When I began to understand what ‘structured’ content meant, the lightbulb went on and I started to understand the value of using a DITA solution to manage your content. I’m going to keep this pretty simple. Because I’m a little simple…;-)
Unstructured Means…Unstructured (d’oh!)
Unstructured content is stuff that exists in siloed places, often where it was created. A Word doc, a slide deck, a PDF, an attachment to an email, the email itself. If you wanted to find information contained in these documents for reuse somewhere else, you’d have to acquire the docs, search through them and then copy and paste the information to a new document. Assuming you have an edit/review process, this new doc would then likely be emailed as an attachment to the editors and reviewers. That is the common workflow found in an environment where content is unstructured.
Aside from the logistical complications, there is a big underlying problem with this workflow. Each time you copy or share content a second version is created. Changes made to the second version are not reflected in the original, creating the problem of version control—which one is the right version?
The other issue that unstructured content does not deal with well is organization. A file hierarchy is the usual means but again this seldom travels with the doc, so context is lost.
These are just a few of the issues associated with unstructured content.
Which brings us to structured content.
DITA Creates Structure
Structured content exists in a centralized database whose architecture eliminates many of these issues. In most instances the DITA database is associated with a Content Management System (CMS) where content is created or imported and stored. DITA offers a very useful way to sort information within your docs. Different kinds of content can be identified by Topic Type. Topic Types of content include Concepts (what is this about?), Tasks (process instructions) and References (Parts Lists, specifications, illustrations, etc.).
Structure Creates Capability
Once all your content lives in this database you now can search by topic types across a variety of content. Need all the Parts Lists in your product docs for purchasing purposes? You find all the instances of Reference types>Parts Lists, gather them into a new doc and then share that doc with others.
This is made possible by a concept called ‘topic-based authoring’. As a content creator using DITA, you write your documents in chunks that have topic types. Parts List would be a Reference topic type. A document is created by grouping together whatever chunks are required to satisfy the use requirements of the final, published document. But each of those ‘chunks’ can be used again in different documents without the need to recreate them.
For example, someone in engineering changes a Part and the Parts List reference topic is updated. That change is now reflected in any document that Reference topic (Parts List) appears. In an application like easyDITA, that combines a content management system (CMS) with DITA ,this is tracked, as are edits, reviews, doc status (reviewed, approved, published, etc.). No more version issues.
It gets better. Let’s say your product designer needs that aggregated Parts List in a mobile format for use in the field on their phone. You can publish a mobile-friendly version and share it with them. Because content in DITA is based on XML, a machine-readable language, it is much easier to publish to multiple formats: PDF, slide decks, websites, doc portals created in things like WordPress, etc. (More on publishing in another post in this series)
That’s structured content. More to come!
This is Part Three of a series. Visit the Series Page Here.
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