To boldly go where no tech writer has gone before (one can dream, right?)

Creating Eclipse Context-Sensitive Help (CSH) from DITA

At IXIASOFT, our CCMS runs on Eclipse, so our user and admin guides are provided as Eclipse documentation (generated using the DITA-OT Eclipse plugin), in addition to HTML and PDF files available on our website. In our latest release, we decided to add context-sensitive help (CSH) to the CCMS so that our users could get help as they were doing their tasks.

Sounds simple, right? Not exactly.

As Dan Elfanbaum mentioned in his article, it’s almost impossible to find information on how to integrate CSH from DITA into Eclipse. Yan Periard, our Chief Artisan, and I sat down to determine how we would approach this and we came up with our own method. (Okay, Yan did most of the technical research and coding, but I encouraged him every step of the way :). I’m sharing our solution here in the hope that it might be useful to others.

Our requirements were simple:

  • No new documentation; we wanted to reuse our current DITA topics to generate the CSH, as we’re doing for the PDF, HTML, and Eclipse outputs
  • The CSH should be unobstrusive
  • The CSH should link to the complete Eclipse documentation for more information

To display CSH, Eclipse expects a context file that looks as follows:

<contexts>
   <context id="panic_button" title="Panic Button Title">
      <description>This is the panic button.</description>
      <topic href="reference/panic_button.htm" label="Panic Button Reference"/>
   </context>
   ...
</contexts>

Eclipse requires the following information in the context file:

  • id: ID that identifies the element of the UI. This ID must be declared in the CCMS Eclipse code.
  • title: Title of the CSH window displayed when users click F1 while hovering over the UI element.
  • description: Short description of the UI element.
  • topic: One or more topics that will be listed in the CSH window to provide more information to the user. The href must link to one of the topics in the documentation plugin.

So our challenge was: How do we go from DITA source code to the context file required by Eclipse? We first thought about creating a specialization that would map exactly to the context file, but we try to stay away from them for usability. We wanted our solution to be as generic as possible.

So we came up with the following approach:

  1. Create a standard DITA context map that includes the information required by the Eclipse context file.
  2. Transform the context map into a context file recognized by Eclipse.

 

1. Create the context map


Mapping the information required by Eclipse into a DITA map was fairly straightforward, but we had one complication. Our product can be used with oXygen and XMetaL, and the user guide is XML-editor specific, so it’s packaged in two different Eclipse plugins:
- DITA CMS User Guide for oXygen (com.ixiasoft.eclipse.help.userguide.oxygen)
- DITA CMS User Guide for XMetaL (com.ixiasoft.eclipse.help.userguide.xmetal)

Most customers use one of these XML editors, but some use both. This meant that when clicking F1 on an area of the UI, some customers had to be shown the oXygen version of the documentation, some customers the XMetaL version, and other customers needed both versions. We therefore had to find a way to conditionalize the <topic href> required by Eclipse. After some discussion, we ended up with the following map:
 

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE map PUBLIC "-//IXIA//DTD IXIA DITA Map//EN" "IxiaMap.dtd">
<map id ="lar1410796284657" xml:lang ="en-us">
   <title> DITA CMS User Guide Context Map</title >
   <topicmeta id="help.plugins.root" >
      <resourceid appname ="com.ixiasoft.eclipse.help.userguide.oxygen" id="Oxygen"/>
      <resourceid appname ="com.ixiasoft.eclipse.help.userguide.xmetal" id="XMetal"/>
   </topicmeta >
   <topicgroup id ="referable_content_view">
      <topicmeta>
         <navtitle> About the Referable-Content view</ navtitle>
         <shortdesc> The Referable-Content view lets you search for reusable components 
                     and insert them into documents.</ shortdesc>           
      </topicmeta>
      <topicref href ="lar1396892881040.xml"/>
      <topicref href ="lar1399915347457.xml"/>
      <topicref href ="lar1399921717895.xml"/>
      <topicref href ="lar1397657467945.xml" product="XMetal"/>
      <topicref href ="lar1397657445991.xml" product="Oxygen"/>
   </topicgroup>
</map>

We mapped the information required by Eclipse to DITA elements or attributes as follows:

