GUIDE 2022

What is Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA)?

DITA, or Darwin Information Typing Architecture, is an open standard, end-to-end architecture for Extensible Markup Language (XML) used for creating, structuring, and delivering technical information in different forms. In the beginning, IBM developed DITA to reuse the content in product documentation in an efficient manner. But later, in 2004, IBM donated its DITA work to the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) for further development and release to the public. OASIS approved the DITA 1.0 specification in 2005 and the DITA 1.1 specification in 2007 in a formal way.

Darwin in DITA refers to Charles Darwin - a famed British naturalist, geologist, and biologist - who developed the scientific concept of trait inheritance. In this architecture, this refers to the parent-child relationships of topics. Maintained by the OASIS DITA Technical Committee, DITA is a framework with a set of architectural features to support high-quality information delivery. In most cases, DITA stays in use in computer software, information technology and services, semiconductors, telecommunications, and the medical device market.

To learn more about DITA architecture, continue reading this post. This article serves as a roadmap for DITA: what it is, its key features, and supporting tools.

DITA Purpose

The content stored in your documentation has significance, and we must treat anything that is important to the company as an asset. Generating and leaving that valuable content inside a file limits your ability to perform an action on it, and whatever you can do, you need to use awkward ways to do it. Creating documents using standard tools in static files is an inefficient approach to writing, updating, sharing, and handling your information. DITA is an overall way of solving that inefficiency. Here is how DITA affects your content in a positive way:

  • Manages readable information
  • Streamlines the content creation process
  • Enhances the quality of the content by standardizing it
  • Enables the use of content in many different ways (reuse, publish, translate)

Though there are several benefits to DITA, it all boils down to one thing: remaining efficient with your content to save time and money.

DITA Examples

The following section of the article contains multiple simple examples of DITA. The examples show some ways how DITA is used.

Dita map with a simple relationship table

The following example shows how to interpret a basic three-column relationship table which is used to maintain associations between concept, task, and reference material. Here is an example that contains the markup for a simple relationship table:

<map>

<!-- … –>

<reltable>

<relheader>

<relcolspec type=”concept”/>

<relcolspec type=”task”/>

<relcolspec type=”reference”/>

</relheader>

<relrow>

<relcell>

<topicref href=”A.dita”/>

</relcell>

<relcell>

<topicref href=”B.dita”/>

</relcell>

<relcell>

<topicref href=”C1.dita”/>

<topicref href=”C2.dita”/>

</relcell>

</relrow>

</reltable>

</map>

A DITA-aware application might illustrate the relationship table in the graphical form:

type=”concept” type=”task” type=”reference”

A B C1

C2

Upon the generation of output, the topics have the following linkage:

A

Links to B, C1, and C2

B

Links to A, C1, and C2

C1, C2

Links to A and B

How the cascade attribute functions

This example illustrates how we can use the cascade attribute to fine-tune the way values for the platform attribute apply to topics references in a DITA map. Here, a DITA map has many topics that apply to Linux, Windows, and Mac OS. It also contains a topic that just applies to users running the application on Linux.

<map product=”PuffinTracker” platform=”win linux mac” cascade=”nomerge”>

<title> Puffin Tracking Software </title>

<topicref href=”intro.dita” navtitle=”Introduction”/>

<topicref href=”setup.dita” navtitle=”Setting up the product”/>

<topicref href=”linux-instructions.dita” navtitle=”Linux instructions” platform=”linux”/>

</map>

The platform attribute values set at the map level cascade throughout the map and apply to the “Introduction” and “Setting up the product” topics. But as the cascade attribute value is set to nomerge, the value of the platform attribute for the “Linux instructions” topic does not merge with the values that cascade from above in the DITA map. The effective platform attribute value for linux-instructions.dita is “linux”.

The same output is generated by the following mark-up:

<map product=”Puffin Tracker” platform=”win linux mac”>

<title> Puffin Tracking Software </title>

<topicref href=”intro.dita” navtitle=”Introduction”/>

<topicref href=”setup.dita” navtitle=”Setting up the product”/>

<topicref href=”linux-instructions.dita” navtitle=”Linux instructions” platform=”linux” cascade=”nomerge”/>

</map>

DITA Benefits

Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) offers many benefits. Some of the major benefits of this architecture are as follows:

  • Content Management - DITA systems offer a single content repository accessible to all team members. A number of users can search, author, edit, review, and publish through this source, which helps ensure that all users are on the same page. It boasts quite effective search capabilities with taxonomy and metadata. With these capabilities, users can track the changes and find, use, and manage the content with ease.
  • Reuse - Reusing content ensures consistency in publishing results, as well as reduces costs. With DITA’s topic-based authoring, it is easier to reuse content. DITA enables you to reuse the content in an effective manner sans copying and pasting. You can update content with ease in a single place and release a global update.
  • Publishing - Just with a push of a button, DITA content can be published to a number of different media formats and devices, thereby reducing the publication cost that is spent on formatting by 30-50% in most cases. DITA applies formatting at the time of publishing content, which removes the need for manual formatting and outputs in formatted results for multiple media.
  • Translation and Localization - DITA lets you build content translation packages that you need and content that has already been localized, which decreases the translation costs. Hereto CCMS is responsible for tracking which content is the latest. Since the content is divided into sub-topics, localization gets quite manageable.
  • Interoperability and Scalability - DITA is an open standard, indicating that content generated in DITA is transferable to other systems with no complex and pricey conversion method. Also, DITA is an XML-based standard, which means it is both human- and machine-readable. This enables connections with other solutions, such as Sharepoint, WordPress, Mindtouch, and more.
  • Workflow - In DITA, content creation is associated with agile product development as content is divided further into smaller topics. Concurrent content development and reuse indicate that you can create and release documentation at an increased speed. DITA systems offer a process to assign and track work using workflows. A collaborative authoring and review mechanism in a single-source boosts efficiency.

