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Technical Writing
November 9, 2020
xx min read

When & Why Do I Need a DITA Consultant?

We can help you create and maintain timely, accurate, and relevant content, but you need to know when to ask for help.

We work with a spectrum of businesses to find better ways to deliver the right content in the right format at the right time using the DITA XML standard.

Content strategy initiatives we get involved in are often guided and managed by one or more of our consulting partners. Sometimes a consultant will bring us into one of their engagements when it’s time to implement a tool for DITA authoring and content management. At other times we steer a customer to a consultant because they need help with content strategy, training, conversion, or some other aspect of a DITA implementation.

Change Management

Moving to structured authoring with DITA XML involves a lot of change; changing the way documentation is written, the tools you use to do your job, and the workflows around authoring, review, and approval. Your team might not have the experience to successfully navigate the transition.  A consultant can help you define where you want to go, then recommend the right people, processes, and technologies to ensure you reach your destination.

Hiring a DITA consultant can help you avoid extra costs by guiding you down the right path from the getgo and then helping you maneuver around any obstacles along the way. We're going to explore some of these potential trouble spots: content strategy, information modeling, technical writing training, tool selection, legacy content conversion, localization, and stylesheet development.

In all of this, we'll attempt to answer two questions: When is it safe to try to do this by yourself? If you hire a consultant, what should they deliver?

Developing a Content Strategy

A content strategy outlines what information you need to develop, who will develop it, and how it will be delivered to the customer. Before you get to the what, who, and how, you need to answer the question Why?

Why are you changing your content strategy? What's the business case, what's the expected ROI, and what are the key milestones and metrics you will use to measure your progress along the way?

An experienced consultant can help with this. They’ve been down this road before, they see the big picture and can communicate the vision to others across your enterprise, keeping everything moving forward.

That doesn't mean a consultant will come in and immediately tell you what direction you should go. While this article assumes you have already decided to move to DITA XML, that doesn’t mean that structured content is the right strategy for every situation.

Having trouble deciding whether DITA is the best call? Check out another piece that will help you make the most informed decision: How to Decide if DITA is Right for You.

Every client is different and there aren’t any cookie-cutter solutions. The solution that works best for your organization is one that takes your corporate culture and risk tolerance into account. A successful DITA implementation begins with a period of discovery, and while they won’t have all the answers right away, consultants certainly know the right questions to ask.

It begins with the consultant meeting with information developers, architects, managers, and consumers to gain a good understanding of how content components are being used, reused, localized, managed, and delivered. What types of information are you developing? Why is it being created? Who will access it? How will they use it? Through these discussions, a consultant will begin to understand current pain points and have some semblance of your vision for the future.

TIP: Form a cross-functional task force that will meet regularly throughout the strategy, design, and implementation phases, working closely with the consulting organization to ensure the solution fits your environment and accomplishes the objectives you set out.

Can My Team Develop a Content Strategy without a Consultant?

The answer to this question depends on the complexity of your desired future state and the skill sets, experience level, and availability of your core team and other internal resources. Does your task force include senior information architects, technologists, and strategy experts? Has anyone developed a complete content strategy or implemented DITA before? If not, your chances of success will rise by hiring some professional help. Consider hiring a consultant if your plans include:

  • Highly customized or dynamic publishing outputs
  • Legacy content conversion
  • Streamlined translation process
  • Complex taxonomy

If I Hire a Consultant to Help Develop a Content Strategy, What Should They Deliver?

At the end of the discovery phase of the engagement, a consultant should deliver a detailed strategy that includes timelines, roles and responsibilities, and success metrics. Insufficient planning, unrealistic expectations, and overly aggressive deadlines are some of the major reasons why business transformation efforts fail. A consultant will mitigate those risks and ensure that all your goals are achieved.

Building an Information Model

If your content strategy includes a move to topic-based authoring in DITA XML, you'll need to build a structure, or information model, for your content. The model is a set of rules that define how content will be developed and organized, and how the information will be tagged, linked, and reused. The information model is the map that will guide the activities of each member of the team - writers, information architects, managers, etc. -- and keep your content usable and consistent.

The process begins with a review of your current content, including how it is being used and by whom. What types of information do you have? How are your documents typically structured? How are all the individual files organized, by product, user, geography? Then you build an information model around your unique content environment, defining how your information will be shared and reused, what metadata and tags will be applied, and how to consistently author and organize content.

Sometimes your information model will require extending DITA with a specialization or by defining a subset of DITA that meets more particular needs for your content.

Can My Team Develop an Information Model without a Consultant?

While everyone will need an information model to take full advantage of DITA, some will require a more complex model than others. Is your information well organized? Is it consistently written, named, labeled, and formatted? Does your team include information architects with a command of the relationships inside your content? If so, you may already have some structure and rules in place that can form the basis of your Information Model. If not, you might need a consultant to help you gather your bearings.

If I Hire a Consultant to Help Develop an Information Model, What Should They Deliver?