  • The map-level <topicmeta> defines the Eclipse documentation plugins to which this CSH applies:
    • The id defines the location of the help plugin to Eclipse.
    • The resourceid defines the name of the Eclipse plugin (in the appname attribute) as well as an id to determine whether this is the oXygen or XMetaL plugin.
  • The <topicgroup> contains the information to create the <context> element required by Eclipse:
    • The id defines the id of the UI object. This must match the id put in by developers in the CCMS code.
    • The <topicmeta> then provides the title and description of the window for the CSH. I typed in the text directly, but I could have pulled the <shortdesc> from my original topics using a conref (planned for Phase 2 of the project).
    • Each <topicref> then defines the topic to display for this UI object. For example, for the Referable-Content view above, I determined that five topics from the user guide were interesting enough to be displayed. The first three are common to both XMetaL and oXygen but the last ones are editor-specific, so we used the product condition to identify them.

The map above shows only one topicgroup, for simplicity, but obviously I created one topicgroup for each area of the UI that would benefit from additional information.

 

2. Transform the context map into the Eclipse context file


For this, we created our own transformation, which basically takes the DITA context map and transforms it into an Eclipse context file (contexts.xml) using an XSLT transformation. We implemented this transformation using the Output Generator, which is the IXIASOFT DITA CMS module that outputs DITA source into the required output type, but you could easily reproduce this as a DITA-OT script. It uses Ant code, as follows:

<target name="dita2eclipsecontexthelpwrapper">
   <xslt processor="trax"
         in="input_map.ditamap"
         out="contexts.xml"
         style="ixiasoft_eclipse_csh_transfo.xsl">
         <xmlcatalog id="ixia.dita.catalog"/>
   </xslt>
</target>

(For your convenience, you can find the XSLT file here; right-click the link to download the file).

The output contexts.xml looks like this:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<contexts>
<context id="referable_content_view" title="About the Referable-Content view">
      <description>The Referable-Content view lets you search for reusable components and insert them into documents.</description>
      <topic href="PLUGINS_ROOT/com.ixiasoft.eclipse.help.userguide.oxygen/lar1396892881040.html"
             label="Working with the Referable-Content view">
         <enablement>
            <with variable="platform">
               <test property="org.eclipse.core.runtime.isBundleInstalled"
                     args="com.ixiasoft.eclipse.help.userguide.oxygen"/>
            </with>
         </enablement>
      </topic>
      .....
   </context>

Once the contexts.xml file is generated, it’s packaged with the two DITA CMS documentation plugins for XMetaL and for oXygen. And voilà! You have CSH that looks something like this when users press F1:

Sample CSH

Sample CSH

The help window is opened as an Eclipse view (shown below), so it’s unobtrusive and gets updated as the user moves around the UI.

Unobstrusive help
 
This was a fairly long post, but I’m hoping it will help other writers/developers trying to create Eclipse CSH from DITA. As usual, comments and questions are welcome!
 


DITA 1.3: Coming soon to an editor near you

The OASIS committee has been working hard at preparing the new release of the DITA specification, DITA 1.3, which is currently planned for Q1 of 2015. In addition to bug fixes and miscellaneous quality improvements, DITA 1.3 will introduce some very interesting features, including:

  • Better support for context-sensitive help
  • A new topic type for troubleshooting
  • Conditional processing enhancements
  • Enhancements to the DITA 1.2 key and keyref feature (scoped keys)
  • New domains for MathML, SVG, and release management
  • Improvements to the Learning and Training domain

My original plan for today was to cover all the new features, but it made for a very long blog post. So instead I’ll go over each important feature in separate posts over the next few weeks. If you’re impatient and want to know the details of the DITA 1.3 specification right now, see the links at the bottom of this post.

Note: Since DITA 1.3 is not released yet, the specification may change and the information and samples in this post may need to be revised.

Let’s start with context-sensitive help.

