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Technical Writing
November 14, 2017
xx min read

When to use the Concept, Task, and Reference types in DITA

This is a revision of the 2007 blog post. For a full overview of DITA see our explainer: What is DITA XML?

DITA is often used for technical product or service content such as user guides, documentation, and instruction manuals. DITA provides an architecture for writing structured content, using maps, topics, and elements. Today, we’ll focus on the topic types available in DITA. There are three main topic types:

  1. Concept topics present essential conceptual or descriptive information so the reader can understand the background and context of a subject.
  2. Task topics provide procedural information on how to do something.
  3. Reference topics provide detailed facts or specifications, often in the form of a table or bulleted list.

To illustrate when to use each topic type, we will use the example of an instruction manual for a toaster.

Concept Topic

In this example, we use a concept topic for an introduction to the toaster, such as:

Classic Toaster Introduction

The Classic Toaster is a double-slot, stainless steel toaster. It comes with a timer dial and a bagel mode. Have perfect slices of delight with your favorite jam or butter. Easily achieve exquisitely toasted bread with just a push of a button.

Task Topic

We can use a task topic to provide operating instructions, such as toasting bread.

To toast bread using the Classic Toaster, do the following:

  1. Plug the toaster into an outlet.
  2. Turn the knob to the desired browning level.
  3. Insert a slice of bread into the toaster.
  4. Press down the lever to start toasting.

Expected Result

Your bread slices and lever automatically lift up once the toasting cycle is complete.


Your toast is ready for you to spread your favorite jam, butter, or whatever you like on it!

Reference Topic

We use a reference topic to provide product specifications, such as:

Capacity 1-2Output per hour30 slices Loading (kW) 1.3Dimensions (cm)35 x 20 x 21Weight (kg)1.1

The DITA standard defines how each topic type is structured. Most topic types contain some common elements, like a Title and Short Description. Some topic types contain unique elements that are specific to the purpose of that topic. Tasks, for instance, consist of a series of steps as well as elements to define prerequisites, context, and results.

Because DITA uses elements to define the type of information, writers stay focused on presenting the right type of information in the right location.

If the base structure of a topic doesn’t fit your needs, topics and elements can be specialized further to fit your needs. Some specializations are already built in, for instance, the Learning and Training specialization, which includes information types for Learning Objectives, Learning Assessments, and Learning Maps.

In addition, you can define your own information types. You can create topic templates that follow a specific format or specialize elements to meet your information needs. For example, a manufacturer can create sub-classifications like “Parts List Reference” with special elements for a part number, size, weight, etc.

Overall, information typing enables you to do more with your content by implementing structure. Topic types provide a mechanism for classifying your content and breaking it down to enable easy search and content reuse throughout your organization.

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