Experts Talk DITA and Localization

Amanda Etheridge, WhP
Reprinted with permission from http://www.whp.net/en/

This summer we are bringing together a team of renowned experts to share views on the DITA* standard, companies using it and how to successfully tie localization into the process. Keith Schengili-Roberts, JoAnn Hackos and Julian Murfitt will take turns in being our guest stars, and we will have additional surprises down the road. We hope you enjoy the interviews and look forward to your feedback.

Keith Schengili-Roberts lives and breathes DITA. His journey began in 2005, when the structured documentation standard was just a newborn. Then a Manager at AMD processors, he was in charge of implementing it within the Graphics Engineering Group. Ten years later, he has become a DITA evangelist, honing his skills first as a consultant at Mekon and now at IXIASOFT, lending his DITA expertise to the company’s clients. Keith is also known for ditawriter.com, the blog he regularly updates with the objective of opening the sometimes exclusive DITA club to the outside world.

Keith, your blog displays a list of companies having adopted DITA. What share corresponds to software publishers?

I just crunched the latest numbers and computer software companies account for 27 % of the 500+ companies in the listing. This number is somewhat misleading, as an increasing number of other industries integrate software as a value add in the products, such as in the telecommunication, automotive, medical devices, pharmaceutical and financial services, to name the major ones. As software spreads across industries, it brings its tools and best practices along with it, and one of those is DITA.

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Why were software firms the first to adopt DITA?

IBM is the father of DITA, and it started within their software and IT division. I have found that many of the early users of DITA were able to share common software development tools, like Concurrent Versioning Systems (CVS). So software firms were organically extending their development processes to their technical writing. Since then the tools to support DITA have improved tremendously, so it is now much easier for companies outside the software sector to adopt DITA.

What makes a company consider DITA in the first place?

A technical writer can get overwhelmed by the thousands of pages he manages: the upgrades, versions, formats and languages. And he knows his workload is only going to increase, with calls for more personalization, a better user experience and the pressure to produce content more efficiently. The traditional, narrative-style documentation he writes, starting at page one with an occasional copy-and-paste, does not scale well. DITA can alleviate his workload, as he may for example re-use the introduction and the cautions over an entire range of products, and just change the product name. The time it saves the writer from having to re-write the same material over and over again is considerable. When you multiply the reuse factor amongst a team of writers the cost-savings are exponential. Each writer now concentrates on writing new content, giving them the ability to craft better, more target material for their users.

Besides higher writing productivity, what are the benefits of DITA?

Content re-use equates to translation re-use, so there are significant savings in localization. If a topic is localized into a new language, it usually does not need to be re-translated if it is used in a new publication and that topic is unchanged. On the marketing side, when combined with minimalist writing techniques, DITA facilitates shorter and more concise content. Readers retain the information better as the content can be directly applied to what they are trying to accomplish.

How large are the companies using DITA?

It tends to be larger firms that get the most out of DITA because of the economies of scale. In my survey, I have found that 70% of companies that are using DITA are over 500 employees in size. Yet I know at least a dozen firms that are comprised of less than 10 people who use DITA successfully, often because they already have an expert in-house with hands-on DITA experience. Starting out early reaps additional benefits, as DITA use scales well, so as a firm grows and more products are marketed, it is easier to handle the increasing documentation required.

What kind of company is implementing DITA today?

Every company sector I can find is using DITA. I have identified companies using DITA in over sixty industry sectors, ranging from industrial egg-beating machines, underwater exploration devices and radiation scalpels to treat cancer patients.

How does localization tie in with DITA?

Reducing localization costs is often used to help justify a switch to DITA, as content reuse and the removal of desktop publishing fees make translating content more efficient for DITA-using clients. While implementing DITA localization processes may be straightforward for a client, I have found that some LSPs (Language Service Providers) don’t know how to handle DITA properly. Just because they “know XML” doesn’t mean that they know how to best work with DITA-based content.

Going back to my own experience of implementing DITA internally when I was at AMD, our localization process got bogged down at one of the localization firms we used because they didn’t have the level of expertise required and were unable to form proper topics in the target languages. For instance they used the wrong case on their tags, like <P> instead of <p> to identify a paragraph, or omitted to close with an angle bracket. They didn’t have the processes in place to properly vet the material and make sure that they did not modify the tags. These days an LSP has better tools to work with and problems emerge more from having to work with the specifics of how a customer handles their particular localization process.

How can you evaluate the DITA expertise of an LSP?

DITA references from other firms are a good start. In my experience an LSP that works with DITA efficiently is typically a larger company, is comfortable with the software tools and can leverage its expertise and toolsets effectively. The LSP can choose between two processes depending on its skill sets: either it takes the pure DITA topics and works them through its own translation memory and DITA tools, or it uses the XLIFF (XML Localization Interchange File Format) standard.

Do you see any breakthroughs in the next five years as far as DITA and localization are concerned?

DITA 1.3, the version that is expected to be released at the end of this year, is an incremental addition to what already exists. DITA is a mature process and progress is more in the tools and the training. Lightweight DITA is a new initiative that reduces the complexity of “mainstream” DITA, and may be crafted to include topic types specific to other areas of communications, such as marketing.

As silos break down and a company’s overall Content Strategy comes to the fore, technical document teams are becoming more marketing oriented, integrating search engine optimization, social media and intelligent content. More and more technical content is considered part of the customer experience and needs to convey the same brand experience as, say a video or marketing brochure.

*Darwin Information Typing Architecture. Click here for the Wikipedia definition