Better support of context-sensitive help

The current DITA specification is very limited in terms of support provided for context-sensitive help (CSH). DITA 1.3 plans to address the following two limitations:

  • Inability to manage multiple CSH callback IDs from the same DITA source
  • Inability to specify target runtime display from the DITA source

Managing multiple CSH callback IDs from the same DITA source

When generating CSH from DITA, the <resourceid> element can be used to specify the callback ID, which is the hook used to link the DITA topic to the appropriate user interface area. For example, we used the <resourceid> element as follows for the Web Author help:

<prolog>
 <resourceid appname="cms.webauthor" id="com.ixiasoft.help.assignments.number"/>
</prolog>

The problem with DITA 1.2 is that the <resourceid> metadata is limited in the information it can contain to differentiate between multiple target outputs. For example, consider a topic that is used in three different target outputs: Online help, embedded user assistance, and mobile help. If each target application uses its own callback ID scheme, then multiple different context IDs must be specified for the same topic. Since this information cannot be specified in the DITA 1.2 <resourceid> metadata, the mapping between the DITA source topic and the callback IDs must be maintained outside of the DITA files.

To solve this issue, DITA 1.3 adds three new metadata attributes to <resourceid>:

  • appid: Identifies a referenced topic to an external application
  • ux-context-string: Specifies a callback context ID for that topic
  • ux-source-priority: Since the resourceid metadata can be set at the map level or the topic level, this attribute specifies how to resolve conflicts between callbacks defined in a map and in a topic; valid values are map-takes-priority and topic-takes-priority. So if the resourceid information provided in the topic is different from the resourceid provided for that topic in the map, this attribute specifies which resourceid to use.

For example, the following code configures callbacks for two target outputs for the create_image topic: One for the Web Author application and one for the Eclipse Client.

<map title=”DITA CMS Help”>
  <topicref href=”create_image.dita” type=”task”>
    <topicmeta>
      <resourceid
        appname=”cms.webauthor”
        appid=”create_image”
        ux-content-string=”com.ixiasoft.webauthor.help.create_image”
        ux-source-priority=”map-takes-priority”/>
      <resourceid
        appname=”cms.eclipseclient”
        appid=”create_image”
        ux-content-string=”com.ixiasoft.eclipseclient.help.create_image”
        ux-source-priority=”map-takes-priority”/>
    </topicmeta>
  </topicref>
</map>

I’m assuming that the appid attribute in DITA 1.3 is replacing the id attribute in DITA 1.2, since I don’t see why we would need both.

Specifying target runtime display from the DITA source

To provide the details of the target display, DITA 1.3 also adds a new element, <ux-window>, and a new attribute for <resourceid>:

  • <ux-window>:  This element lets you configure a target display profile and include information such as the size of the window, some of its features, etc. For example, the following <ux-window> element configures the display for a mobile environment:
    <topicmeta> 
      <ux-window id=”task_window” name=”mobile_ios” top=”10″ left=”20″ 
       height=”400″ width=”500″ 
       features=”status=yes,toolbar=no,menubar=no,location=no” 
       relative=”true” full-screen=”no”/> 
    </topicmeta>
    
  • You can then specify this profile in the ux-windowref attribute of the resourceid, as shown below:
    <resourceid 
     appname=”cms.webauthor” 
     appid=”cms.webauthor.mobile” 
     ux-content-string=”com.ixiasoft.webauthor.help.create_image″ 
     ux-source-priority=”map-takes-priority” 
     ux-windowref=”mobile_ios”/>
    

I’m not sure yet about this new improvement. One of the strengths of DITA has always been to separate the source content from how it will look in the output. I see this kind of specification as more appropriate in a transformation scenario. But maybe it’s a requirement for mobile environments, and since I haven’t had to produce mobile help yet, I’m not allowed to complain. :)

In the next post, I’ll cover the new topic type for troubleshooting. Should be interesting!


For more information about DITA 1.3:


Learn DITA on Your Own: Get connected

(This post is part of the Learn DITA on Your Own series.)

A great way to keep abreast of what’s happening in the DITA world is to get connected with the very active and dynamic DITA online community. By following a few blogs, Yahoo/LinkedIn groups, and Twitter accounts you can get the latest news on DITA, read about interesting implementations, and develop your knowledge. 

Even if you’re not an active participant in this community, being connected is very useful. I don’t participate much in these groups (I have the luxury of working with DITA experts who can answer any question that I have), but I have learned a lot by reading about other people’s problems, questions, and solutions.

