I first met Noz Urbina last year when I was presenting at the Congility Conference in London last year. He was the chief organizer for the event, and he brought in a number of interesting people I had long wanted to see in person, particular CMS “gurus” Ann Rockley and Rahel Bailie. The people he brought together for that conference all gave compelling talks on CMSes, and the current state of DITA in Europe.
He and I had a lengthy chat about one of the speakers there who gave a presentation on how social media was allowing his firm to better target their customers. While that talk had more of a marketing focus, I remember coming away with a firmer grasp on how social media could be useful from a technical documentation standpoint. Ever since then I’ve keeping an eye on what he and his firm Mekon have been doing, in particular their work on providing a feedback tool that gives end-users a means to rate and comment on DITA-based content, which I think is moving in the direction that technical documentation needs to go.
He kindly agreed to an interview, where I asked him about what he thought were the key differences between technical documentation in North America and in the UK, and the role he thinks social media will play in future of tech docs.
DITAWriter: What are the particular challenges facing technical writing teams in the U.K. as opposed to those in North America?
Noz: Having left Canada straight out of University, my whole career has been in the U.K. and Europe, so it is a bit hard for me to approach this one from a comparative perspective vis-a-vis other markets. That said, if one thing were to jump out at me it would be cultural: here in the UK, technical documentation teams are sometimes robust to a fault. The famous British tenacity to make do with what they’ve got and succeed even in a challenging or difficult situation makes it harder to get people to give up on a process, even if it is not really working for them anymore. Getting people to change their existing mentality and processes is hard everywhere, but from my work with multi-national clients that have North American doc teams I’ve found that they’re more change-friendly at the outset. So in the U.K. you really need to make a strong case up front.
Europe is a different story. The top challenge on the continent is that we have to deal with more source materials from SMEs that are not only in a style not ready for public consumption, but written in an language which is not the SME’s native language. Compound this with the fact the writers themselves might be not working in their native tongue and you have more checks and balances to ensure that only the best content goes out the door. On the plus side, non-native English speakers tend to write more translation-friendly content than native speakers, because they write in a more straightforward way.
DITAWriter: From your vantage point in the U.K., how much has DITA penetrated the technical writing market there?
Noz: Although DITA in the U.K. is still in the minority in terms of implementations, it is a regular discussion point for those who are using other methods. Many technical writing organisations or contractors don’t want to lower their costs by 20% – 50% percent, because if they did, they’d be making less money. So there is a portion of the market that has it in their interests to be part of the “late majority”. For those organisations where technical writing is primarily done in-house, they are very interested in DITA, and many make the switch. Still, there is usually only interest (involving a budget) in cases a) where authoring team size is approaching double digits, or b) there is really extensive reuse and/or translation.
U.K. penetration in a sentence: DITA’s initial burst of popularity has settled to a healthy and steady growth, but it hasn’t hit a ‘majority’ of companies… yet.
DITAWriter: I know that your firm (Mekon) has been working on solutions that bring social media aspects to DITA-produced content. What are the particular challenges in this area? Are your clients seeing a real benefit from getting social media feedback on their docs?
Noz: There are many challenges. Fighting the stigma around social media in the technical documentation realm is still an issue, as we have to make it clear that it’s all about collaboration and efficiency, not videos of kittens. Also, we need to work around the reputations that Wikis have given socialised content as being a Lord-of-the-Flies-esque nightmare. Finally we need to talk around the idea that if we open up social functions to consumers they’ll suddenly be writing all our docs for us.
We find the secret is putting across how much people are screaming for social functionality without knowing it. For example, SMEs often tell me that they would contribute more content if we just made it easier for them to do so. Even if by ‘contribute’ they only mean pointing out fixes when required, sharing links with colleagues and finishing the reviews they were assigned, it’s still significantly useful. We also show our clients most tech docs are chopped up and repurposed by SMEs and end-users, and then shared directly. Users pull your stuff apart and create little annotated ‘laptop libraries’ which they then share, so why not facilitate that in the delivery method? Help them chop it up and share it instead of hindering them with big PDFs that no one can search or reuse. Our clients are really getting it, and seeing that it blurs review, delivery and collaboration for the good of all involved.
DITAWriter: Any thoughts on where you think DITA is going as a standard?
Noz: I think that DITA is at a critical stage as it is beginning to get really “sexy” now for technical communicators. I also think we are seeing the existing DITA standard being driven in two directions simultaneously, with those who need more advanced features than are present, and those who want to simplify what’s already there.
For example, we’ve seen the new keyref and Subject Scheme in DITA 1.2, which are both awesome. But the standard lacks things like usable cross-document referencing, setting conditions differently at different points of a map, and I am still digging into this one but I believe we still can’t link to a point in the navigation (e.g. a link from a topic to a map anchor), and instead we must link topics to topics.
In terms of simplification, the constraints mechanism in DITA is still far too complex, and the DTDs themselves are still overloaded creating huge costs to simplify them down to being usable and consistent. For groups trying to whittle down the number of tags available to the ones they will actually use, this is still a major hurdle.
We also need the ability to more seamlessly interoperate with other non-DITA content. I think that’s primarily a technology issue and I find it staggering that the community has not done more. I think it’s a sad testament to how long DITA is taking break out of tech pubs. HTML5 also looks very promising but I need to look deeper into the potential for real DITA ’round tripping’. What we need is the market capital to make end-to-end interoperable solutions that allow DITA to play nicely with its more proprietary buddies.
Noz Urbina is a Senior Consultant, Trainer and Content Strategist for Mekon Ltd. During his over 10 years in the content arena, he has provided services to Fortune 500 organisations and small-to-medium enterprises, often around DITA and XML management systems. His expertise is brought into projects for requirements analysis, training, management presentations, project planning and scoping, and tool selection support.
He is a frequent speaker at conferences around the world, delivering keynotes, talks and seminars on content strategy, technical communications and structured content best practices. Noz has held a number of business development, technical services, and sales positions where he was able to develop his expertise in a cutting-edge, efficiency-driven, business context. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter at @nozurbina and his industry blog can be found at lessworkmoreflow.blogspot.com.