Doug Gorman, Simply XML

Years ago I was at a technical conference and the speaker went on and on about how sophisticated his company’s content management solution was. I listened intently. Then the person next to me asked if I knew what the word “sophisticated” meant. I assumed it was a good thing. She said, “Boil it all down and sophisticated means unnecessarily complex.” She said she would rather have an elegant solution and didn’t understand why more tech people couldn’t see that. Back at the office I looked up the two definitions and she was generally correct.

Merriam-Webster does a fine job of reinforcing my point.

Sophisticated: Characterized by a lack of simplicity or naturalness; refined to the point of artificiality. Changed from a natural, simple, or artless state; corrupted or misled; made impure by mixture or adulteration.

Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say about the word elegance:

Elegance: Refined grace or dignified propriety; a restrained beauty of style; exhibits scientific precision, neatness, and simplicity.

A sophisticated technical solution will confuse. An elegant technical solution appears simple even when the background for it might be amazingly complex. Someone with an elegant solution probably took the time to understand the user’s needs and create a simple, effective solution, keeping the technology out of sight.

And so it should be for the adoption of DITA for content reuse and flexible publishing. You should strive for just enough DITA to meet the needs of your organization. Don’t go on in excruciating detail to train people how XML works or how to use elements they will never need, for most people don’t care. Tell them how to do it. (Or, better yet, do it for them.) Often, technologists who have implemented DITA in Tech Pubs automatically assume that the rest of the organization needs everything DITA, complete with complicated metadata and elaborate workflows. We have seen marketing and sales departments back away from DITA after becoming overwhelmed and confused when the technical staff describes the magnitude of their implementation effort in intricate detail.

Technologists might also assume that the authors will, like themselves, fully understand, embrace, and, in fact, love, XMetaL, FrameMaker, or Oxygen as an authoring tool. They may think that the marketing team needs a 7-stage workflow, the sales department should keep track of 30 items of metadata, and the training group needs to implement the 200+ elements in the DITA Training Specialization.

The truth is that the Tech Pubs function may need all those complex capabilities, and they may have the tools, training, staff, and huge budgets to pull it off. They probably have justified the great expense and may get an incredible ROI from all that complexity. But do the marketing, sales, training, and policy & procedure teams really need all that to get the benefits from DITA? To get started, they probably need only three key elements: topic-based writing, limited information reuse, and flexible publishing. Their work will show remarkable improvements immediately, and as they get comfortable, they can slowly add complexity over time, but only if necessary. The solution used in Tech Pubs can often be described as too “sophisticated” for the rest of the organization.

The first key element to implement is topic-based writing. Switching to topic-based writing is extremely valuable, but will be a significant challenge for the enterprise at large. Getting authors to think primarily about chunks of content, rather than documents and desktop publishing will be empowering. For people who have worked for decades with the document orientation and desktop publishing model, topic-based writing is a big deal. And learning to author with a consistent voice and structure further complicates, but improves the process. Yet, most organizations have found themselves greatly rewarded after making this change. It improves focus, generates a nice ROI, and lowers cost.

Information reuse offers a second step to lower cost, improve consistency, and improve the information consumer’s experience. But don’t go overboard thinking that everything that can be reused, should be reused. Think about the appropriate size of a reusable chunk of information. We suggest that outside of Tech Pubs (and maybe even within Tech Pubs) reuse should first be implemented at the level of either a DITA Topic or DITA Map. This level of reuse is easier to understand and implement. This simple approach has the potential to be part of an elegant solution.

Finally, flexible publishing will need to be addressed. The organization must determine the end users’ preferred media when consuming the content. If it’s paper or a computer screen, then a PDF might be fine. If it’s an iPhone, a PDF is nearly useless. Give the end user only the content he or she needs, on the media (device) of preference, and your solution becomes elegant.

When evaluated against the 500+ elements available in DITA 1.2, most of the Word-based and browser-based tools could be said to be lacking. I agree, but that isn’t always a detriment. To clarify with an example, my medicine cabinet is also “missing” a lot of the medications and medical instruments that you can find in a hospital. And yet, I am still able to remedy most of my medical conditions. And, in the rare cases that I can’t, a professional can fix me. I wouldn’t know what to do with all that hospital equipment, and I might actually cause myself harm by trying to use it. And most non-Tech Pubs departments are the same. Many organizations won’t know what to do with the copious DITA elements, and the harm will come when authors get overwhelmed, throw their hands up, and refuse to implement DITA.

Our vision is to be part of an elegant authoring and publishing solution that is widely embraced across global enterprises. We think that DITA will become an enterprise standard, used by many of the 500 million people who now use Word, but only whenelegance trumps sophistication.

I hope someday many people will call our solution elegant, and, in spite of the amazing technology in the background behind our product, I will cringe if they say it is sophisticated.

About the Author
Doug Gorman is the founder of Simply XML, a software and services company that is helping Microsoft Word-based authors to achieve the advantages of DITA and other XML-based structured writing methodologies. Doug is now working to broaden the use of standards-based authoring across the enterprise with DITA and XML.