So here are the groups, accounts, and blogs that I follow regularly. Don’t hesitate to let me know if I have missed one that should be on this list.

DITA Users Yahoo Group

The best technical reference on DITA is the DITA Users Yahoo Group. It’s the one resource that I follow quasi-religiously. Some of the best DITA experts are there, sharing their knowledge. Some of the questions (and answers!) go way over my head, but I have learned about new concepts and new ways of using DITA thanks to this group.  (And I think I’m secretly hoping I’ll learn by osmosis simply by hanging around these experts :).

LinkedIn groups

There are a few DITA groups on LinkedIn, but here are the two that I follow more regularly:

  • DITA Awareness Group: This group, the largest about DITA on LinkedIn, is very active and is a great place to get the latest news about the DITA standard, learn about interesting blog posts or upcoming presentations, and see how other writers are implementing DITA.
  • The Content Wrangler: Content management is a very important part of DITA. The Content Wrangler is not DITA-specific but covers content issues that are very relevant.

There are also a few regional DITA groups (for example, France, Japan, Alberta, Central Texas), so it might be worthwhile to search for DITA groups in LinkedIn, since there might be one for your area.

Twitter accounts

I have compiled a list of DITA Twitter accounts that I follow. You can find it here:

https://twitter.com/nathalielaroche/lists/all-about-dita

You can subscribe to the list or create your own. Again, this is not a complete list, so don’t hesitate to suggest accounts I could add.

Blogs

There are so many blogs out there on DITA, I couldn’t possibly list them all. Here are my favorite ones:

  • DITAWriter: Keith Schengili-Roberts’s blog has everything you want to know about DITA, from the list of the XML Editors that support DITA to links for more than 200 videos on DITA. He covers changes to the DITA standard, trends, webinars, etc. Keith also has a good list of DITA blogs on his blogroll, so browse through them and you might find one that interests you.
  • Official DITA XML site: This is a community-driven site hosted by OASIS that provides background information on the standard. It’s not always active, but it provides a lot of reference information.
  • I’d Rather Be Writing: While Tom Johnson’s blog is not specific to DITA, his latest series detailing his DITA journey is very interesting, especially if you’re new to DITA.

Conclusion

I hope that you enjoyed this series. Learning DITA has been a great boost in my career, and I wanted to share my enthusiasm with fellow writers interested in learning new technologies.

In a few weeks, I’ll post about how you can create a portfolio of your DITA content. But in the meantime I have to prepare for my presentation at the STC Summit 2014 in Phoenix, Arizona, coming next week. I hope to see you there! :)


DITA and user assistance: Real-world implementation

In a post that I published last year, I said that I would document how we implemented Ray Gallon’s double-embeddedness theory for a project we were developing. Here I am, a year later, with the details of this implementation. Better late than never, right? :)

The theory


Let’s start by summarizing Ray’s theory.

The concepts: Cognition and context

There are two main concepts in this theory:

  • Users learn best when the information they need to perform a task is available as they are performing the task.
  • Users learn best when they understand why they are performing a task. They need to know quickly if they need to perform a task. They need concepts as they are performing their tasks.

The solution: Double embeddedness

The solution is what Ray calls “double embeddedness”:

  • Embed the user assistance directly in the user interface.
  • Embed simple concepts directly into the user assistance.

…with progressive disclosure:

  • Initially, show users only a few of the most important options.
  • Offer a larger set of specialized options upon request, and disclose these secondary features only if a user asks for them, meaning that most users can proceed with their tasks without worrying about this added complexity.

In summary, we want user assistance that:

  • Gives users all the information they need and only the information they need
  • Delivers that information when they need it
  • Includes a sentence or two of conceptual information in context
  • Is embedded in the UI in such a way that:
    • The user can find it immediately, without excessive searching
    • If the user doesn’t need the help, it stays out of the way

Real-life implementation: Web Author user assistance


I sat down with the developers at IXIASOFT to discuss how we could implement this theory in our new product, called Web Author. The Web Author is a web editor that allows casual contributors and reviewers to edit and review DITA topics from an Internet browser. Because users would not be familiar with DITA and would not use this tool every day, it was a perfect candidate for the type of user assistance that Ray talked about.

