On September 20, 2018 Nenad Furtula presented an overview of the principles and value of structured content. Nenad, a partner and VP Sales and Marketing at Bluestream Database Software, has been working with Extensible Markup Language (XML) for over 15 years.
Unstructured content is written as a single, complete unit (for example, a Word document). This is how content has been traditionally produced, but has some issues:
Structured content is written in small units that are assembled together later and can easily be rearranged and repurposed. This solves many of the issues associated with unstructured content.
XML, a markup language similar to HTML, is a good tool for creating structured content because it provides a standardized format for identifying the structure of documents, readable by both humans and machines.
In XML, structural elements (such as paragraphs) are separated from stylistic elements (such as fonts). This gives users much more control over content development, allowing them to focus on writing rather than formatting:
Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) is an XML-based content model. Users create topics, then assemble them using maps to create publications. Each topic is written once, using structural elements independent of style, and then reused as necessary.
Each DITA topic is a short, self-contained unit that answers a single question. Although there are many specialized topic types, there are three main types:
A DITA map is an XML file containing links to topics. A publication can be a DITA map or a set of DITA maps. Topics can be reused through hundreds of publications, and any change made to the topic will propagate through all of them.
If you want to move towards using structured content in your organization, you’ll need to start with developing a solid business case.
Next, review your content development lifecycle and information architecture. How will your process change? Is it appropriate to map your content to a DITA model? The case is not as strong for one-off articles as it is for complex documentation; although, adding structure will improve search functionality in any type of content.
Deciding on tools should be the final step. They are a long-term investment with a relatively steep learning curve, and the right tool will depend on the process you choose.
How do you sell the idea of structured content to the rest of your company? There are three major benefits to business:
Moving to structured content is a paradigm shift. You’ll need to change the way you think about content, create content, and assemble content, but in the end it will be faster, more cost-effective, and give the end-user a much better experience.
You’ll need three main tools to work with structured content:
A CCMS will sometimes also include an XML editor and a publishing engine.
To learn more, Nenad recommends visiting LearningDITA, which provides free DITA courses sponsored by a group of companies that work with structured content. For further information about DITA, you can also visit the homepage of the OASIS DITA Standard.
Nenad is also planning to form a local community of interest related to structured content. If you’re interested, you can contact him through LinkedIn or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jenny Riecken is a technical writer with a past as a QA analyst. She specializes in freelance contracts, writing everything from software documentation to policy manuals.