As usual, this year’s fall lineup of the world’s major conferences for technical content managers and creators—Best Practices, Tekom Tcworld, DITA Europe, LavaCon, and Information Development World—kept content experts and professionals from around the globe living out of their suitcases from September through late November.

As a presenter and attendee at three of these conferences (CIDM Best Practices, Tekom Tcworld, and LavaCon), I had the opportunity to see several presentations from various experts in the industry. Based on these presentations and in talking with other attendees, I noticed what I believe is a significant shift in the conversation around DITA and structured content.

Rather than just talking about the fundamentals of DITA, more and more experts are now explaining how DITA and structured content are the building blocks for creating new content strategies and for utilizing new technologies that enable more effective and precise communication with people searching for product information.

Best Practices and Chatbots

I always find CIDM Best Practices to be an interesting conference, as it brings together a wide range of content professionals: managers, content strategists, and technical writers. Unlike conferences with a specific focus (such as DITA North America), Best Practices examines all of the latest trends and emerging practices for those working in content development.

The opening session featured Bob Kulhan, Business Improv Founder and CEO, who got everyone doing directed improv. People were literally thinking on their feet as they met and conversed with others in a way designed to foster effective communication, while also bolstering self-confidence.

Other sessions and panels looked at how tech doc professionals can effectively deal with mergers and acquisitions, working in Agile environments, and what to expect from today’s technical communication graduates.

But what really struck me were the presentations where tools and processes were being enabled by DITA. In particular, a talk by Hannan Saltzman, VP of Product Management at Zoomin, called “The Bots Are Coming” underscored this for me.

Chatbots have been a hot subject recently, as it is a technology platform that has matured significantly within the last couple of years. Its ability to deliver technical content in a new and novel way has put it on the radar of technical content creators. Saltzman talked about how conversational interactions with customers is gaining rapid adoption in some industries, and how major players in the market like Google are backing chatbot software development.

Saltzman’s four main steps in creating an effective chatbot interface

Saltzman’s Four Main Steps in Creating an Effective Chatbot Interface

  1. Set the correct affordance and build a response map
  2. Create a character for the chatbot
  3. Monitor the responses and interactions of the chatbot with user
  4. Provide good content for the chatbot to deliver

With the last point, Saltzman emphasized that this meant “topic-based, structured content that was semantically tagged.” When I approached him at the end of the presentation, he confirmed that in this case the content was DITA, and showed me a chatbot exchange where the user was presented with a DITA task topic that was appropriate to the situation.

This was my first time running across DITA as a key supportive technology, in this case, for chatbots.

Tekom Tcworld and iiRDS

The Tekom Tcworld conference held annually in Stuttgart, Germany, is the world’s largest gathering of technical communicators. This year, it’s where I found yet another good example of DITA as a key building block for new content delivery technologies.

One of the key topics featured at this year’s conference was intelligent information Request and Delivery Standard (iiRDS). This is an emerging metadata standard that the folks at Tekom started to work on last year. Essentially, it is a standardized metadata vocabulary for describing technical content.

Designed for use within Industry 4.0 environments, the idea is that users could integrate iiRDS-based technical documentation components created by multiple firms into an integrated whole. The typical use-case scenario is for documentation that describes something containing components from multiple firms, like a train engine, for example.

A core idea of iiRDS is that for every physical object produced by a “Smart Factory,” there is a corresponding object in the digital world that describes what the object is and how it works, revealing its properties, functions, possible states, and so on.

iiRDS is intended to be a standardized way for describing these virtual objects, and provide the means to automatically aggregate technical documentation for a collection of these objects created by different manufacturers. Currently there are two separate domains that have been created: one for software and the other for machinery. The expectation is that more industry domains will be described as demand increases.

iiRDS: The Mechanics

In terms of the mechanics, the components of iiRDS are expressed as RDF triplets, made up of a subject, predicate, and object, with additional information describing the relationship between metadata objects. These are packaged in a zip file and are associated with individual content files, such as individual HTML web files. But what creates the HTML and the associated RDF metadata? Well, in the two working demos I witnessed, it was done using DITA topics.

My colleague and I were given a demo of iiRDS in action by representatives from Parson AG, a technical communications consulting firm based out of Hamburg, Germany. They accomplished this by using specialized DITA content along with a DITA-OT plugin that could produce HTML output and associated RDF metadata describing the content within the iiRDS framework. The other demo I saw was in an extended presentation depicting the details of this process, concluding with a viewer that demonstrated how content created by multiple firms can be brought together into a single, unified document. This was also accomplished using DITA-based content. While I don’t doubt that iiRDS can be done using other systems and standards, I thought it was telling that the working examples I witnessed were based on DITA.

LavaCon and the Near-future of Content

LavaCon is one of my favourite conferences of the year, as its organizer and Master of Ceremonies Jack Molisani has a knack for putting together very interesting presenters who touch on the subject of content creation, management, and how to get your company’s message out there.

There were three presentations in particular that I thought were compelling because they also talked about using DITA as a building block. There was Hannan Saltzman (again), who this time was talking about leveraging DITA content along with descriptive metadata in order for work with voice-activated assistants, and how that work can also enhance SEO.

Rob Hanna, President and Co-Founder of Precision Content, talked about microcontent—content that covers one primary idea, fact, or concept, and is semantically labelled and easily scannable. Any good DITA technical writer worth their salt can see where this is going. While that’s not all there is to that presentation, the focus on authoring smaller, more concise components of content is one familiar to anyone working with DITA.

On the final day of the conference, Cruce Saunders, Founder and principal of [A], gave a solid keynote in which he talked about the development of intelligent content into such areas as master content models, content engineering, along with chatbots and personalization. The components necessary to make this happen include content that is created and built using structure, metadata, taxonomy and content reuse. While he only mentioned DITA once in his presentation, it is clear that it could be a key building block for the bold future of content that Saunders envisions.

DITA: A Foundation for Creating Better Content?

Judging by what I saw and heard at the conferences I attended this past fall, I think the answer to this question may be “yes.”

We are beginning to see the shift from basic questions (and presentations) about DITA fundamentals and implementations, to realizing the inherent potential of DITA and its role in innovative content delivery and experiences. These are all interesting new developments, as people are clearly beginning to think beyond simply meeting current content distribution goals with DITA, and are looking to new ways that it can be utilized.

Dynamic content delivery via chatbots relies upon well-described structured content so that the ‘bot can deliver information to the user. iiRDS also requires structured content fully described via metadata so that it can be used alongside other iiRDS content produced by a separate firm collaborating on a single, large product. Similarly, microcontent is not much of a stretch for DITA-based content.

The DITA standard has the flexibility needed to work in all of these new areas in the short term thanks to specialization. Proposals to extend metadata functionality in a subsequent version of DITA are currently being discussed at the OASIS DITA Technical Committee meetings.

These developments are ushering in a new era for structured content and DITA, as content visionaries begin to illuminate what’s possible in the near future. The challenge for those who work with the DITA standard is to ensure that it continues to evolve in the ways necessary to meet the new demands placed upon it.

This past conference season has certainly given me plenty to think about. It will be interesting to see how things have evolved by Spring 2018, when I brush off the winter’s dust from my suitcases for the next round of technical content conferences.