We started by defining three levels of help.

Level 1: Tooltips

When users hover over an element of the UI, a pop-up is displayed with a short overview of the function. The tooltip provides some conceptual information to put users in context as they are performing the task.

The following diagram shows a sample tooltip. When a user logs in, the Web Author lists the documents that are assigned to the user. The number of documents assigned is displayed in the Number of assignments area. When users hover over this area (the purple square with a number in it), the following tooltip is displayed:

Level 1: Tool tip

Level 1: Tool tip

The tooltip contains a More… link so if users need more information about the area, they click the link and level 2 help is displayed.

Level 2: Help area details

Level 2 help provides more detailed information about the area as well as links to what you can do in this area (i.e., the actual procedures). For example, if a user clicks More in the Number of assignments tooltip, the following window is displayed:

Level 2: Help details

Level 2; Help details

The level 2 help is not displayed in a pop-up window, it’s embedded in the user interface, in the lower left corner of the main window, as shown above.

Another requirement of Ray’s theory is that help should be unobtrusive and be out of the way if users don’t need it. For this, we added the hide tips/show tips toggle button on top of the help details window (shown above). When users are familiar enough with the user interface and no longer want the help, they can simply disable it by clicking hide tips. Should they need to see the help again later on, they simply click the show tips button.

If a user still needs more information, clicking one of the related links will open the level 3 help.

Level 3: HTML Help

This is a standard HTML help system available in another tab of the browser. When users click the links in the help details area, they are taken to the corresponding procedure in the online help, shown below:

Level 3: Help system

Level 3: Help system

DITA implementation


To implement the user assistance, we decided to use the DITA <resourceid> element and outputclass attribute.

To link the DITA topic to the appropriate user interface area, we use the <resourceid> element in the <prolog>. For example, to specify the topic that applies to the Number of assignments area, we added the following code to the topic:

 <prolog>
   <resourceid appname="cms.webauthor" id="com.ixiasoft.help.assignments.number"/>
 </prolog>

The appname specifies the product name (in this case, the Web Author) and the resourceid specifies the resource id of the area as specified in the Java code. This ensures that when a user hovers over an area, the Web Author knows from which topic to pull the documentation.

Using the <resourceid> element for context-sensitive help is a pretty standard approach. What’s different about our implementation is that we decided to use the outputclass attribute to identify what to display at each level of help.

We defined three values for outputclass:

  • outputclass="help_tooltip": Defines level 1 help
  • outputclass="help_context": Defines level 2 help
  • outputclass="help_related_information": Defines the related links that will open the HTML help

For example, the following code shows the DITA file for the Number of assignments topic:


<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE concept PUBLIC "-//IXIA//DTD IXIA DITA Composite//EN" "../../system/dtd/ixia/IxiaDitabase.dtd">
<concept id="per1389986405854" xml:lang="en-us">
	<title>Number of assignments area</title>
    <shortdesc outputclass="help_tooltip"><ph id="number">Displays the number of documents assigned to you in the
        role selected.</ph> </shortdesc>
    <prolog>
        <resourceid appname="cms.webauthor" id="com.ixiasoft.help.assignments.number"/>
    </prolog>
   <conbody>
       <section outputclass="help_context">
           <p>When you select a role in the <uicontrol>Roles</uicontrol> drop-down list, all the
                documents assigned to you and active for that role are displayed in the Assignments
                pane, and the number of documents is updated in the <uicontrol>Number of
                    assignments</uicontrol> area.</p>
            <p>To refresh the list and the number of active documents, click the
                    <uicontrol>Refresh</uicontrol> icon in the <wintitle>Number of
                    assignments</wintitle> area.</p>
       </section>
   </conbody>
    <related-links outputclass="help_related_information">     
        <link href="per1389986405575.xml#per1389986405575" outputclass="help_related_information_link"/>
        <link href="per1389986404838.xml#per1389986404838" outputclass="help_related_information_link"/>
        <link href="per1389986405139.xml#per1389986405139" outputclass="help_related_information_link"/>
    </related-links>
</concept>

When a user hovers over the Number of assignments area, the user assistance looks for the element with the outputclass="help_tooltip". This is usually the <shortdesc> element. If a user clicks the More… link, the user assistance then looks for the element with the outputclass="help_context". In the example above, the attribute is set on the <section> element, so this whole element is included in the help details. The related links specified with the outputclass="help_related_information" are displayed at the bottom of the help details. If a user clicks one of these links, then the user assistance opens up the complete HTML help.

