It's here!
The 2024 State of Customer Self-Service Report is now available.
Read the Report
Technical Writing
March 12, 2020
xx min read

4 Things DITA XML Can Actually Do [And Why They’re Awesome]

Concepts are nice, but being able to do something is nicer. Not to mention much more useful. We talk about DITA a lot and now it’s time to look at what this tool actually does that makes it live up to the hype.

We’ve touched on how it’s important to know the difference between benefits and capabilities, but now we want to continue that conversation to the next level. Rather than talking about benefits and capabilities broadly across businesses, we want to show you something real. You’re here because you need a tool that works for you.

In order to find a tool that works, you need to know exactly what it can do. Then you can take those capabilities and apply them to the unique needs of your business as you see fit. No sales pitches. No nebulous promises about how much smoother your business will run or easier your life will be. We’re not Instagram influencers touting pound-shaving smoothies. We’re here to show you exactly what DITA can do.

Because it’s what DITA does that reveals how it’s beneficial to your business.

Structured Content Built for the Future

Since DITA is an XML standard, the content you develop within that standard abides by its inherent structure, and structured content is built to last.

When your content is created according to the DITA standard, this gives your content the structure that’s intelligible to computers. As content development and delivery methods have evolved with technology, our content strategy has needed to evolve as well.

Content is commonly being thought of and developed in a linear fashion, like writing a document. With linear writing, authors interlace ideas that connect with one another to produce a theme between an introduction, body, and conclusion. You might even recall the grammar school term main idea. The main idea is supported by the rest of a document; this is unstructured content.

The way we use language to communicate is rife idiosyncrasies that we intuitively interpret. But, these eccentricities are difficult for machines to process. As time goes on, our interactions with machines will only increase; thus, it’s prudent to develop content with computers in mind.

Structured content follows a predetermined standard such that it’s processable and understood by machines. DITA is capable of bringing structure to your content because the standard was developed with machine processability as a defining feature. Shifting to structured content does, however, come with some homework because the way machines understand content is different than the way human beings are used to piecing it together.

1) Turn Your Content Into Components

Machine processable structured content is built differently. Rather than linear documents, structured content in DITA XML creates content components. These components are self-contained topics that can exist without depending on surrounding content. With componentized content, each self-contained piece can be used, shifted around, reconfigured, and applied wherever needed.

Imagine a publishable document as a recipe. Each ingredient is a component that’s viable on its own and makes up the various parts in a given recipe. It’s the same with a structured content document composed of individual components. Now imagine having to make 20 different recipes. Sure, each recipe is different as a whole, but several individual ingredients can be shared across those recipes.

2) Reuse Your Content Anywhere, Fast

Copy-pasting all these instances would be time-consuming. Content reuse allows a component to be written once and reused everywhere. If all 20 recipes require a teaspoon of salt, that component only needs to be written one time, then can be easily reused in every recipe it’s called for.

DITA is also capable of cutting time used for making changes. With content components, any edits that need to be made need only be made one time and those changes populate everywhere that component is being used.

Like, when you find a mistake and realize those 20 recipes call for one tablespoon of salt rather than a teaspoon, it’d be pretty annoying to go into each recipe and manually make that change 20 times.

With component content, that change only needs to be made in one place and the changes will be applied to every recipe that component is used in. Component content allows quick, efficient reuse, saving you valuable time in the creative and editorial processes.

3) Make Your Content Findable with Metadata Done Right

We’ve touched on DITA XML being capable of structure built for machine processability and content developed for easy reuse, adaptation, and change. Even with a content library that’s so well organized it brings a tear to the eye, it’s not very helpful if that content is difficult to find. That’s where rich metadata comes into play.

With component content, searchability is crucial to successfully build documents. If each component is an individual block that builds something bigger, what happens if you can’t find the blocks you need? Metadata ensures you can find what you need in your content library so you can build what you want.

DITA has a metadata infrastructure that’s built to last. You can have the best content, but if it’s a pain to locate, it’s hardly serving its purpose as well as it could be. Metadata in DITA XML is prepared to support your content library in such a way that your content is easily searchable, no matter how large your library becomes.

The metadata capability built into DITA provides a great starting point, but you’re also capable of personalizing aspects of it tailored specifically to your business use cases. This takes some planning and maintenance, but you’re aided by the built-in metadata foundation DITA provides out of the box, as it were. That’s metadata suited to scale.

4) Publish to Whatever Outputs You Want, All at Once

The standardized information typing structure DITA XML is built with has shown us it’s capable of great things in content creation. But, your content isn’t worth much if it’s not published for the world to engage with.

Let’s squash a buzzword real quick. Multi-channel publishing is being able to publish one thing to several different mediums without any manual formatting adjustment. In other words, write once, publish everywhere without messing with formatting.

Content creators have historically slogged through the loathsome process of formatting their content and documents, only to have it render poorly. Your days of time-consuming formatting and frustrating rendering are behind you with DITA.

Because DITA is an XML standard, it’s written form is processable by machines and will publish to multiple channels, automatically applying formatting upon output. All your content creators have to worry about is pure content creation. Doesn’t that sound nice? When they’re done, with one click of a button, the content is formatted and published into whatever channels you desire. Website, portal, PDF, mobile, chatbot, whatever your output channels may be, DITA is capable of formatting and publishing for you so you don’t have to worry about anything other than making your content great.

What’s Your Plan of Action?

Let’s clear the air: DITA’s capabilities may be wonderful, but without an implementation strategy and the ongoing maintenance of that strategy, it’ll just be another fancy tool lying around, not being used to its full potential. DITA’s capabilities will produce powerful, tangible results when they’re implemented with careful planning.

DITA won’t work magic with the flourish of a wand. It’s capable of great things but you need an action plan that combines the strengths of DITA with the strengths and opportunities of your business. Know thyself.

If you need some help getting started, you’re in the right place. We’ve guided countless organizations on their DITA adoption journey. For some insight, answers, or direction, schedule a free consultation with one of our content experts!

Create great content together

Write, review, translate, and publish all from one system. Heretto is the only ContentOps platform that allows multiple authors to work together at the same time.