No Information Model is Forever

JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Joe Pairman, information architect and general factotum at HTC, and I have been having a running discussion of the benefits of minimalism. When I recommend that groups begin their DITA implementation with minimalism training, it is to reinforce or learn about the ways that written communication ought to work in delivering content to consumers.

Certainly, just because the DITA over-arching model allows something, the information model that a group chooses to support and implement should consider a much more constrained approach.

For example, because DITA allows five levels of bulleted list that does not mean that a content consumer will be able to follow such a descent into an obtuse subordination logic.

Each organization has an obligation to reinforce sound technical communication or similar principles by constraining their models. Groups that foster a “free-for-all” by telling writers to use their DITA tools any way they like are actually fostering chaos. I’ve seen many groups that have had to recover from an initially unplanned approach. It becomes painful, time-consuming, and costly.

Joe mentions that aside from the benefits to the user, good information design can sometimes save us from complicated processing tweaks (which may not necessarily make things easier for authors in the long run). And, Joe’s team of writers has found it incredibly helpful to learn about minimalism and build a consistent model that supports their users’ goals.

He points out that he has always tried to make the HTC technical implementation support the information model, not the other way around. They now use constrained DTDs to limit the available elements to those in the Information Model that everyone has agreed to use. And they’ve set up their templates to promote certain norms, for example, removing XMetaL’s auto-added <stepresult> from the step mini-template. Their policy is to only use <stepresult> where it’s really helpful, not just to tell users what they can see on the screen already.

What Joe finds, like many other groups we work with, is that information architecture is an ongoing process. They have made some important interim tweaks to their authoring guidelines based on user feedback and analytics data. They have figured out how to improve the authoring experience, and they have implemented additional technical output requirements.

As HTC has added new products, the information developers have had to evolve their information architecture. They return over again to their content to thoroughly re-evaluate their decisions based on the principles of minimalism. It’s surprising how much they have been able to improve the second time around.

Joe and I would love to hear other people’s experiences in the ongoing process of refining the information model and authoring guidelines. Please let us know what you are finding as you experience your second, third, or sixth year of your DITA implementation.

Dr. JoAnn Hackos is the CIDM Director.