Finally — DITA playing nicely in a corporate web site

Written by Joe Pairman, Consulting Practice Lead, Mekon.

Clients come to Mekon with complex content problems. More often than not, DITA XML proves a suitable standard to house their content, and we build on that to help them design their information model structures and reuse strategy. The driving focus for this effort is always the needs of the end user. The most basic need is of course for users to find and access the content in suitable channels, and one of the key channels tends to be the organization’s main corporate web site.

But publishing DITA XML into a web CMS is often a messy business. Several times, I have worked through the design and development process to get DITA-sourced content into systems such as Ektron and TeamSite. The tricky questions are always:

  • How do I get the DITA content to show up seamlessly alongside marketing content, without kludgy workarounds such as iframes?
  • What happens when I revise content, or even delete pages from a batch of updated content? (Automatic deletion is a surprisingly tricky problem!)
  • For content with complex variations (i.e. most DITA content), why do I have to republish a complete batch of content for each variant, when I just want to update one topic?

A dirty little secret of the CMS landscape is that even if a vendor offers both a Web CMS and a DITA / component CMS, there is not necessarily an out-of-the-box connector between them. The costs of building a connector and addressing those tricky questions are pushed to the client, almost as an afterthought — “oh, you wanted to actually push content between our systems?”

This is why I am so excited about the XML Documentation Add-on for Adobe Experience Manager. The name may not sound terribly inspiring, but the functionality is: a place to manage your DITA content within a top-of-the-line modern Web CMS. This removes the need for a custom connector between your DITA content and the Web CMS — it’s in there already!

Of course, this is only really useful if the DITA management is any good. I’ve been around long enough to see a lot of half-hearted attempts at grafting component/DITA functionality onto an existing CMS. (Though I shouldn’t mention names, document management systems have been particularly poor in this regard.) Vendors often underestimate the challenge of making a usable system that nonetheless exposes the power of DITA reuse and specialization. So I moderated my expectations when I went to look at the AEM documentation add-on at the Tcworld conference. I grilled the Adobe team with many questions and walked away very impressed. Workflow, reuse relationships, and a sensible approach to taxonomy are all there. The publication model includes the ability to pick any version of any topic — very helpful when you’re dealing with highly modularized product info. And those tricky questions on the publishing process — all covered well. You can seamlessly publish DITA content to a web page alongside “regular” CMS content. It keeps track of changes and deletions, and you can tweak one topic then decide which of the pages that use it should be updated accordingly.

Adobe have just released version 2 of the documentation add-on, which makes management of large quantities of content easier and lets you trigger batch processes or notifications when you’re publishing.

This has to be the future of intelligent content, I think — proper fine-grained control of complex content, within a Web CMS that itself is a front-runner in personalization and customer experience.

Info on the XML Documentation Add-on for AEM

Contact us for advice on managing complex content for multi-channel delivery and improved customer experience: email or call +44-20-8722-8400