From DITA to VITA: Tracing Origins and Projecting the Future

With my recent reflections on long versus short text, a comment by Michael O’neil made me wonder whether the “reading to do” mode equated with DITA’s task type, and whether the “reading to learn” mode equated to DITA’s concept type.

In researching this, I stumbled across a goldmine of an article on the History of DITA. The article (mostly by Bob Doyle) traces the evolution of structured authoring from its earliest attempts in the 1960s through the present day. The history seems to encapsulate all the major innovations of technical communication, culminating in the formulation of DITA.

According to this history, DITA can be traced from the following previous approaches and philosophies: Quick Reader Comprehension (QRC), Sequential Thematic Organization of Publications (STOP), Information Mapping, Minimalism, SGML, Docbook, and other innovations.

Tracing this evolution is fascinating. I’ve tried to read through some of the sources mentioned inasmuch as I could find them online. I’ll try to retell the history with my own commentary along the way. At the end, I’ll explain my own method for help authoring.

Quick Reader Comprehension (1961)

Around 1961, T.J. Matthews, an editor/publisher at the West Coast Navy Laboratory, developed a Quick Reader Comprehension method (QRC) for reports to increase reader comprehension while also making authoring more efficient. To increase the comprehension, he invented a format in which he labeled each section with the main idea on the left, while writing the details are on the right, as shown in the image below.

Signposts in the marginalia

Signposts in the marginalia facilitate scanning and accommodate both novice and advanced users because all users need “the gist.”

Matthews explains the philosophy behind this format:

The recipients of an R&D report often differ widely in their subject matter knowledge, use for the material, time for study, and desire for study. They do, however, all have one thing in common. They all need to grasp the main points of the presentation (3-4). … the headings and marginalia that the scanner sees do serve as signposts that direct him to complete text descriptions. This provides a sort of random access effect. The report holder has an intelligent basis for deciding whether to study or skip any part of the material. (Quick Reader Comprehension, p.5)

In other words, the marginalia serve the more advanced user who only wants to quickly scan the material. The novice user who needs more detail can easily dive into more depth by reading the text on the right. Matthews’ technique tries to solve the problem of delivering the right amount of information to the audience given the variety of user needs and backgrounds.

Matthews also places a heavy emphasis on illustrations. Illustrations can serve the same purpose as the marginalia, allowing the reader to quickly scan through the document, reading the illustration captions and looking at the visualization of the information to grasp the whole of it. This is actually how most people read National Geographic magazine.

Matthews argues that “literary” (or text-heavy) approaches to technical writing often result from students graduating from English departments, where there is a constant focus on texts rather than graphic design. Matthews’ monograph itself is illustrated with graphs and other visuals to depict his ideas. He notes that students who want to enter technical writing need a solid background in graphic design, because “Art and science are not two things; they are two sides of the same thing” (Thomas Huxley in Quick Reader Comprehension, p.12).

To decrease the authoring time, Matthews creates a modular authoring process in which each section is a standalone topic that can be prepared and finished independently. This allows the authors to work on any part of the document at one time rather than proceeding sequentially through the material. Matthews explains:

“…each section or subsection is confined to discussion of a single topic. There is no cross-referencing. This permits the sectional topics to be prepared at any appropriate time and in no particular order. They are done piecemeal. This approach has several advantages over more usual methods. First, outlining is greatly simplified and relegated to one of the last, rather than one of the first tasks in reporting. Second, if the units are prepared during the course of the technical work, then large blocks of material are ready for use as soon as the problem has been completed. It is only necessary to arrange these blocks in logical sequence and write transitional sentences or paragraphs. Third, the reader benefits because the author is obliged to stick solidly to one subject at a time.” (Quick Reader Comprehension, p.6)

In other words, Matthews is moving toward a modular writing process in which you have a series of independent, self-contained modules rather than one long text. This speeds up authoring time and also increases reader comprehension because each section will have a stronger focus. This facilitates the reader who skips certain sections of a document and reads only specific areas.

STOP Storyboarding (1965)

The next major development comes from a publications department at Hughes-Fullerton Aircrafts. Walter Starkley explains that “the notion was to construct the proposal entirely of two-page modules, with text and any associated visual facing each other” (STOP, p.42). In other words, Starkley’s STOP method is probably the first quick reference guide.

The following image shows the STOP format.

The STOP method

The STOP method has a graphic on the right and text on the left. Content cannot exceed these two facing pages, and you must always have a graphic, even if you’re only visually depicting your argument.

Starkley says some writers objected, noting that some topics called for more elaboration beyond two pages, and other topics don’t have visual potential for the required graphic. To address this, Starkley says research shows most writers switch topics after about 500 words anyway (the length of text allowed on one STOP page). For the graphic, they allowed the graphic to visually depict the argument or ideas instead of showing some object.

