Update November 10th 2011: The poor audio in the original version of the YouTube version of the presentation has been fixed, and all references to it below have been updated to point to the new link.
While at the Congility conference earlier this year, I attended a great presentation (one of many at that conference) by Idio from Idio who talked about how they integrated social networking in their campaign with a specific user base. His firm had clearly done a lot of work, getting a clearer picture of who their audience was and what they wanted. With better info on their user base they were able to target their users’ needs more directly, and in terms of he firm’s marketing campaigns, target the types of venues where they knew their users would be.
I thought that yes, this was a great approach and could see he possibilities for its use with technical docs. The problem however, lay in the specifics: the firm in question was Guinness, the beer brewer. For many people, quaffing beer is inherently more social than, say, electrical engineering technical documentation. I doubt than anyone will want to add a Facebook “Like” link to a page of signal values for the pin-out diagram for an ASIC, or the warning messages on how not to operate a shiny new combine harvester. While there is a fairly obvious argument for making end-user documentation inherently more link-able from a social networking perspective (Example: Solving a friends’ computer problem? Send them a link to the specific task that will fix it), the case is harder for things which are less social in nature, like the examples mentioned earlier.
The other question to me was: how do you do social networking using DITA?
A possible path to doing effective social networking for “hard” technical docs using DITA as a backend came out of a presentation done by Noz Urbina (not coincidentally someone else who was at the last Congility conference) on what Mekon has done with their technical docs for a client of theirs that produces medical imaging systems. In a nutshell: registered users are given a chance to markup an HTML version of the docs, which writes the user’s submission using the comment mechanism in DITA. So the users of the product are given access to an instance of the Component Content Management System (CCMS) that supports DITA XML, though importantly, not to change whatever else is there (so a commentator cannot change existing content, just add a comment to it). Notification is then given to the technical writer, who can now (hopefully) address the problem the user has written about.
Here’s a link to the video on YouTube of Noz’s presentation, called “Socially Enabling Documentation in the Cloud: Dangers, Benefits, Getting There“. “DITA” isn’t mentioned anywhere in the title, but it is a key part of the solution he demos. There’s a lot of preliminary talk, though for me the meat is in the demo, which starts at about the 30 minute mark.
There are other obvious issues that can arise out of this type of system. How do you deal with rants or spam? Do you want to share comments between users (this could be a distinct disadvantage for someone posting a comment that might be perceived as conveying a competitive advantage). And where is the boundary between a Technical Writer front-line engineering support?
So clearly there are implementation questions to iron out, but it is good to see a practical demo of how DITA XML can be used as the back-end for a socially networkable system. Safe to say we can expect to see more development in this area.