January 2013 Meeting Discussion: It’s All About Structure! Why Structured Content Is Increasingly Becoming A Necessity, Not An Option

Presented by Scott Abel and reviewed by Louise Galindo

Scott Abel (The Content Wrangler) let us know why in his lively presentation. “Structure is part of everything we do.” He reminisced about a time in the far past when we used to document the menu from left to right. Out of those dark ages, structured XML content and DITA have emerged as the important tools for technical communications.

Scott has lots of good information for technical communicators. I’ve tried to highlight some of these points, but there is no getting away from the future of what we do as technical communicators. His message is clear: structured XML content using DITA is the future of technical content. And he gives us some of the reasons why this is so.

As Scott pointed out, the challenge is not the tools. People are the challenge. “Structure is part of who we are.” How can we better understand the people we work with and make sure that they have what they need to produce the content that today’s consumers want? To be valuable, we have to produce relevant content. People and processes have to change.

It is not about menus and not about the UI. We have to deliver content to consumers when and how they want it–and it has to be personalized. Linear-style, static documents can’t do this and forward looking departments will have to face that reality.

Aside from the obvious reasons of containing costs, especially for localization and translation, how does structured content help us? Scott described a number of ways structured content helps us deliver to our consumers:

  • It is predictable.
  • It can deliver content automatically.
  • It lets content be single-sourced.
  • The structure expects the unexpected use.
  • It adapts content to deliver the relevant content to the right audience.
  • It lets you deliver content dynamically. Consumers want content delivered in real time.
  • It lets content be personalized easily.

Scott also talked about reusing content. He points out that structured content can be reused in “known sets of related information and in sets of information that will meet unknown future needs.” Content is recombined in new ways that are not obvious when the content is first created. Think about how businesses are determined to output to mobile devices. Structure the content first to have the resources for multiple output formats.

Having worked in DITA for the past four years, these statements ring true for me and for how we have been able to use content in ways that were closed to us without the flexibility of structured content. As odd as that phrase sounds, structured content is flexible content.

“So, we need to deliver specific information for a specific person–not to a persona.” Get to know your audience members and deliver content directly to them.

Take a look at Scott’s site for more about how he thinks and for information about wrangling content: http://thecontentwrangler.com/2012/10/06/its-time-to-start-separating-content-from-behavior/

Louise Galindo is a Senior Technical Editor at VMware. She works in DITA using XMetaL and the Trisoft Content Management System.

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