The Deal With DITA: What It Is And Why It Matters

DITA, which stands for Darwin Information Typing Architecture, is a way to author, produce, and deliver technical material in an XML (extensible markup language) format.  Originally developed by IBM as a way to reuse product documentation content more efficiently, it has since been adopted by more technical companies such as Nokia, Oracle, and Cisco, among others, and it is one of the hot trending topics in the technical world today.  But what exactly is DITA, and why does it matter?  Read on to find out…

Just What Exactly is DITA?

Contrary to what you might have been thinking, DITA is a standard, not a tool—although there are several excellent tools available to facilitate following the DITA standard.  One such example is the DITA Open Toolkit, which is an open source that is an excellent place to start for those new to using DITA.  There are also several commercially based tools available that you can use to help with DITA.

How Does it All Work?

Before you can understand the way DITA functions, you have to understand the role that the topic, map and output format play in the world of DITA.  The topic refers to the place where content is developed, maps are used to designate deliverables for each of the topics you’ve created, and the output formats are how the maps are processed when the finalized deliverables are created.

The Deal with Topics

In DITA, the topic is the most basic unit of information.  The draft of DITA 1.2 specifies that, “a DITA topic is a titled unit of information that can be understood in isolation and used in multiple contexts.  It should be short enough to address a single subject or answer a single question but long enough to make sense on its own and be authored as a self-contained unit.”

Topics on DITA are established with a definitive structure.  This ensures that the topics, particularly the ones created by different writers, remain consistent.  A sample topic could include the following:

  • The Title
  • Things the User Should Know or Have Before Performing the Task (Pre-Requisite Information)
  • The Steps Involved in the Task
  • The Anticipated Outcome Upon Completing the Task
  • What the User Must Do Once They’ve Completed the Task (the Post-Requisites)

The beauty of DITA is that the degree to which you follow that structure is up to you.  Some topics will not need all of these components, and in other cases, you might include the title and the steps while leaving the pre and post requisites for the topic developer to address.

Types of Topics        

There are three general types of topics, and they each come with their own unique structure and ways of being enforced.  Concept topics are generally used for information that is a broad overview or complex material requiring in-depth explanation.  If you’re giving information about how to perform a specific task, you should use the aptly named task topic.  If you’re dealing with complex information like command syntaxes, specifications for a system, and part numbers, you would need to use a reference topic.

DITA might sound a bit daunting at first, but it really isn’t that scary once you get the hang of it.  If you have a basic understanding of how to code for HTML, DITA should appear at least a little familiar.  Just as with HTML coding, with DITA, brackets are used to enclose Element tags.  They also use the same symbol to indicate closing tags.

When you look at the tags in DITA, you’ll notice that the tags depict the type of content found within rather than the actual formatting.  This is called semantic tagging, in which you describe the content’s nature and focus on the formatting later on in the process.

DITA Maps

Any given set of topics in DITA could provide information pertaining to various audiences or products, and be used for different purposes.  As an example, you could create topics concerning three different products.  Several of the topics you created could be applicable to all of the products, but it’s possible that some of them could apply to just one or maybe two.  Several of your topics could work for all of your audiences, but a few could be just for people who are experts.

For instances like these, you need a DITA map.  DITA maps specify which topics should be included in your deliverable and which ones should be left out.  DITA maps also give navigation guidance through a table of contents and they indicate the hierarchy and order of topics.

Maps can be created at any point in the process of using DITA.  Some developers rely on the maps as a way to plan and track before they develop the topics, whereas others prefer to create the maps once the topics have been developed.

Output Format

Output formats for DITA are the way that you take the information laid out on a DITA map and create a variety of deliverables that can be printed, posted on the World Wide Web, emailed, or shared on mobile devices.  Because of the semantic tagging used in DITA, output formats have total control over how deliverables appear.

Every time a deliverable is being generated, a publishing engine processes the map for that deliverable with the desired output format.  Each of the maps for DITA is compatible with any output format you choose.  For instance, in order for a user guide to be published in both HTML and PDF formats, only one DITA map is needed, even though there are two different output formats.

What’s So Great About DITA (AKA… Why Should You Care)?

If you work as part of a big team that could use more consistency with content, you work with lots of instructional material or you find yourself constantly copying and pasting content that needs to be reused, DITA is the solution you need.  With DITA, not only can you save time and money, but you’ll also benefit from increased flexibility and higher quality results.  Although DITA might not be something that’s necessarily implemented with ease, the payoffs of putting it into action make it entirely worthwhile.

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James is a freelance writer, photographer and content creator.