Where Does DITA XML Fit When it Comes to Tech Writing Tool Use?

Update January 27, 2012: Have changed the table info so that it is driven from a database — now you can sort and search the content of the tables, as well as seeing the full listing of tools in the survey.

The folks at self-selection bias are running their annual survey of the type of tools that technical writers use on a daily basis and how much they value them. I’d recommend that any tech writer out there take part in DITA Open Toolkit, since it is an open survey whose results are made publicly available. While this type of survey is prone to self-selection bias, given that the only people who would be interested in this sort of thing are other technical writers (and hoping that no-one is “stuffing the ballot-box”).

I decided to take a look at last year’s results to see how much impact DITA and its tools have made an impact on technical writing. This is not an easy or straightforward thing, as all WritersUA publishes are the raw data. Adding some order to this data would help to analyze the results, so I dumped the data into Excel to see what would come out of it. What I found was that DITA XML doesn’t seem as prevalent in the Technical Writing community as I had thought, at least if the results below are anything to go by.

From the 2011 WritersUA survey, here are the Top 20 tools, ranked by the most-used to the least:

Most-Used Technical Writing Tools 2011 (Writers UA Survey)

RankTool/Manufacturer# of Users
1Acrobat · Adobe619
2Visio · Microsoft434
3SnagIt · TechSmith431
4FrameMaker · Adobe325
5PhotoShop · Adobe316
6RoboHelp · Adobe294
7Flare · MadCap Software283
8Captivate · Adobe247
9Paint Shop Pro · Corel230
10Dreamweaver · Adobe218
11HTML Help Workshop · Microsoft184
12Camtasia · TechSmith183
13Flash Professional · Adobe166
14InDesign · Adobe152
15Author-it · Author-it Software114
16WebWorks ePublisher · Quadralay96
17Fireworks · Adobe93
18Mimic · MadCap Software88
19FAR HTML · The HelpWare Group78
20DITA Open Toolkit73
21CorelDRAW · Corel71
22FullShot · Inbit70
23Presenter · Adobe63
24XMetaL · JustSystems60
25Flex · Adobe58
26UltraEdit · IDM58
27Mif2Go · Omni Systems50
28Expression · Microsoft47
29Blaze · MadCap Software45
30Arbortext · PTC43
31HyperSnap · Hyperionics43
32oXygen · SyncroSoft43
33Help & Manual · EC Software37
34Presenter · Articulate35
35Doc-To-Help · ComponentOne30
36Morae · TechSmith30
37Vasont CMS · Vasont28
38HelpStudio · Innovasys25
39Document!X · Innovasys24
40Dr. Explain · Indigo Byte14
41HelpServer · 4.ST14
42HelpConsole · ExtremeEase12


While there are a lot of tools here which can also be used in a DITA XML environment (such as the top-ranking product Adobe Acrobat, or #4 ranked FrameMaker, or 15th ranked Author-it) and there are many other products here whose results can be incorporated in a DITA-based publication workflow (typically image creation or image capture tools), it is interesting to see that the DITA Open Toolkit is at the very bottom of this list. To be fair, this is only the Top 20 being ranked out of grand total of 42 covered in the survey, so by that measure the DITA-OT is just above the half-way mark in terms of ranking. But going by this survey, it seems as though DITA XML has not penetrated into the Technical Writing community as much as is often thought.

The other telling signs that this might be true are the rankings for the exclusive XML editors that appear on the list: TechSmith ranks 24th, and SnagIt ranks 32nd in the list.

One of the other measures in the survey looks at which of the tools user’s rate as being the most-used, but again the results are not that different from the first set of rankings:

Highest-Rated Technical Writing Tools 2011 (Writers UA Survey)

RankTool/Manufacturer# of Users
1Acrobat · Adobe370
2SnagIt · TechSmith234
3Flare · MadCap Software228
4FrameMaker · Adobe178
5RoboHelp · Adobe160
6PhotoShop · Adobe99
7Visio · Microsoft93
8Captivate · Adobe90
9Author-it · Author-it Software82
10Dreamweaver · Adobe67
11HTML Help Workshop · Microsoft52
12Paint Shop Pro · Corel50
13Flash Professional · Adobe40
14Camtasia · TechSmith39
15InDesign · Adobe35
16DITA Open Toolkit30
17WebWorks ePublisher · Quadralay30
18Fireworks · Adobe24
19Mimic · MadCap Software24
20FAR HTML · The HelpWare Group22
21Flex · Adobe22
22XMetaL · JustSystems22
23FullShot · Inbit21
24Arbortext · PTC19
25Presenter · Adobe19
26oXygen · SyncroSoft17
27Blaze · MadCap Software13
28Document!X · Innovasys11
29Help & Manual · EC Software10
30HyperSnap · Hyperionics9
31Doc-To-Help · ComponentOne8
32HelpStudio · Innovasys8
33UltraEdit · IDM8
34CorelDRAW · Corel7
35Presenter · Articulate6
36Vasont CMS · Vasont6
37Mif2Go · Omni Systems4
38Expression · Microsoft2
39HelpServer · 4.ST1
40Dr. Explain · Indigo Byte0
41HelpConsole · ExtremeEase0
42Morae · TechSmith0


take this year’s survey!‘s venerable screen-capture utility SnagIt now comes in at #2 just after Adobe’s Acrobat but otherwise things are little-changed at the top. The DITA-OT does creep up higher in the list to #16, but given that there is a more than 12 times difference in the number of people who rate Acrobat as being used more often, the jump up the list isn’t that significant.

