How to overcome everyday DITA issues

How to overcome everyday DITA issues

In a series of blog posts DITA-expert Wim Hooghwinkel describes some everyday DITA usability issues and lets us explain how we think to have solved these issues.

Wim: Let’s face it: XML editing has it’s challenges. Especially for an average author who is not into tagging. It’s been worse though. The days that we needed to run an obscure parsing tool to validate SGML content are far behind us and most current XML authoring tools support the users in many ways. But nevertheless, an everyday author working with XML content faces everyday problems. Not the least of them is how to avoid those horrible ‘xml is not valid’ messages that always seem to point to the wrong place. You need far developed investigator skills to find the typo in the XML code or the wrong placed element. Always just before a deadline or when preparing for the weekend.


Authors often complain to me: why is it so complex. It’s so much more easy to write directly in FrameMaker or Word. Then I repeat my DITA-consultants-mantra: well, it’s about reuse and single sourcing and multiple outputs and sharing and standards and semantics and on the long run…

There are many different authors. Some very technical oriented and others not at all. But as it comes to authoring itself the needs are not so different: write down information in a structured way. And the tools are there to help us fulfill our task — not to distract us from doing that. In essence, writing information is typing text, pressing enter, adding images and we use XML to get it all in a semantic structure.

It won’t help to just change tools

The nature of XML is that it’s tool independent. Create a file with oXygen or FontoXML, edit it with FrameMaker and publish using DITAToo and the OT. Or the other way round or with other tools. So what can we do to make authoring less complex and more fun for authors. Change tools? Mwah. Again a lot of hassle. And costs. Change the way we work, change assumptions about what authoring should involve is better. Change assumptions about content creation and content governance. That’s not easy either but you don’t need a budget for that.

It won’t help to just change tools. We can add tools however and make sure that for each function, for each role we use the right toolset. Authors need a tool that supports authoring. That’s it. What we do after authoring — that’s another issue.

Q&A with FontoXML

Returning issue for authors is the ‘invalid XML’ message. How do you handle that in FontoXML?

It’s a challenge to design an interface that is both user friendly and at the same time gives sufficient flexibility in creating or modifying structured content. In Fonto, XML is always valid. We have made the design-choice to not allow invalid XML at any time. We know that for specialists it can sometimes be handy to make temporarily invalid XML while building content. But our target group, SMEs, doesn’t edit XML directly.

The authoring tool should present sufficient means to create the content you need.

This is one of the thresholds in the development of FontoXML that we have to pass. It takes time. We push ourselves to make an interface that is very user-friendly. For complex XML structures, for example a hazard statement, we design a ‘one button’ command so the user doesn’t have to think about the xml structure behind it.

Bottom line is, in FontoXML you can not make invalid XML.

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