Because you had to write for a specific structure, the STOP method is one of the first instances of structured writing. The content could not be longer than two pages. The left facing page had to contain explanatory text, while the right facing page always showed a graphic. This consistent structure no doubt led to a predictable pattern for readers to follow.

The writers pinned these guides up on the wall for readers to look at. Because each two page module was self contained, “the reader [was] confronted with a self-contained and easily assimilated theme wherever he may open the document” (STOP, p.47). Again, this self-containment of topics is another instance of modular writing.

Notice the STOP method’s emphasis on illustrations combined with text. This emphasis on illustrations will be mostly forgotten by the time DITA develops.

Information Mapping

Robert Horn builds on some of the previous concepts of labeling and modular writing, but he also introduces something new: information types. Horn identifies seven major information types:

Blocks in the domain of relatively stable subject matter can be sorted into seven basic classifications, which we call ‘information types.’ The seven information types are:

  • Procedure
  • Process
  • Concept
  • Structure
  • Classification
  • Principle
  • Fact

(Structured Writing as a Paradigm)

Horn then analyzes the optimal structures for each information type and develops an approach for each type. Horn also introduces the idea of “information blocks,” which are similar to paragraphs but more tightly focused on a single idea, and usually about 7 sentences (no more than 9, to fit with Miller’s Law of 7 plus or minus 2). These information blocks chunk the information into reusable components for “precision modularity.”

The following is an example of a document structured with Information Mapping.

Information mapping

Information mapping classifies information into seven main types and then recommends an optimal structure for each type. In Information Mapping, information blocks are used instead of paragraphs. These blocks are short, contain no topic sentences, are labeled, and are modular.

Information Mapping is still a practiced method for authoring, and there’s even an Information Mapping conference in Texas this week. However, reading about Information Mapping is somewhat difficult because Horn has trademarked the technique and restricted access to the material. However, you can see a before-and-after demo here.


The next major development is a concept called minimalism, introduced by John Carroll in his book The Nurnberg Funnell. The basic ideas is that learning takes place through action and exploration, not through reading manuals. The more information you can remove from a manual, the quicker you can get users into the application, exploring and learning for themselves.

Carroll has four main principles in his minimalism approach:

  • Choose an action-oriented approach.
  • Anchor the tool in the task domain.
  • Support error recognition and recovery.
  • Support reading to do, study and locate.

(See Application of Theory: Minimalism and User Centered Design, by Mary Lou Mazzara.)

In other words, minimalism isn’t just about reducing word count because people are busy and don’t like to read. Minimalism is grounded in learning theory: users learn by doing, not by reading. Get the user acting in the application. Focus your topics on real tasks the user wants to do. When the user makes errors in the application, provide ways to guide and correct the user.

It seems at this point that graphics and illustrations are no longer emphasized, because the application itself is the visual illustration.

In Managing Your Documentation Projects, JoAnn Hackos relates a story that illustrates how too much information can “get in the way of learning”:

In one case study, a publications group decided as part of a paper reduction goal to reduce the size of their hardware installation manuals from over 100 pages of text and illustrations to approximately 20 pages. They eliminated redundancy and cut unnecessary information in the process, but they never consulted the users. All the decisions to eliminate information and redesign the installation books were made by the technical writers and the developers.

The users, 98 percent of whom were trained company techniques, were asked to review the content of the new, shorter manuals for accuracy. They carefully corrected errors in the existing text. Finally, they inquired why anyone in their group needed 20 pages of text to install the hardware. Once they were asked, the technicians explained that all they needed was a picture of the board to verify that they had the right piece of hardware. (103-104).

In other words, by becoming familiar with user’s needs, we can often reduce the information in our manuals significantly, not just from 100 pages to 20, but down to 1 or 2 pages.


In the interest of time, I’ll skip past SGML, Docbook and go right to the more well-known cousin/successor: DITA, or Darwin Information Typing Architecture. DITA builds on some of the developments of these previous structured authoring approaches. For example, DITA emphasizes modularity of topics, with the idea that each topic is a discrete, self-contained unit that the user can read without requiring a larger context.

DITA also identifies structures for different types of information, but rather than identifying seven types, it simplifies it to three: concept, task, and reference. Each topic can be one of these three information types. The topics are then assembled through maps that can contain any number of topics.

DITA is also heavily minimalistic. The task types, for example, require a structure that limits content to just one short paragraph after the title, and also eliminates stem sentences that introduce the procedure sequences. So far, not much new.