Now admittedly it’s hard to pin down if there’s any other bias in the results — it could be that the respondents to the WritersUA survey are disproportionately not those who are using DITA XML, and not everybody who is working with DITA is necessarily using the DITA-OT (in other words, they use a CMS which either works without any need for the DITA-OT or it is so buried that it is not noticeable to the casual user) but if these results hold up, it seems as though DITA XML still has a considerable way to go in the technical writing community.

Any thoughts on the topic? Please let me know in the comments below. (And don’t forget to take this year’s survey!)


"DITAWriter" is Keith Schengili-Roberts. I work for IXIASOFT as a DITA Specialist/Information Architect. And I like to write about DITA and the technical writing community. To get ahold of me you can email me at: keith@ditawriter.com.

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5 thoughts on “Where Does DITA XML Fit When it Comes to Tech Writing Tool Use?

  1. Hi Keith,

    I wanted to pipe in to say that this jives with our experience as well.

    However, I think this has a lot to do with the specific conference you were at, but does raise the general question of how fast DITA is realistically going to penetrate the ‘mass market’ in as much as there is such a thing as the mass techcomm market…

    My belief is there are these contributing factors:

    1) UA conferences, I have found at least, cover more of the software and web world. General Tech Comms conferences cover a more even spread of software vs. hardware (and if my gut is correct, actually a majority of hardware). Software and web companies can often survive smaller, with lower overheads, turnover (in terms of revenue) and headcount than hardware companies.

    The hardware world might also be losing ground to competition from the East, but software and web is still very much a global hotbed. This means you end up with more small teams and independents at UA conferences.

    2) DITA is something that very small teams and independent contract authors don’t often implement. If you’ve got no IT support and little budget, the learning curve and cost of DITA tools is still too high for many.

    3) DITA is often driven by need to reuse content, localise it, or multiformat publish it. Although I have no idea about the stats on reuse and localisation (I have some ideas but none I’d publically put in writing), on the multiformat, it’s definitely been my finding that software and web companies are happy with one format of output (either CHM or HTML) and high-quality print or others are are a ‘nice to have’.

    This was indirectly a point of discussion in the panel at Congility 2011 actually. The question was what is holding DITA back most? One of the most common answers was creating output stylesheets easily.

    As it stands, as much as I think DITA is firmly the way of the future, it’s firmly the way of the future for organisations that are industrialising their process and need economies of scale. When you scale back the situation, you scale back the drivers too, thinning the whole business case.

    I often compare it to an assembly line vs. traditional manufacturing. Obviously the assembly line is how any business must scale and accelerate production, and we should all learn from that way of thinking and planning, BUT if you don’t need to scale production, the expense and planning required to set one up is prohibitive to the small team or independent.

    That said, if you’re a whiz with HTML and CSS, stylesheets and don’t mind tweaking things a bit yourself, a one-man-band can easily benefit from DITA. Problem is, asking for those skills in a technical writer competent enough in the other required skills is often asking a lot.

    Sad? Maybe. But true? I’d be interested in other opinions.

    Noz – http://lessworkmoreflow.blogspot.com // @nozurbina

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful response Noz!

      I think you are correct on all of your points, and it reflects my experience in meeting with people at various conferences as well.

      There definitely is a “techcomms market” as you put it out there, and I think the UA Writer’s survey serves to highlight who the major players in this market are. What you do not see in these surveys are any of the large Content Management System software vendors listed, and I am guessing that this is because the extent to their penetration into this market space still has a considerable way to go. The equivalent UA Writer’s survey for this year is already out, and there are some interesting trends which suggest that DITA is slowly making steps in this direction (which I will cover in a future article here).

      I believe you are correct in saying that DITA is still too complicated for very small technical communication teams to deploy, especially if there is no support from IT (and less so if there’s no support for the initiative from upper management). As it stands, a one-person team looking to work with DITA either has to go with the standard output from the DITA-OT, or learn about XSL, ant and possibly Java to be able to tweak things to their specific needs. And this is on top of learning all there is about the DITA tag-set itself. These are subjects I also hope to tackle in future articles here as well.

      Would love to hear other people’s experiences in this area as well — if there’s anyone else out there who wants to share their experiences, please add your comments! (It’ll help me decide what sort of articles to write in the future, if that helps!)

      Keith Schengili-Roberts – DITAWriter

  2. XMetaL and Arbortext are also catching up fast as far as DITA XML authoring in concerned. Abobe got late in the game, but is now aggressive.

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