It was one of those light-bulb-type discussions. Ideas popping and synapses firing. I had lunch with Chris Almond and Don Day this past week, discussing the potential authoring of wiki articles using DITA. We went through possible workflows, from a web-based DITA editor – to authoring in another tool and merely using DITA as an intermediary and transforming to wikitext.
If you know about DITA, you recognize Don Day as the chair of the OASIS DITA Technical Committee. Our lunch companion was Chris Almond, an innovative forward-thinking project manager. From him, I got the sense that internally at IBM, there is a perception of DITA as a technical writer-only tool to have in your toolkit. Chris coordinates and manages the authoring of IBM’s RedBooks, a very popular and technical set of documentation that are not product documentation but rather they show users how to implement a specific set of products, integrated together. He’s coordinating teams to do the scenario-based writing that applies the product in real-world situations. Many techpubs teams are striving towards use cases and scenario writing, and RedBooks are a great model for how to do it well. I know we tried to emulate it at BMC Software, and Bill Gearhart has an article about “Scenarios and Minimalism” in the CIDM Newsletter that discusses scenario and case study authoring.
Chris is trying to figure out how their current writing methodology and processes can be protected but also enhance the tools used and improve the resulting connections after the deliverable is written. Currently they engage with teams of authors to outline scenarios using mindmapping software and then divide up the actual writing assignments according to the author’s experience with the scenario. I immediately thought of JoAnn Hackos’ and Dan Ortega’s suggestions to have field personnel contribute scenarios to a product’s wiki when Chris described their process.
How do you actually empower the teams to write these wiki articles and assemble them into a useful (maybe book-like) wiki? Another question to Chris was, how do you layer an outline or table of contents on to the wiki, and then test and fold in any changes that wiki contributors make?
After at least an hour discussion I’m not sure we ever came up with the correct toolset. Or rather, there was a toolchain that could be used which is certainly do-able but not the ideal that he wanted to get to. I suppose one ideal is a DITA-based wiki with a web editor interface that would change editor strictness based on the author’s permissions. Authors who knew DITA and were most comfortable writing structured tasks, reference, and concept topics would get an XML-validating editor and authors that preferred more free-form would just use a rich-text editor that was nothing more than HTML headings, paragraphs, and lists underneath like what you use in Drupal, WordPress, or Blogger.
Suddenly it became apparent to me (but I won’t and don’t speak for Chris and Don) that some people are more determined to keep the editing quick and easy, but sacrifice that structuring and vetting step that structured authoring gives you.
This realization gives me a sense that there are two camps in technical documentation. There’s the “quick web” folks who connect easily and author easily, and then there’s the “structured quality” camp that requires more thoughtful testing and time spent on task analysis and information architecture. Also, the types of information that these authors are trying to capture are opposed in some senses. Then I thought a diagram might help.
detailed dialog boxes
With such an easily diagrammed moment, you’d think I’d have an answer for the process we could use for a DITA-based wiki. Unfortunately it’s not quite refined, but I feel a step closer to understanding why this process is difficult to create – because the process is paved with these tradeoffs and apparent compromises and decisions you have to make along the way.