DITA Key Features

DITA includes features designed to enhance the quality and effectiveness of documentation. The major features of DITA are:

Topic Orientation

DITA content is available as topics - each as an individual XML file. In most cases, every topic covers a single subject with a purpose, for instance, a conceptual topic that gives an overview or a procedural topic that discusses how to accomplish a task. The structure of the content should resemble the file structure in which it is contained.

Reuse

Another key feature of DITA is its ability to reuse content. This feature ensures consistent documentation and reduces the effort and time required to generate and update content. The main foundation for content reuse is topics that are reusable across multiple publications. Reuse within DITA occurs on two levels: topic reuse and topic element reuse. Topic reuse involves reusing a complete topic, whereas topic element reuse is when you reuse an element that belongs to a topic, such as a step, note, or paragraph. The level of reuse can get quite granular - you can parse and reuse paragraphs or words across topics. 

Specialization

DITA’s specialization feature enables the creation of new element types and attributes derived from existing types. Through this feature, DITA can accommodate new topic and element types and attributes as needed for certain industries or organizations. In addition, it allows specialization-aware processors to include specialization-specific processing to current base processing. There are two types of DITA specialization:

  • Standard Specialization - Developed from either topic or map types, these specializations enable the addition of new document types to DITA. 
  • Domain Specialization - These specializations, developed from elements defined with a map or topic, define markup for a particular information domain or subject area.

Information Typing

Information typing is a methodology that supports DITA. It separates out different types of information into separate topics. This practice is designed to keep technical documentation focused and modular, hence making it clearer to the readers, easier to search and navigate, and further suitable for reuse. It is also used in other processes, such as Information Mapping.

DITA categorizes important business information by communication purpose or information type called topics. Topics focus on one subject require no additional resources to understand the information. This organization enables increased reuse opportunities and provides understandable information to your audience. It also helps the authors develop new information in a consistent way and eliminate obsolete or redundant details. The three main topic types are as follows:

  • Concept - Provides conceptual information about something and contains definitions, rules, and guidelines.
  • Task - Provides procedural information that describes how to accomplish a task and lists a collection of steps that users follow to generate the intended result.
  • Reference - Provides supporting information in tables that describe command syntax, programming requirements, and other reference material containing factual content.

Metadata

DITA features a number of metadata elements and attributes, both at the topic level and within elements. Metadata is applicable in both DITA topics and DITA maps. The metadata assigned in the DITA map can supplement or override the metadata assigned in DITA topics. This design facilitates the reuse of DITA topics in various DITA maps and use-specific contexts.

Modularity

Modularity is a process of creating large complex things in smaller, self-contained components. DITA enables modular document development, which includes reusing topics and treating any group of topics or elements as a modular document component. XML technologies like XPath make modularity easy to implement. DITA can benefit from such complementary XML technologies.

Maps

DITA maps are documents for organizing topics and other resources into a structured collection of information. They specify hierarchy and relationships among the topics and support the definition of non-hierarchical relationships, such as groups and matrices. The maps use elements to reference topics, DITA maps, and non-DITA resources, such as HTML and TXT files. In addition, these maps enable the scalable reuse of content across multiple contexts. DITA maps support these uses:

  • Defining the information architecture
  • Defining which topics to build for a specific output
  • Defining navigation
  • Defining related links
  • Defining the authoring context

Inheritance

Inheritance is one of the key technical features of DITA since it enables the specialization of information types. Inheritance, in object-oriented programming, is a method of creating new program module classes using already-defined classes. DITA is built around the principle of inheritance. The DITA base content model displays that even the three base information types (concept, task, and reference) come from the topic proto information type and share a common structure having characteristics they inherit. Its inheritance model makes it easy to specialize topics or elements within topics. All you need is to define how an element differs from its immediate ancestor.

Conclusion

The value in DITA from the content perspective is that focusing topics on a single type of information and one objective makes the content quite usable and findable by the users. DITA provides you with the building blocks to help you improve the quality of your content in every way.

FAQs

Following are a few of the most asked questions about Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA):

What information types are in DITA?

In DITA 1.3, many supported information types are there. The topic is the main topic type. In addition, there is a specialized set of topics for learning and training content. Each latest version of DITA has additional support as users request extra types of topics.

What deliverables or publishing channels do DITA support?

The shift in information delivery is to provide content as much as possible to the point of use as integrated help systems, sites, or how-to pages. By growing and expanding DITA transformations, we can use DITA’s topic-oriented content to exploit the latest features or delivery channels as they get available.