This is shown in the following diagram (you might want to click the diagram to enlarge it and see the details):

Summary of user assistance

Summary of user assistance

One of the advantages of using the outputclass is that it’s valid on any DITA element, so it’s very flexible; the user assistance only needs to look for the defined outputclass, no matter the type of topic. We can use any element in any type of topic to produce the user assistance.

Another advantage of using the outputclass attribute is that the same source content can be used for the user assistance, the HTML online help, as well as a PDF User Guide that was requested by our customers. But this will be the subject of another post, since this one is getting long enough already.

Summary
As you can see from this approach, a lot of magic happens behind the scenes (i.e., in the software) to enable this user assistance. I am lucky enough to work with developers who think that documentation and user assistance are very important, so they decided to treat the user assistance as a feature of the product. They developed a custom XSLT transformation scenario that generates an .hlp file with the user assistance. They also added code to the Web Author that extracts the right level of help according to user actions.

So yes, this method requires custom code from developers, but I think it’s a great example of how DITA can be used to create context-sensitive help.

Again, special thanks to Ray Gallon for his research and very inspiring webinar.


Learn DITA on Your Own: Plan your Training

(This post is part of the Learn DITA on Your Own series.)

Now that you have set up the tools and created your first DITA project, the real work begins.

Learning a new skill takes time and effort. We have the best intentions, but we also live busy lives. How many times have I bought a book with the intention of learning a new subject, read a few chapters, and then put the book aside, never to return to it? It’s not enough to have a goal; you must also put a specific training plan in place to achieve your goal. I’m a runner, and I know that if I want to achieve a new goal, whether it’s running a long cross-country race or establishing a new personal record, I need a plan.

So, how do you develop a plan for learning DITA?

1. Find a real project that you want to do in DITA

A real project will give you a purpose for completing your training. And since you’ll need content when creating different object types in DITA (such as tables, cross-references, procedures, etc.), without a specific project in mind, you may waste time trying to come up with content.

For example, you could convert one of your existing user manuals to DITA. You could also take content that is freely available on the web, under a Creative Commons license (which means that you are free to copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format, as long as you don’t use it for commercial purposes), and create a DITA version of it. To find such documentation, search for the following string in Google: “documentation is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution”.

Another advantage of using a real project is that you can then include it in your portfolio to show potential employers (more on this in an upcoming post).

2. Buy a book

A great training book will explain the DITA concepts and provide exercises so that you can apply your knowledge. There are many books available, but here are my recommendations:

Introduction to DITA, Second Edition by JoAnn T. Hackos

intro-to-ditaThis book is a great introduction to DITA. It also includes 24 lessons that cover most DITA concepts, from creating a topic to creating a Ditaval file for processing. Throughout the book, you create a small user guide for a fictitious phone system. I recommend the electronic version (available from ComTech here), so that you can copy and paste code samples if you don’t want to type them out. (I can’t say that I particularly like the interface of the electronic version, but being able to copy and paste code makes is worth the not-so-friendly interface).

DITA Best Practices by Laura Bellamy, Michelle Carey, and Jenifer Schlotfeldt

DITA-Best-Practices

This is the perfect book for writers who aren’t too technical; the concepts are explained simply and clearly and the book is very easy to follow. The main problem with this book is that most examples are not provided in DITA code; instead, elements are displayed visually. This is great if you’re using a visual DITA editor; otherwise, it’s not that useful. Also, this book was released before DITA 1.2 was out, so it’s missing important 1.2 features such as keyrefs and conrefs. But it’s a great introduction to DITA.