Where DITA is different is in the emphasis on content re-use and the separation of content from format. Why the emphasis on content re-use? In DITA 101, Ann Rockley explains:

One of the largest impacts of technology on information development is the addition of so many new formats for delivering information. No one just delivers a user guide (book) any more. There is an increasing need for information to be delivered in multiple formats. (DITA 101, 114)

In other words, content re-use is important today because we have more deliverables to produce. This is particularly true due to the Internet, which introduce a need for web help, and with mobile devices, which require a mobile format.

Another strength of DITA is that its structure enforces consistency, so for every task type, readers will become accustomed to the same format. This structure is enforced through the XML architecture of DITA, which requires certain tags in certain orders. More consistency leads to greater usability in the document.

Most importantly, DITA allows you to re-use or single source topics into different deliverables. For example, you can create a guide focused on a specific role, or for a specific scenario; you can compile a lengthy guide or a short guide. Because you can select and compile topics at will, you can create a variety of deliverables that better address a specific user level, context, and need. Ann Rockley notes that this selection allows you to get the right information to the right user at the right time (DITA 101).

DITA's content re-use model

DITA’s chief strength is that it allows you to re-use content easily. You can create myriad guides with different selections and combinations of topics. This allows you to address a wider variety of users, roles, scenarios, and other contexts. You can get the right information to the user at the right time.

(Image from Reuse strategies and the mechanisms that support them,

Because content is separate from format, DITA requires a rendering component to transform the XML (your tagged content) into an output. This is part of the beauty of XML — you don’t hard-bake the format into the content. You can apply a completely different style to the content without actually changing the content. However, customizing the stylesheets requires XSLT programming knowledge, so this also potentially a drawback of DITA.

Beyond DITA

DITA is an impressive format, so one might ask, what could possibly come next? Is DITA the most cutting edge approach to documentation, the culmination of years of refinement and adjustment?

Noticeably absent in DITA’s functionality is a collaborative, wiki-like component for working with non-writers, such as stakeholders, project leads, and end-users. However, Don Day, chair of the OASIS DITA Technical Committee, is working on a project that will combine DITA with wiki-like functionality so that DITA can be used as a collaborative tool for a wider audience.

Other developers are working on exporting DITA to a wiki format, and then back again (round-tripping). Lombardi software has developed a method for the export of DITA to Confluence wiki. This looks promising if you use Confluence.

Only Half the Problem

I like the idea of DITA. It should be the back-end technology behind nearly every documentation tool. It clearly has the potential to make authoring processes more efficient. However, DITA only solves half of the problem. Remember back in 1961 when T.J. Matthews tried to solve the problems he was facing with his QRC method? Matthews starts his essay by complaining how the scientist today entering the space era “faces insuperable problems in attempting to keep himself informed on what he needs to know.”

He then asserts:

The Quick Reader Comprehension (QRC) method of R&D reporting promises to make both writing and reading more productive. It is potentially capable of saving at least half the manhours that scientists and engineers spend in manuscript preparation, and of increasing greatly the amount of information that can be obtained in a given amount of reading time. (Quick Reader Comprehension, p.3)

Authoring and Understanding

It’s equally important to increase user understanding as it is to improve authoring efficiency.

Matthews’ attempt is not just to create a more efficient authoring process, but to improve the users’ learning, their rate of information absorption and comprehension. DITA just provides more of the same content in different combinations — topics in long guides, short guides, role-based guides, scenario-based guides, online help, mobile help, and other forms. The ability to pull together topics in the selections you want is critical and a huge step forward, but remember it’s still the same topic content. And of course that’s the idea of DITA — same content, but wrapped in different packaging.

However, as a total help solution, we have to keep in mind the other half of the problem: helping the user understand the massive amount of information we’re giving them. DITA should be a component within a larger learning strategy, not the solution for learning. Users who look at DITA as the magic button for perfect user assistance are missing a key point. DITA does not significantly enhance learning in itself — it’s just an authoring efficiency.

Multimodal Learning

The innovation in technical communication today needs to focus more on innovation in learning techniques, not just efficiencies in authoring. As we know, users interact with help material in a variety of contexts. Sometimes they read to learn, other times they read to do. Some users are novices who can barely double-click a mouse; others can understand the code running behind the application. Some users are voracious scanners who turn page after page looking for information; others are visual learners who need to see in order to understand. Others need someone to explain tasks to them in person; others prefer interface tips and notes and they explore on their own.

No help material will provide a one-size fits all solution. Rather than simply regenerating the same topics in different outputs, what users need for learning is a multimodal help experience. Just as conferences that offer nothing but lecture after lecture bore their attendees, help material must also provide content in different modes. Not just help in different formats, but different modes entirely. These different modes will not only suit different users but will also reinforce learning with different senses.

