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We’re lucky to live in Rochester NY, only a few hours drive from this year’s DITA North America Conference in Rhode Island, because I had a chance for some serious de-brief discussion with the easyDITA conference team (yes, all of us in a Dodge Journey) on the way back to the office.

It’s easy to get excited at a conference whose attendance just keeps growing. We were among more than 340 hard-core DITA practitioners — the biggest attendance yet. But the best measure of a conference of ideas isn’t its size, it is whether it keeps you thinking all the way home and back on the job. With more than 60 presentations, there’s plenty to think about.

As an exhibitor, I never get to as many of the sessions as I want to (well, who does?), but I get a pretty good impression from all the talking we do with DITA thinkers and implementers who work for and represent companies of all sizes. Many of these discussions have been going on for years in niche groups, but I was impressed with how wide-spread some of them have become. Even better is to see how people are implementing these concepts in their organizations right now.

Of all the topics, a few are still on the top of my mind. Here are the Big Ideas that I’m still thinking about more than a few weeks after the event:

Leveraging DITA content Bi-Directionally in Agile business processes

As we break down silos and move away from the book paradigm we can start to distribute information faster and incorporate it earlier in our business processes. The era of writers going away for 6 months before releasing their work is quickly disappearing, if not gone for most companies already. The name of the game is now Agile (or Agile-like). In this environment, DITA is superbly suited for early release, rapid iteration, and widespread collaboration.

Why? Because DITA is minimalistic, topic oriented (lots of little documents instead of one big one) and structured. Teams can now work easily in parallel, release content earlier and do so without stepping on each others toes. When we are immersed in DITA and Agile, an environment of shared understanding between multiple business units is created. Workflows can be created so that product developers see chunks of content as soon as they are ready, documentation teams instantly know when updates need to be performed, and the process repeated.

We finally have a method to break down communication barriers, eliminate weak points in our process, and create better products (with better documentation) in less time.

Pull publishing (APIs) for DITA content.

Pull publishing API’s allow integrations with novel end-points to provide information at the point of need — improving efficiency, while driving down support costs and increasing customer satisfaction.

Just as the sun is setting on the book paradigm, so is the idea that you can only provide your information in one place, or one format. But you say: “We know that! It’s why we moved to DITA in the first place; so we could have both PDF, Help and other formats.”

Alas, even that is not enough anymore because consumers want it all, and they want it integrated! No one likes to leave whatever they are working on to go consult documentation (or worse, pick up the phone!). Standard publishing is a push process, DITA content gets converted to a desired format and then distributed. This is largely a one-way process, and typically lots of the underlying DITA information is lost within the process. Pull API’s improve this because they provide a uniform way for any third party application to search and retrieve the actual DITA source or an alternate format of the DITA source. It also means those applications can push data back to the DITA repository, providing social feedback like ratings and comments for actual users.

So it’s time to bring on the pull publishing APIs, because there are big possibilities:

  • Developers can use a uniform method to integrate documentation into existing infrastructures like sales and help systems which may not provide out of the box experience for context sensitive information delivery.

  • We can collect statistics about usage and user feedback which can be pushed back into the author’s workflows and dashboards.

  • Documentation can flow into our devices and can be read aloud via text-to-speech engines so users can keep eyes and hands focused on their current task. (For instance, present the user one step at a time, read it, and wait for voice command to move to the next step)

  • Endpoints like heads-up-displays, Google glass(es), and other augmented reality interfaces can pull information from the DITA source on demand, and utilize the rich DITA structure to display information which doesn’t have to be presented linearly like a webpage anymore.

New quality testing methodologies for technical communications

This one is near and dear to me, as it was the topic of my presentation at the conference. However, I was also pleasantly surprised with how many other presentations covered similar and equally interesting aspects of the quality testing process. It was clear that these were big ideas with big potential. After all, good QA saves companies millions of dollars and allows them to deliver higher quality products in less time. I loved hearing about the different automated processes people had adapted to make this possible.

A big trend has been applying software testing methodologies, like continuous integration, to documentation. While I was stressing the importance of documentation as a core part of continuous integration within the software development life-cycle, others were showing how the same process could be applied to automate quality control on DITA publishing, review, localization and other parts of the document life-cycle. Seeing the myriad of testing systems which had been developed, made possible through using DITA, was downright exciting.

In summary, DITA North America was truly inspiring. DITA user or not, if you missed it this year, be sure to mark your calendars for next year. The community is doing extraordinary things, all because of a great group of hardworking people committed to open standards and open ideas. I am confident this year’s discussions will keep us all inspired until we meet again with even bigger ideas in 2014.

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