically created graphs can give an instant overview of your content and, more importantly, how that content is being reused, referenced, or almost completely ignored by all other topics. Simple, straightforward and with demonstrable added value.

No More Car Wash

Joe Gollner is so bright that he sometimes loses people when he gets too far ahead of “the rest of us”, but not this time. The idea of content scenarios makes so much sense that it is amazing nobody has yet developed this. Of course it takes time and effort to build a useful set of materials for real-life demonstrations of our technology, but the rewards can be massive, as was related to us in a number of hilarious and very educational anecdotes. His call to use an open source approach to building content scenarios should be heard and acted on. We’re all going to benefit from this type of work.

Guiding Light

Keld Jellesen brought an amazing business case to the stage. Together with a representative of his client, Dorthe Sonne, he presented his approach to getting a big DITA project into the door of a company that did not even know what XML was when they started out. The concept of a lighthouse example, a small pilot that nevertheless had every essential component already in it and could be demonstrated to everyone in the client company, is extremely useful. Rather than making a pilot only do one particular thing and leaving lots of uncertainty about other aspects, the lighthouse example shows all of the stuff but is restricted in size. The only thing you have to prove after running such a pilot succesfully is that the approach is scalable. An amazing project with tons of stuff I would like to know more about.

(Re)useful Reports

George Bina took a very courageous approach to presenting. Where every good presenter warns against running live demos in your show, George did not even have any slides. He just showed the live demo, and got away with it. The concept is so simple it is brilliant: instead of using XSLT to transform our DITA sources into output for users, he transformed the DITA materials into a report on the use and reuse in those sources. Not just the number of topics and elements that are reused, but every single detail is written into a report within seconds, using XSLT to dig it out of the source materials and make it presentable. How simple can great ideas be?

Spicing Up the Information

Erika Webb and Ultan Ó Broin shed a little light on how human minds can be enticed into taking in the information you want to feed them. Instead of just giving the information in “a PowerPoint”, they had cartoon characters “talk” to the target audience. We all love comics, but how many of us really knew that they have a demonstrable effect on our ability to remember the stuff they tell us? Erika and Ultan actually did some sound scientific research into this aspect of technical communication. Not just story-telling, but bringing in some cartoon characters to do that story-telling and give your information a context in which it is digested easier and with more pleasure (even by those who said they liked the “PowerPoint” better!).

Conclusion

Even though you can only see half of the presentations at these conferences and I skipped some sessions altogether as I was talking to vendors and friends, there was so much valuable content that I did take home from this conference. In my experience, this was the best DITA Europe so far and it will be hard to beat next year. As is true for the venue: Prague would be worth revisiting (and staying a week or so). But then there are other cities nearby that would be very good candidates, too. Budapest is my recommendation for DITA Europe 2012. I hope to see you all there.

 

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