The four categories of multimodal learning that help content might address are as follows:

Video (screencasts).Probably the single greatest tool for learning a software application is to see how to do it. Our minds are visually mapped. When we watch how something is done, we understand. No amount of descriptive text and screenshots can really communicate all the a user takes in by watching a two minute video., a video tutorial site for hundreds of software products, is the probably most popular example of technical communication on the web.

Illustrations (quick reference guides). A user looks at an overview of the system to gather a holistic idea of how it works. A two-page quick reference guide (QRG) with an illustration fills this need. You can’t just extract this content from a topic in your online help, because the content is integrated into the illustration, which may only be a screenshot with callouts on it, but ideally it’s more conceptual. In my experience, the content has to be revised for the illustration. To make an analogy, a quick reference guide is to a reference manual as a poem is to a novel. It’s not just the same content — it’s compressed, it’s an overview. It captures the whole in a visual way rather than explaining the parts.

Text (wiki or online help). The user who wants to read the details, or who needs a quick answer to a “how-do-I” question, can consult the written material to find the answer. A wiki is often the best solution here in collaborative environments, because it takes advantage of collective intelligence. But an online repository of any help content also works as long as it’s searchable. DITA can provide a good format for this content.

Action (practice and exercises). As John Carroll rightly pointed out in minimalism, you only truly learn something when you act, when you do. Users need practice problems and exercises and if possible, a test system, where they can experiment and explore the ideas and techniques they are learning about. These invitations to act can be added as “suggested homework” at the end of videos or put into a training workbook.

There are other modes for learning, of course. For example, teaching. When you teach a subject, you learn it better than anyone else. But how do you incorporate this learning mode except in a classroom setting? Perhaps if your online help is a wiki, you can give every user his or her own space where he or she can make notes on key tasks. Or encourage forum participation to teach others. But since there isn’t a practical application, I omitted it from my big four above.

The acronym for these four main modes of learning is VITA. In Latin, this means life, which is appropriate for the balance of the approach.

VITA = Video, Illustration, Text, Action

VITA is an acronym for video, illustration, text, and action. These four modes of learning provide the right balance to optimize user understanding.

These four modes aren’t just the same content pushed out into other formats. They are modes of learning. Some might criticize my approach to say that it falls under training or instructional design more than technical communication, but these lines have always been blurry. Our purpose as technical communicators is not merely to communicate information, but to help users understand the information and to become power users of the application or system we’re educating them about.

DITA could be used in this multimodal learning solution. DITA might be a wonderful tool for pushing topics out as screencast scripts and training material, but in my experience, the same topic doesn’t work without significant alteration. Single sourcing breaks down when you switch modes in drastic ways — going from text to illustration, or from written to spoken communication.

For me, it’s less important to try re-using content as it is to create content in new modes. And that’s the key deception of DITA. DITA would have you believe that you can single source your way into every possible deliverable. In reality, you’re just making potatoes in a few different ways (scalloped, mashed, boiled). You’re still giving the user potatoes. VITA is a multimodal approach, giving the user a full array of nutrition options, so to speak. It educates and informs by touching almost every sensory input.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

38 thoughts on “From DITA to VITA: Tracing Origins and Projecting the Future

  1. Edgar Huntington

    For those of us who are aware of the conceptual basis and history of DITA this was a rather thoughtless and hasty review. DITA is all about dealing with content and structure – I don’t see the need for another acronym or concept when DITA can deal with a vast variety of content and structure and is not as text bound as you seem to think. The gulf between writer and reader has always been wide and DITA is the best tool for bridging it, however imperfect it is.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Edgar, thanks for your comment. You mentioned that DITA is not text-bound. Can you elaborate more on that point? How can I use DITA to create video or illustrations? I assume you just mean I can pull that content into a DITA topic, right?

      Re the conceptual history, I was going off the History of DITA article, so I’m not sure why you think I was thoughtless and hasty.

      Also, you mentioned that DITA is the best tool for bridging the gap between writer and reader. Why is that? Is DITA not just one component in a larger strategy to bridge this gap?

      1. VS

        Tom, from my understanding and experience, you can single-source illustrations and videos as well as content from a DITA repository.

        I had to demo various tasks you can do with a certain feature, and it would have usually run into a 10-minutes screencast. What I eventually did was to prepare 5 screencasts running to 2-minutes each, and single source them the way you single source regular content.

        Not sure if this answers your question completely, but I agree with Edgar that DITA need not be only text bound.

      2. VS

        Sorry, I think my answer needs a bit more clarification.

        “How can I use DITA to create video or illustrations? I assume you just mean I can pull that content into a DITA topic, right?”

        Yes, that is basically what you can currently do with non-text content in DITA – pull/include/attach rich media to a DITA topic.

        Correct me if I’m wrong, but we don’t yet have a DITA repository tool that lets you take screenshots, record/publish screencasts, produce interactive images.