A consultant will perform the role of an information architect. They'll help you analyze your content and define the right DITA types and metadata to use for your purposes. It depends on what your business goals are, but some typical outputs from information modeling are:

  • Reuse strategy guidelines
  • Taxonomy and metadata
  • Tagging guidelines
  • Style sheet specifications

Going forward, your writers will need to work within your information model when they develop any new content. While a consultant can help with that ongoing work, hiring an information architect, or training a writer to be the keeper of the architecture is a good practice.

Documenting Your Technology Requirements

Identifying the right DITA CCMS and authoring tool is critical to the success of your project. However, you should wait and buy tools after you've developed a strategy and have a plan for moving to DITA. Your content strategy and information model will define your requirements for things like usability, metadata and taxonomy support, conditionalization, translation management, etc.

Your consultant should be very familiar with the different tool vendors, understand the strengths and limitations of each product, and help you identify a shortlist of solutions that will meet your needs. While you may require on-going support from your consultant as you migrate your content in phases, refine your information model or add new types of output, make sure your consultant trains and guides your staff so that ownership of the solution always stays within the company.

Can My Team Research & Purchase Technology without a Consultant?

Regardless of whether you have some guidance from a consultant during the tool-buying phase, you should take ownership of each step of the process and be careful to not implement a system that you don't fully understand. Get to know the technology vendors during the sales and implementation process. You’ll need to have a good on-going relationship with them long after the consultant is gone.

DITA XML is an open standard with a large Community of Practice, including lots of interoperable tools for authoring, managing, publishing, and translating content. Because of its architecture, you can often import and export content from one tool to another. Make sure the solution you choose does not include anything proprietary that will lock you into a single vendor, consultant, or way of thinking. Attend some conferences, be informed, and make your own independent choices.

Vendor lock-in is fairly common in the content development space. Check out this short list of things to be on the lookout to avoid lock-in: 4 Tests to Avoid Vendor Lock-In By Documentation Tools.

If I Hire a Consultant to Help Select a DITA CCMS or Authoring Tool, What Should They Deliver?

At the end of the design and planning phases, a consultant should sit in and validate the solution as the tool vendor walks you through a simple demo of the proposed technology. All the processes necessary to implement your content strategy should be demonstrated in a proof of concept, including things like using the tools to import structured content at the front end and transform it into your required outputs at the back end.

What Kind of DITA Training Will You Need?

Product documentation has many contributors, each with different responsibilities. Structuring your content will change everyone’s work processes, and some people may assume greater responsibilities. Your writers, reviewers, and managers will have to be trained to use new tools for creating, managing, and sharing their work.

At a minimum, a consultant should offer sufficient training to ensure everyone understands the capabilities of the new system. Individual contributors need to understand how their role fits into the whole, and why they are being asked to change the way they do things. Writers will need to understand the new information model in order to use the correct information types and properly apply metadata.

Beyond that, some general training in topic-based writing, minimalism, and the DITA standard can be helpful, because the concept of structured authoring is new to many people.

Don't fret, you're not in this alone. We happen to know a thing or two about structured content: [VIDEO] What is Structured Content? [And How to Get Started].

Does DIY = DOA?

Like any business transformation, your ROI depends on how well the new processes and systems are adopted by end-users, and that largely comes down to how well you manage people and change. An experienced consultant will help you implement a change management plan that will make the transition easier for everyone affected by it. That means not only developing the right training but rolling it out to the right people at the right time.

A DITA implementation is no small project and will benefit from a Project Manager who sees the end from the beginning and makes sure all your i's are dotted and t's are crossed. In many cases, a full-time DITA consultant is the best person to play this role. However, if your organization already has a lot of PMPs and a robust practice around change management, DIY doesn't have to mean that your DITA initiative is Dead On Arrival.

Project Management can be intimidating. You'll want to kick things off by getting all your plans in order. How? It starts with solid project documentation: Product Requirements Document: The PRD Is the Word.

TIP: DITA naturally leads to hyphenated job descriptions. A technical writer becomes a DITA Information Designer-Technical Writer or Content Engineer-DITA Specialist. This is a good thing. One of the goals of the training should be to encourage your team to embrace the move to DITA as an opportunity for professional development as they broaden their skill sets and move up the food chain.

Deciding What to Do about Legacy Content

Whether to convert your existing content to DITA and how to do are complicated questions. Conversion can be expensive and time-consuming, so you'll want to think hard about what content to convert (you might be surprised how many DITA topics you can generate from your existing content).

Before converting, your content strategy should be in place. Only then can you determine the best way to turn a legacy document into a series of DITA topics with the right structure and markup. For example, will you require that every topic has a Short Description? You will need to know that before you start.

You should also have a good understanding of how complex your content is and how consistently it is written and organized. Do your teams have their own formatting guidelines? Their own styles and tone of voice? That will have a big impact on the difficulty of the conversion process.

There are a number of consultants and service providers that specialize in content conversion, and many different approaches to take.

Can My Team Convert Legacy Content without a Consultant?