<dita> for Practitioners by Eliott Kimber

dita_for_practitionersThis book is organized in two parts: The first one introduces the main DITA concepts and provides great tutorials that take you through the steps of creating DITA content and generating it using oXygen and the DITA Open Toolkit. The second part goes over each concept into more details. You can download the code samples used in the document so that you don’t have to type them. Two small warnings about this book: It uses the oXygen DITA editor in the examples, so while you can still create and run your content using Notepad++ and calling the DITA OT directly from the command-line, you’ll need to do a bit of work on your end to perform the procedures. Also, while this is probably my favorite DITA book, I read it once I already knew about DITA, so I’m not sure it’s the best introduction to DITA for writers. Kimber is a DITA guru and a very technical guy, so this book may be more difficult for the less technically inclined.

3. Determine a schedule and commit to it

Learning a new skill takes time. If I want to reach a race goal, I need to run at least three to four times a week. With work, family, and side projects, I’m very busy, so if I don’t plan ahead the times when I’ll go running, I don’t make it.

In the same way, you need to plan ahead your DITA training time. For example, you could plan to work on your DITA training every Tuesday evening, two evenings a week, or every second Saturday. The important thing is to select a time that is reasonable and doable for you, according to your schedule. Otherwise you may get discouraged and abandon your plan.

4. Make a list of skills that you need to learn

It’s not enough to simply plan when you’ll work on DITA; you also need to know what you will be learning! I recommend organizing your training around the book that you’ve selected and creating a spreadsheet that lists the DITA concepts covered in the book.

As an example, you can download here an Excel Spreadsheet that contains sample training plans for two of the books listed above, Introduction to DITA and <dita> for Practitioners. You can then use it to track your progress and see how well you’re doing.

(Optional!) 5. Invest in a tool such as oXygen Editor

While Notepad++ will work just fine to learn DITA, it will not check your DITA structure and does not provide a visual interface. I have been using oXygen for the past three years and I love it.  You can get the latest version for $349. It’s not cheap, but it’s not overly expensive, and you will be able to add oXygen to your list of skills. There are other XML editors available; the best up-to-date list of XML editors that provide DITA support is available through the DITA Writer, in his article List of DITA Optimized Editors. You can also request a one-month free trial license for most of these vendors.

Note that this is completely optional. You can very well use Notepad++ and run the DITA Open Toolkit from the command-line…you know it works, because you’ve done the World’s Smallest DITA Project using these tools!  The good news with Notepad++, though, is that you’ll be quite the expert in DITA authoring once you’re done with your training! If you plan to use Notepad++, the Introduction to DITA, Second Edition is probably your best choice in terms of book.

What’s next?


With a plan, a book, and the tools, you have all that you need to learn DITA on your own…now get to work! :)

In the next post, I’ll cover essential DITA blogs, user groups, and Twitter accounts that you should follow to get connected with the DITA community.


Book review: The Language of Content Strategy

The Language of Content Strategy

I’ve developed a lot of content in my life as a tech writer, but content strategy is a field that still puzzles me. What does it mean exactly? Why is it so important? And what on earth are transclusions, wireframes, and folksonomy? I finally found the book that answered all my questions: The Language of Content Strategy.

Published by XML Press, The Language of Content Strategy is a very unique book. Edited by Scott Abel (best known at the Content Wrangler) and Rahel Anne Bailie, it provides short texts written by 52 experts in the field of content strategy. Each text describes a term used in content strategy, and the terms are grouped into five categories: core concepts, core deliverables, technical concepts, extended deliverables, and global content.

I was afraid that reading a “dictionary” of content strategy terms might be tedious, but I very much enjoyed The Language of Content Strategy. The language is crisp and dynamic, the descriptions read very well, and enough information is provided to clearly explain each term without drowning the reader with too many details. I often found myself underlining sections of the book and taking notes in the margins for topics I wanted to explore, and I know that I’ll go back to this book for reference.

Each text also includes a short bio of the contributor, which allowed me to come up with a list of other books I want to read, as well as blogs and Twitter accounts I want to follow. Clearly, the editors gave much thought to the content and organisation of this book. They know content!

If you want to find out more about content strategy, I highly recommend The Language of Content Strategy. It will be available on Amazon later this week.


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