        However, you can produce this non-text content independently of the DITA tools, include them in the repository, and tag them for your single sourcing needs.

        1. B Noz Urbina

          Hi VS,

          I believe you are right. DITA tools are sprouting like mushrooms these days, so no one can say for sure they’re up to date on everything, but I am fairly certain there are none.

          However, somewhere on this long and dense comment stream I believe I talked about DITA publishing tools vs. management tools. The two are rarely created by the same organisation, and that is for a reason.

          Same for repositories and DITA authoring tools. Usually the authoring tool is integrated from a 3rd party specialist vs. bundled with the (C)CMS. The reasons for – this are the same:

          – Authoring is very personal and emotional – they leave the users more choice if they don’t create and vend only one tool.

          – Focus – the CCMS vendors want to help you manage content efficiently, and leave creating it mainly to you.

          I have been finding this 3-part separation (create, manage, deliver), particularly confuses those from a online help or web background where for years, no such separation exists.

          HATs like RoboHelp and Flare duke it out providing the best one-stop-shopping feature set, whereas (C)CMSs compete on features, but also 3rd party integrations, richness of their customisation potential, and licensing model (because there’s a lot more than per-seat in the server-side world).

          This feature-for-feature competition has driven HATs to even start offering some versioning, content, digital asset and publishing management features.

          Most DITA authoring tools leave all that stuff to 3rd parties and focus on making the XML not scary to work with.

          DITA tools are designed output agnostic. Screengrabs/casts are pretty software-specific. DITA tools will invest in features that benefit the widest part of their multi-channel oriented client-base. To date, I’ve never heard of a Help-specific DITA authoring tool.

          So not only would DITA authoring tool vendors be slow to provide screen grabbing and manipulation features, the repositories may never do so, as this is yet another level of remove from their mission. Repositories help you manage what you’ve created and reuse what you’ve created before, keep within corporate guidelines, manage publishing, etc., but usually aren’t there to actually provide the creation / capture tools.

          Noz – / @nozurbina

          PS – Noteable exceptions:
          – Author-it, which was a HAT in the first place and doesn’t really do DITA authoring in the traditional sense.
          – SDL just bought XOpus, but that may be for more niche applications – time will tell
          – PTC provides a CMS (of sorts) integrated with their editor

        2. Julio Vazquez

          Correct. While DITA, by itself, has no method to author rich media, it does have capabilities to bring media into the content stream and publish that media with the text content. Additionally, you also have the capability to add metadata to the consruct that brings tha media in so that the non-text media is now searchable.

          DITA is not text-bound, it just enables a structured method of single-sourcing content that incorporates many media types.

  2. Tammy

    Amen and absolutely! DITA is powerful and opens up a lot of possibilities, but packaging the exact same stuff in different ways doesn’t work equally well for all formats. Perhaps I would also be happier with DITA if it weren’t for two things:
    -The 3 topic types aren’t as all-encompassing as some believe. Some bits of info don’t fit comfortably in one of the three. I know you can create your own, but…
    -PDFs/books done from DITA that I have read lack transitions and examples that build on what you have done previously because they are not authored to work together as a reader would expect them to in a book.

    So DITA is a tool – a powerful tool, but with its own weaknesses as well as strength, and not the answer to delivering the best content. (Good writers can deliver good content that way, but it doesn’t guarantee the result.) Good content and output that works in the formats chosen still requires some thought and skill for each chosen deliverable.

    I have long been a believer in communicating information in different ways to meet the needs of people who learn and process info differently. Thanks for a very helpful article.


    1. Tom Johnson

      Tammy, thanks for your comment. Re the lack of transitions, these seem problematic of modular content in general. I remember trying to read through a topic-based manual I created once (see this post). It didn’t really flow. It was obvious that I guess I wasn’t meant to actually read it through, just reference different topics independently. I think that’s a big drawback, and I realized I couldn’t just single source from online help to pdf. When people read a PDF, there needs to be more coherence and integrated flow throughout. But the same integral coherence isn’t required from an online help, which people mostly search.

  3. Julio Vazquez

    A nice history, but your final premise is a little flawed. DITA is an evolutionary construct that permits even more content models than the base architecture describes through its specialization features. In fact, your VITA construct can be well encapsulated by the DITA Learning and Training specialization. Add to that the work done by Sean Healy ( on incorporating video in DITA content, and your argument for VITA starts to crumble. All that’s truly needed is to strengthen some of the pioneering work already in progress.