Companies with smaller document sets can consider doing the conversion in-house. Others will find that outsourcing this activity to a consultant or conversion service is more cost-efficient and produces the highest quality output. Hiring a consultant to help you define what content to convert and then coordinate the entire process can potentially save you a lot of money. But it doesn't have to be an all or nothing approach. Many organizations prefer to use both internal and external resources.

If I Hire a Consultant to Help Convert Legacy Content, What Should They Deliver?

A consultant will help you identify content for conversion, then develop a process and rules for converting it to your specifications. After conversion scripts are written, test content is converted and sent to your team for review. The consultant will give you insights that will help you judge the results of the conversion process.

As with other steps of a DITA implementation, doing a pilot test of the proposed conversion process with real content will help you analyze the results and validate your budget and timelines.

Planning & Implementing a DITA Solution

Planning and organization are critical for a successful DITA implementation. You'll need the entire team to agree to their roles and responsibilities and commit to getting their tasks done on time.

Do I Need a Consultant?

As we said before, a DITA implementation will benefit from having a Project Manager, whether an internal resource or external consultant. A Project Manager facilitates regular meetings of your cross-functional task force, tracks and communicates the project status, enforces the project timetable, and manages the project deliverables on an on-going basis. A DITA consultant will bring specialized skills and knowledge to the role and can use their experience to keep the project on track.

If I Hire an Implementation Consultant, What Should They Deliver? 

When building a business case and planning your DITA implementation, a consultant will help you set measurable, realistic goals. Quantitative metrics will be critical to gauging the success of the project. For example, you may have goals that look like this:

  • Reduce calls to our support desk by 30%
  • Reduce the total number of pages sent for translation by 500
  • Increase percentage of content reuse by 75%
  • Reduce time to market by 1 month

As the implementation rolls out, your consultant will track your progress against these metrics and communicate them to all stakeholders. Senior management will want to see some concrete results quickly, and a consultant can keep the team focused on getting measurable results. Most implementations start with a pilot proof of concept; a consultant will help you choose a project that will result in a quick ROI.

Publishing Your Content

One of the main reasons that companies embark on a DITA implementation is to give them more ways to deliver content to their customers. By separating content from formatting, DITA makes it easy to create the right deliverable in the right language, automatically optimizing it for desktops and smartphones. Using style sheets, you can create high-quality PDFs and HTML5 web portals, or export to your ECM, LMS, or online help system.

Getting the publishing output you want often involves considerable time and consulting. Even organizations that are going it alone sometimes hire a specialist to configure and deploy a publishing pipeline to create the various formats of output they need. This process begins with a review of your existing publications and templates and results in a streamlined, standard set of styles for each content element and information type.

An experienced consultant understands what it takes to publish DITA content and can make sure your published outputs have the look you want. They will create the conversion code that transforms your XML content into PDF, or Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and HTML5 for web, mobile, and online help.

Get into the nitty gritty about publishing here: How to Nail Single-Source Publishing.

Localizing Your Content

For many organizations, expansion into global markets is limited by the ability to quickly and accurately translate product content. DITA XML can make the translation process 30-50% more efficient than traditional publishing. Separating content from formatting enables automation which can positively impact your translation time and cost.

A full-service DITA consultant can guide you through the transition to a more efficient localization process. They know how to take advantage of DITA XML to get the most accurate translations in the least amount of time.

Similar to content conversion, translation is a service that you can outsource to a localization service provider (LSP). Consultants are familiar with the LSPs, they know how localization works in your chosen CCMS, and they can put the pieces together so everything works smoothly.

A consultant will help you communicate your expectations to the LSP and ensure that the unique requirements of your structured content are understood. Finally, they can train you on how to inspect the files that the translator sends back to make sure they are valid and preserve your structural markup.

In addition, consultants can train your writers on how to write localization-friendly content and steer you towards markup conventions that work best for translation providers. 

For a more on content translation and localization, this is a good place to start: Translating Your Documentation: A Start-To-Finish Guide for Fast, Accurate, and Affordable Translation.

Whether or not you choose to hire a consultant for all or part of a DITA XML implementation comes down to your budget, timelines, and how much expertise you have in-house. When you are considering this question, ask yourself how much content do you have, how complex is it, and how quickly does it need to be transitioned to DITA?

When choosing a consultant, ask around, and get referrals. Hearing other people’s true-life stories is the only way to truly evaluate whether a particular consultant or professional service is a good fit for your situation.

How much will a consultant cost? It depends on their experience level and the amount of work that needs to be done. Consultants charge by the hour or on a project basis. Either way, the biggest variable is the amount of time it will take to get the job done right. Organizations with lots of complex legacy content who require a consultant at every stage of the DITA adoption process can expect to pay more than those with less..

The calculations you will have to make are:

  • How much will it cost to do the work yourself?
  • What is the cost of failing to get everything you want out of the project?

Moving to DITA XML can improve the quality and reach of your product documentation and support content while saving you a bundle in the process. Plan wisely, get help where you need it, and the journey will lead you somewhere wonderful.

This article was originally published in 2014 by Stephen Morse. It's been updated to include additional resources and helpful musings. 

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