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Addressing DITA Dissatisfaction Part 2: Technology

banner_techBy Rob Hanna – President of Precision Content

This article is part of a series based on the results of a survey of more than 250 technical communication professionals conducted by The Content Wrangler in 2017 entitled The DITA Satisfaction Survey[i]. In the survey, almost two-thirds of respondents voiced some concerns with their DITA deployment.

In my previous article, I examined some of the principal issues related to skills development. This article looks at how technology affects DITA Satisfaction.
 

Issues related to technology

The second highest ranked reported issues fall under the category of technology. These include

  • Our technology doesn’t meet our expectations. Ranked 4th by 62% of respondents
  • Our publishing capabilities are limited. Ranked 5th by 60% of respondents, and
  • We have challenges with content localization. Ranked 10th by 35% of respondents.

We often hear about the failure of the technology as it relates to performance or complexity. While technology may seem the most likely culprit, it is often not the root cause of the problem.

The good news is that you have invested in an open standard and your systems likely make it possible to lift your content—and much of your metadata—out of your existing system and put it into an entirely new system with relatively minor disruption. Or if your entire system isn’t the problem, you can often replace components of your solution with components from other vendors to achieve a better result. Lastly, because your content is in XML, it can often be refactored to correct problems that have accumulated in your content over time.

Before we look at changing your technology, we should examine some of these problems to see if we can identify a more appropriate root cause.
 

Performance problems

Common complaints regarding performance include observations that processes take longer or systems are slower to respond than they were before the move to DITA. Part of this observation may be related to aligning to different expectations. You are working with a lot more parts and potentially with many more people to get the job done. Some parts of the process will naturally take longer. These perceived issues will appear worse when you are required to collaborate with writers, editors, and other team members across great distances.

If the overall time and effort does not significantly improve over the course of 2-3 production life cycles of the content, then there may be some other issues at play. You’ll want to examine your

  • Processes – Have you eliminated redundant activities in your processes?
  • Pipes – Is your productivity impeded by network performance?
  • Platforms – Are users experiencing problems related to disparate desktop configurations?
  • Processors – Are your servers or client machines underpowered for the tools?
  • People – Do your users follow established best practices for working with your tools?

Once you’ve identified all external factors affecting performance, you’ll want to examine how your tools are configured and deployed. There may be alternative features, configurations, or components that will greatly improve system performance. Your tool vendors or service providers should be able to help you examine your options.
 

Complexity problems

Finding the correct balance of complexity versus utility is one of the biggest challenges we face in DITA deployments. The problem may not be that your tools are too complex, rather that too much complexity is exposed to the wrong group of users. The best-architected systems attempt to push the most complexity onto the shoulders of the fewest number of people. As much as possible, let the software handle most of the heavy lifting.

It’s important to note that collaborative, structured authoring is always going to be more complex than traditional desktop publishing. Despite attempts to simplify the technology around content authoring, content itself is not getting any simpler. Joe Gollner of Gnostix Research believes that content development practices and technology are following trends we see in other related industries. His predictions are that content development will continue to become much more[ii]

  • precise
  • complex
  • collaborative, and
  • integrated into larger enterprise systems.

To strike the proper balance between complexity and utility you need to consider how the technology decisions you make now impact the viability of your content in the future. Will simpler structures, semantics, and metadata cause significant rework in the future to attain your goals? Or, will postponing certain complexities increase the likelihood for adoption and pave the way for early wins? The only way to answer these questions is to map out your long-term goals and assess the steps you will take to get there.
 

Steps to address complexity

The first step to understanding your needs is to assess your level of process maturity against industry benchmarks. There are a few models to choose from including the DITA Maturity Model[iii]. Once you’ve determined your current state, you can decide upon your timing to achieve your target state and map out the steps to get there.

The second step is to develop a content strategy and roadmap that speak to your goals and capabilities you need to achieve over the next two years. Your strategy should align with your business goals and direction. Plan for a minor review every 6 months and a major review each year to determine your funding requirements to stay the course with your roadmap.

By understanding your plan and getting sign-off from stakeholders, you will be able to determine whether you should

  • eliminate certain elements that are unnecessarily complex
  • hire more staff to assume responsibility for some of the more complex tasks
  • invest more time and money in training to compensate for complexity
  • invest more money in tools that better mask the complexity, or
  • re-engineer certain aspects of your processes.

 

Precision Content® Health Check

Before making any moves to replace your current technology stack, let us work with you to assess your needs and review the current state of your deployment. We may be able to discover areas for improvement and extend the usefulness of your existing technology. If you need new tools, we can help you with that as well. Sometimes we all just need to stop throwing more technology at our content problems. Learn more about our workshops.

What’s next

In the final article of this series, we examine the issues organizations face related to management.

Other Posts in this series

  • Are you satisfied with your DITA solution? -The 2017 Content Wrangler DITA Satisfaction Survey asked respondents to rank the top 10 issues facing DITA users. Learn more about the survey and results.
  • DITA Dissatisfaction Part 1: Skills Development – This problem area is far and away the most pressing obstacle for a successful DITA deployment. Too often authors are left to figure out how to adapt to writing for DITA on their own.
  • DITA Dissatisfaction Part 3: Management – While these issues appear to be of least concern to many survey respondents, they are most likely to form the root cause of all other issues identified in the survey. This points to a general lack of awareness as to the role management should be playing in collaborative, structured authoring solutions.

Footnotes

[i] DITA Satisfaction Survey published by The Content Wrangler on May 31, 2017. Listen to an analysis of the results by Rob Hanna, Keith Schengili-Roberts, Mark Lewis, and Scott Abel and download a copy of the results today from BrightTalk at https://www.brighttalk.com/webcast/9273/259775

[ii] Collaborating Across the Enterprise using DITA XML and Microcontent presented by Rob Hanna at DITA North America 2017 in San Diego, CA.

[iii] The DITA Maturity Model Whitepaper by Michael Priestley and Amber Swope, 2008 http://dita.xml.org/wiki/about-the-dita-maturity-model-community

 

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