    Can you truly single-source all from DITA. Maybe not, but it’s definitely a goal to strive for.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Julio, I didn’t know about the Learning and Training specialization. I googled it and found this detail:

      Learning Plan topic type
      Describes learning needs and goals, instructional design models, task analyses, learning taxonomies, and other information necessary to the lesson planning process.
      Learning Overview topic type
      Identifies the learning objectives, includes other information helpful to the learner, such prerequisites, duration, and intended audience.
      Learning Content topic type
      Provides the learning content itself, and enables direct use of content from DITA task, concept, and reference topics, as well as additional content of any topic type that supports specific objectives declared in the Learning Overview topic type.
      Learning Summary topic type
      Recaps and provides context for the learning objectives and provides guidance to reinforce learning and long-term memory.
      Learning Assessment topic type
      Presents instruments that measure progress, encourage retrieval, and stimulate reinforcement of the learning content, and can be presented before the content as a pre-assessment or after the content as a post-assessment checkpoint or test.


      Can you expand on this more, esp. that part that says “provides the learning content itself”? Am I wrong to think that DITA is only an authoring efficiency? How do you incorporate video into DITA, for example?

      I checked out Healy’s site, but it doesn’t appear to have the info there. I did see a post by Healy on the Content Wrangler about this topic, but it seemed mostly speculative. Then again, the post was 2 years old.

      1. Julio Vazquez

        I am definitely a learning specialization newbie. I know that it encompasses a learning content model that can span an entire curriculum and proved a base for SCORM compliance. The person closest to the topic is John Hunt of IBM and you could probably get more detail from him than you could ever get from me. I plan on using it for some future work and am just starting to wrap my brain around it.

        I met Sean 2 years ago when he first presented how to incorporate video into DITA and his presentation was fascinating. He gave me a demo of his work and it was pretty cool. Basically, he uses an object element to point to the timestamps of a large video to bring a snippet into a media player in the DITA topic. Pretty slick stuff. I’m planning to have him present this in the RTP/Boston DITA User’s group in March to broaden interest in incorporating video into content. He’s been busy paying the bills, which is why he hasn’t really written anything after that initial Content Wrangler article.

        I keep in touch with some interesting folks hoping that I learn something. Someday I’ll become intelligent. 😀

  4. Ed Marsh

    So, like everything else in techcomm, there’s no such thing, historically, as a one-size-fits-all approach.

    What I’d really like to see come out of the whole DITA thing is simplicity. For single writers with no budget or buy-in to modularize, and no time to implement it themselves, the barriers to entry are way too high. And XSL? Come on, no one likes dealing with it. Design shouldn’t be made by if-then statements.

    1. Noz Urbina

      I’d agree that the dependancy on XSL is an issue in most DITA implementations and there are still too many barriers to adoption. Several tool vendors are trying to address this with different pubilshing processes.

      We’ve implemented DITA using FrameMaker Server as a publishing enginge to allow end-users to edit Frame templates instead of XSL.

      Also there are options today that go via MS Word (make fun if you wish, but it’s fine for many) that avoid any coding at all.

      Overall though – yes, still harder to adopt than it should be.

    2. Tom Johnson

      Ed, I agree with the problem of forcing complicated if-then statements into design. I do think tools such as Flare are providing the best solution to styling the content from DITA, though. Technologies and methods have to be accessible to gain widespread adoption.

  5. Noz Urbina

    Ok. My reaction – yes and no. LOADS of great stuff in this blog, but you’ve made a common mistake in the conclusions about DITA.

    “Users who look at DITA as the magic button for perfect user assistance are missing a key point. DITA does not significantly enhance learning in itself — it’s just an authoring efficiency.”

    Yes! Yes! Yes!

    “DITA might be a wonderful tool for pushing topics out as screencast scripts and training material, but in my experience, the same topic doesn’t work without significant alteration. Single sourcing breaks down when you switch modes in drastic ways.”

    No. Not really. Nowhere is it written that having two topics with similar content, or two ways to express the same thing somehow no longer DITA.

    DITA endorses User-oriented information design, *not* hammering all your content into the smallest number of possible topics and reusing when it impacts usability or quality of the deliverable.

    The ability to reuse is not the obligation to reuse. It’s a very common misunderstanding to take all the enthustiasm around reuse and DITA and go overboard. If you have content that is so different that conditionality and fine-tuning can’t make one topic work in two places: just make two topics! You haven’t failed at DITA.
    You still have all the great things it offers you for all the other topics that are reusable.

    I love DITA all to bits, but I wrote a whole blog about when they’re just not good enough for certain reuse scenarios:

    The one you describe is just another. It doesn’t ‘break down’ single sourcing if some opportunities for reuse just aren’t really opportunities for reuse.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Noz, thanks for your comments on this article. Sorry for my delay in responding here.

      I was thinking about your comments and you’re right, DITA never pretends to be a whole learning strategy solution. (I think I mostly get that impression from vendors and hype about DITA authoring.) At the same time, other people in this thread say that DITA can pull in video and the other content, and that I could specialize, etc.

