Thoughts on HATT Survey thoughts

Tom Johnson has had a look at the survey recently published by the HATT matrix website on help authoring and, by pulling in the results of some other surveys in the same area, has extrapolated some good conclusions from them.

He rightly points out that surveys need to be taken with a pinch of salt (he goes into the detail of why this is so), and that whilst the numbers involved would seem to be high enough it’s likely that the questions themselves need further consideration in future.

That said, there are two things I took from his post.

1. Know the problem before picking the tool
You may not be in the position to switch authoring tools, but if you are and you have investigated the market then please make sure that you are buying a tool that addresses the problems you have.

The presumption here is that if you have a legacy tool (like we currently do, FrameMaker 7.1) and it still works and meets your requirements then there is no good reason to upgrade. I’ve been victim of buying into the ‘keeping up’ frenzy that software manufacturers like to generate but once a product is reasonably mature it is likely it has most of the features you need already.

I’d offer Microsoft Word as an example here, I could probably still use Word 2.0 for the few documents I maintain in that format as the newer versions add functionality I don’t need (and which has ended up intruding on my workflow at times!).

The X-Pubs conference a couple of years ago had a common, if not publicised theme. Almost all of the presentations included the advice to figure out what problems you had, before deciding IF single sourcing (using XML as the base format) will help and that’s even before you consider the tools themselves.

2. DITA is still a theory
Whilst it is true that the number of people leveraging DITA for their content is rising, the numbers remain low.

Partly that will be due to the fact that few organisations/teams/people are in a position to quickly switch just because a new technology has come along, but and I’ve said this before (in fact I’ve said that I’ve said this before!) rollout of DITA remains harder than rolling out a bespoke authoring tool.

When costing an implementation of a new tool there are various factors and it’s very easy to see that you can get MadCap Flare up and running quickly, where as a DITA based solution takes investment in developing the environment. This is beginning to change but, as yet, the phrase ‘DITA support’ really only means that you can output to a DITA formatted XML file. The tools aren’t constructed around the DITA concepts, so you immediately lose a lot of the benefits that DITA can bring.

Until there is a tool that fully leverages DITA, building it into the workflow of using the tool, and helping the concepts become part of your daily working practice then it will continue to be a marginal player.

Which, in a way, is how it should be. DITA is not a tool, it is a technology and methodology. It is there to support the toolset and the writer. It’s just a shame that tool vendors continue to believe that THEIR format is best, refusing to budge from that position and shoe-horning ‘DITA-esque’ features into their software.

Anyway, the rest of the survey write up is interesting and worth a read but, as Tom says:

“I do love these surveys, though; if for no other reason than they give us something to talk about”


 
 
 

One Response to “Thoughts on HATT Survey thoughts”

  1. Tom Johnson
    16 October 2008 at 12:46

    Gordon, I enjoyed reading your post and insights. Re DITA, you may find the latest IT author podcast (“Mike Hamilton Talks About Flare”) interesting. Hamilton explains that they plan to incorporate DITA support into the next major release of Flare, but they plan to incorporate DITA in a way that users can leverage it, rather than just providing the XML file output that you described. Details were still fuzzy, but they’re aware of the problems you described and are trying to offer a solution that wouldn’t require a tech writer to be a programmer.