Monday, December 8, 2008

Move over DITA – Chaos is coming!

I’ve never really questioned the need for hierarchical structure and imposed taxonomies, - until I watched my teenage daughter doing her homework several months ago.

Let me explain.

I’ve been working with topic based authoring, structured content and mark-up languages for over twenty years now. This highly formalized approach to technical documentation has always seemed to be the right approach to take in handling larges amounts of complex information, and delivering it in a way that enables relatively easy navigation.

I’ve seen them all come and go – SGML, DocBook, XML, CALS, DITA plus a ton of various industry and company standards. I’ve even served on several such standards committees and working groups in my time.

For those of us raised on more traditional media (i.e. the printed word) we are most comfortable with the book paradigm. That information should come in a structured format, i.e. Chapters with Headings and Sub-Headings, and that navigation is best accomplished by either a map to that structure (i.e. a Table of Contents), or an alphabetical listing of subjects covered (an Index).

Naturally when we started to deliver information electronically we carried that paradigm over. Sure we made a few concessions to the new media (for instance I remember having a long, and somewhat heated discussion on why we didn’t need page numbers on a CD deliverable); but the underlying print based model stayed. Because that’s what we were comfortable with. It’s what we naturally understood and it matched the way that we handled locating and using written information outside of the work environment.

In fact for most of my working life to date, the technology I used at work far out paced that I used outside of work.

But not any more.

Now the technology I use at home has generally outpaced that found in most workplaces. In particular social media and the way that we look for information online.

Helping my teenage daughter with a school project on Pearl Harbor made me realize that the new generation now entering the workforce has a completely different way of accessing information.

Of course the first thing she did was google “Pearl Harbor” and started visiting links. First stop was Wikipedia.

Then she got on Facebook and YahooIM and started using messaging to ask friends who were online for recommendations. These friends were literally from all around the world, so she was given access to resources that gave totally different perspectives than those given in the classroom. As I watched she soon had six different windows open on her iMac and was pulling information from multiple sources into her own document. Building the structure and narrative as she went.

One friend suggested going to a social bookmarking site and searching using a variety of user applied tags. Instead of taxonomy she was now applying folksonomy.

Of course being a bibliophile and a bit of a history geek I had a few good old-fashioned print books on World War II sitting in my home office. I proudly placed them on the edge of my daughter’s desk and suggested she look through those for information on Pearl Harbor too.

She dutifully picked up a couple of the books and started flicking pages over, skimming through the contents.

“Why don’t you use the Table of Contents of Index?” I asked.

“That just confuses me. I can find stuff quicker this way,” she replied, looking in bemusement at her obviously aged father.

I sat back and watched her navigate the books for a few minutes. She quickly found what she needed – and then I realized what she was doing. She was “browsing” just as if she was online.

That’s when I started to question the paradigm that’s informed the way I’ve thought about online documentation for over two decades. The book driven, structured paradigm may have been ideal for my generation, but what about the new generation?

For kids raised as part of the “digital generation” where the first place they go to find out information is the internet and social networks, is the book an irrelevant model?

Yes the information they access still needs some sort of mark-up and tagging so the search engines can find it. It still needs metadata to enable user tagging. But instead of strictly enforced hierarchies, what is being built and accessed is more of a flat ocean of information (or a “Content Pool”) that users search rather than navigate, and then dip into to find the components they need to build their own solutions.

So where does that leave current favored structured standards like DITA? I believe they have a place in more rigidly defined and regulated environments, but how long they will remain useful is open to question.

As for more general applications I believe we need to stop trying to shoe-horn the current “flavor-du-jour” standard onto every publishing project, and instead take a step back and look at how your kids do their homework. Because in five to ten years they will be your new workforce, and perhaps more importantly, your new customers.


Anonymous said...

Interesting! I'm working on a DITA based project now that is using the ocean for pulling topics directly for daily use and also using the book built from that ocean indexed and titled to satisfy the archival status quo.

At least for now

Anne Gentle said...

You're in good company with your observations - the MacArthur foundation just published a study on teens and digital media. A quote:

"The most extensive U.S. study on teens and their use of digital media finds that America’s youth are developing important social and technical skills online – often in ways adults do not understand or value."

Here's the link:{3A699BFD-3FA0-4793-8328-9E542E5280C9}&notoc=1

Michael Hughes said...

I think there is more leeway in DITA than people think. The "structure" really occurs at the topic level, not at the document level. In fact, right now I am seeing DITA's capability to have a very structured TOC (for those who insist) but use its relationship table feature to define the "in product" experience that favors quick answers and a task-based progressive disclosure. In short, I agree with your observation, our user is not someone who reads, but one that "looks up" stuff as needed. Nothing wrong with that, let's accommodate it.

Paul said...

I really like your example. We can learn a lot about methods of accessing information from our children.

I also think many feel the older "book driven" paradigm is no longer the preferred method for information access by newer generations.

But does this mean DITA will have a short term of acceptance? DITA isn't about books, it's about topics. In many cases, information harnessed through social media needs some type of control. It also needs to be combined with static, reviewed/approved information.

It seems that a topic-oriented architecture is just right for that job.

Ethan Duty said...

I agree with Paul. Maybe DITA isn't THE answer to topic based authoring, but it's definitely a step in the right direction.

Hierarchies won't disappear, they'll just become webs instead of trees. We still need to understand the flow of information. Pearl Harbor is one topic, but it's also part of other topics. The hierarchy is what will take information seekers from learning about the attack to how it affects everything else.

The whole information flow and association has order, but looks like chaos because the associations are endless.