      Here’s what I think it boils down to: is content re-use important? If not, then DITA is more of a headache than its worth. In my post, I argued that creating content in other modes is more important than re-using the same topics in other formats. So unless you have a strong need to publish the same topic in multiple formats, time is better spent creating video, quick reference guides, and other multimodal content that address the holistic learning needs of users. But if you do have a need for heavy content re-use, then DITA is a great authoring process for that.

  6. Noz Urbina

    “DITA would have you believe that you can single source your way into every possible deliverable.”

    …and where did that come from? DITA references other media the same way as any XML,SGML format, including HTML.

    1. Tom Johnson

      When I talk with people about DITA, they usually get most excited about content re-use. My point is basically to ask, so what. Users care more about other modes of learning (video, illustration) than having the same written content in different combinations and formats. Why should I go to all the trouble to use DITA if re-use isn’t key? Where I work, collaboration and distributed content ownership is more important than re-use.

      1. Julio Vazquez

        One reason folks mention reuse first is because there’s a compelling business case that translates into real dollars. What most seem to forget is that DITA encourages good tech writing by stressing topic-based, task-oriented content; precisely what you need for good learning materials.

        While you don’t want to reuse everything, consider this: wouldn’t it be great for the portions of learning materials based on other content to establish a relationship that permits automation of updating the content in the learning materials whenever the base content changes? While you still have to take the publish step to make it happen, this is one of the things you can accomplish through the reuse model DITA implements. While all the content in learning materials may not be appropriate in other forms, you can also incorporate those objects, if it makes sense.

        Do you single source everything? As Noz says, no. However, planned, intelligent reuse will enrich all content with improved consistency (assuming everyone uses the same style guide) and currency.

  7. Helen Abbott

    Tom, brilliant article. Our doc team moved from Author-it to MediaWiki for exactly the reasons you mention: content re-use ended up being less important than collaboration with the entire company and with our user base, as well as handling multiple learning modes. I love the notion of VITA.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Thanks Helen. Your summary is a perfect distillation of my main point.

      I can see how DITA might pull in a video or a quick reference guide, but I don’t think the DITA authoring process would apply as I create a video or an illustrated quick reference guide. I use Camtasia and InDesign for that, and they have nothing to do with DITA.

      By the way, I didn’t know you used Mediawiki — that’s good to know. It’s unfortunate that Mediawiki isn’t more keen on content re-use. The potential seems to be there, and you can certainly reuse templates, but if you author in templates, you can’t really edit that content easily. And then of course the long printed PDF is problematic.

  8. Techquestioner

    Thanks for putting DITA into perspective with the history of prior developments in information structuring theories. I, too, do not think DITA is the answer to all today’s technical communication challenges. It does have its editorial and publishing efficiencies, but simply adding video and graphic topics to the DITA database won’t solve all our problems. Intelligent design of user assistance tools or products still requires informed analysis of user skills, goals, and preferences, regardless of what’s already available in the DITA topic storehouse. And that is still the key skill that makes good technical communicators stand out among their peers.

    1. Noz Urbina

      Again… this is baffling. Who is it spreading the idea that DITA doesn’t require design, strategy? It’s an architecture for storing and manipulating content, not a replacement for anything and everything that came before it.

      IBM themselves does shed-load of workshops on user orientation and task analysis. You are supposed to use DITA to give the customer what they need, not give the customer DITA for the sake of giving them any old thing, provided it’s in a DITA topic.

      Why would anyone clever enough to create DITA be foolish enough to think that you should write a bunch of topics and blindly fling them at users when they aren’t appropriate?

      1. Julio Vazquez

        Well said, Noz.

        Long before DITA came lots of planning and education about topic-based articles, structured authoring, and a host of othert topics that deal with planning your content. Using DITA without planning and understanding what you’re doing is going to be the same old thing in a different container. The issue isn’t the architecture, in this case, it’s the mindset of the content development team.

        An earlier comment stating topics thrown into a PDF without connecting text shows part of the problem. The same assembly structure used for a web presentation was dumped into a PDF; the reverse of the problem of taking a book structure and just throwing it on the web. It’s web page in a book. This shows lack of planning. You can take web structures and assemble them into PDFs with connecting content by using a different map. So is the architecture to blame or the architect?

        Yes, there are barriers to adoption, but most of those barriers are based on the output format and using XSL to get there. The majority of the difficulties are in trying to get book-based displays correct and not web-based displays. Sure XSLT is a programming language and it’s not necessarily intuitive, but a lot of the web-based presentation can be implemented through CSS, if you know that. (XSL-FO is more difficult to get your hands around.) As Noz said, vendors are working on those issues because the presentation is not in the realm of DITA.

        DITA is an architecture that supports a content model an describes how software that supports that content model should process the model. How you use the architecture has some recommended best practices and, if you choose not to follow them, you get what you put in.

        The days of GIGO are not solved by DITA. DITA just provides a means to spread GIGO further.

    2. Tom Johnson

      Thanks Techquestioner. I think I positioned DITA as claiming to be the answer, when it never pretends to be. The problem is that the History of DITA article shows how previous approaches led to the development of DITA. These previous approaches did attempt to solve both the authoring and comprehension elements of the equation. So it seemed natural to think that DITA also tried to function as a more comprehensive approach to the tech comm problem.

      I like how you’ve phrased the solution as requiring “intelligent design.” I definitely agree. Users need more than just written DITA topics to learn a system.

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  10. Richard Gleaves

    I guess I find it a bit ironic to read a criticism of DITA for privileging authorial efficacy over user experience, followed by the proposal of a new, purportedly user-centric system (VITA) which privileges a few key media (video, illustration text) over the truly user-centric learning modes (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell).

    1. Tom Johnson

      Richard, can you expand on the irony? Do you mean that my vita approach doesn’t connect with more sensory input? video –> sight,sound. illustration — sight. action –> touch. I think there are actually a lot more senses than just the five you mentioned. But there’s also a law of diminishing returns — as soon as you hit the major ones, everything else has less and less impact for the effort it requires.

      1. Richard Gleaves

        >> Richard, can you expand on the irony?

        For me it was the disjunction between a) your critique of DITA with respect to a more user-centered approach to learning, and b) the incremental nature of your proposed system (as encoded in the name “VITA”, which is clearly intended to invoke DITA). The nature of the critique set up a personal expectation that the proposed system would be less incremental in its goal of linking learning and content management.

        This may well be due to my tendency to expect transparency in naming, since “DITA” itself has always struck me as one of the most opaque and arbitrary names in the history of information processing… another irony given its connection to technical communication. To make a biological analogy (thanks, Stephen Jay Gould!), it’s the Hallucigenia of acronyms.

  11. Noz Urbina

    I got so distracted by the DITA discussion that I didn’t comment on the main original content of your blog. My apologies. Beyond the intersting historical breakdown, and side-stepping the DITA issue, I want to add that the VITA concept is great.

    A multimodal approach to learning is very important to meeting user’s real needs. At the end of the day, we are technical communicators. We want to transfer knowledge into the user’s head by any means necessary such that they can get on with their effective use of the product in question.

    Your baseline point that no ‘help content’ is a universal solution is excellent, and something that we should shout from the rooftops.

    Noz –

    1. Tom Johnson

      Noz, thanks for taking my larger point and seeing some value in it. I think the History of DITA article led me down a path to view DITA as more than it claimed to be, since the previous approaches that led to DITA addressed both authoring efficiency and user comprehension. There is a lot of hype about DITA now as well.

      In my experience, users get a lot more excited when I give them videos or quick reference guides. Anything long and printed, or even short-ish and printed, tends to be overlooked. So even if I can produce a role-based guide and support three different versions of the same content, users don’t care.

  12. Dan

    To add my two cents:
    Enjoyed the article.
    Never ignore the value of
    – constructive document reviews with SMEs,
    – good editing process in place with peers or editors
    to improve readability.

    DITA is ultimately a only a model for supporting reusable information. Its an empty box. We have to figure out what to put in it.

    I agree that technical authors should be just as well versed in knowing just when to illustrate to communicate – its not just something for the art department.

    Sometimes a table of definitions with an illustration can do wonders.

    We can’t figure out all of this alone unfortunately. At least not always. Its a hard process, deleting content. Especially as a writer, when you’ve done the research to write it in the first place.
    -It this necessary, right now?
    -is this what a user is looking for, here?

  13. Tim Penner

    (I kinda like to see the “blog mold” broken with meaningful articles.)

    I’ve often railed about the varied ways in which people pick up knowledge, but not quite so clearly as this article.

    Your words about multi-modal learning puts me in mind of a whole subject area that more writers would do well to understand. (You seem to grok this stuff, but you’re not using the subject area’s words, so perhaps you’ve not heard of it.) It’s called “situated cognition” and its relevant aspect here is Etienne Wenger’s work on communities of practice and legitimate peripheral participation. It operates on the old guild model, where apprentices are taken in to become part of a work system that gives them something useful/important but technically trivial to do. I realize that this mode of instruction is actually a far cry from “technical communication” as we tackle it, but the deal is that it exemplifies a time-tested mode of knowledge transfer – the ultimate goal of technical communication. I suggest that keeping the lesson in mind when preparing multi-modal documentation is both instructive and corrective.

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