Creating DITA Content in Microsoft Word (Well, Almost): Interview With Michael Boses

In this exclusive interview with TheContentWrangler.com, Michael Boses, Chief Technology Officer for Invision Research Corporation, introduces his firm’s new suite of DITA authoring and productivity tools designed to help technical communicators to author DITA content naturally in Microsoft Word without struggling with an XML editing environment.

TCW: Michael, thanks for agreeing to chat with us today. For our readers who don’t know who you are, please tell us a little about yourself, your past experience, and your role at In.vision Research Corporation.

MB: Thank you, Scott.  Starting in 1991, I was fortunate enough to be involved in content management and workflow during what might be called “the early days.” By 1996, it was apparent that the industry as a whole was struggling to move projects from pilot to production – it was all too common to see people spend millions of dollars on a pilot and then never roll-out. We launched In.vision in 1996 to develop internet based document technologies that actually got deployed – an ironic mission statement, but a very needed perspective at the time.

It almost humorous to look back now, but the company founders made a pact to price our pilot software so low that the company would go out of business if projects did not roll out. It was ludicrous that people were paying a million dollars to “test drive” document technologies at that time. My role throughout the company’s history has been to help set product direction, architecture, and to contribute to the design and analysis required for large projects. I am officially the CTO, but that involves a lot of hats.

TCW: Many of our readers work in the technical communication and large document publishing arenas. What software tools does In.vision Research produce to meet the challenges our audience faces daily?

MB: In.vision is very focused on bridging the gap between the technologies that organizations need to meet their business goals and the tools that users need to be more effective and productive. Specifically with technical communication and large-scale document publishing, this means supporting the rigorous XML requirements of large organizations while allowing users, both technical writers and subject matter experts, to author documents naturally in Microsoft Word without struggling with an XML editing environment.

TCW: You mention Microsoft, and with your Office products, you must work closely with them. Can you explain your relationship with Microsoft? What type of partnership do you have and how does this partnership benefit your clients?

MB: Once upon a time we offered our own Java based XML editor and thought we were competing against Microsoft. What we finally realized was that Microsoft was not our competitor – the end user was! We would discuss the advantages of XML to enterprise IT strategists, and everyone would get incredibly excited at what could be done with this technology. But the end users were begging everyone to just let them stay in Word, and it was in that sense that they became our “competitors” – because they did not want to change.

What’s interesting is that our Java XML editor was probably the most “Word-like” XML editor at the time, and possibly even since then. Even though we considered the product to be “easy-to-use” we struggled with a problem that still hinders all of the XML editor vendors out there today: executive management loves the concept of XML authoring, but one demonstration of what the users will have to go through can kill all the momentum.

That is why we began developing an XML word processor in Microsoft Word. It wasn’t so much that we wanted to partner with Microsoft – we wanted to partner with the end user who depended on the Word environment to be productive and just wanted to do a good job. Having said that, Microsoft is actually a great company to partner with, and nothing like what we expected when we were a 100 percent Java shop. 

People get the impression that if you partner with Microsoft they are going to steal your ideas. We have seen nothing like that. Microsoft has a very clear picture of where they are going and how they want partners to add value to Microsoft products. If you develop products that are in line with Microsoft’s strategy they support you not only with development resources, but also with marketing – I have actually been at customer meetings where a Microsoft executive was flown to the meeting in a corporate jet. Unfortunately, I flew coach, but the key is that Microsoft is not afraid to stand there in front of the customer with one of their partners and say, “we are in this together and we commit to deliver to you as a team.” That is incredibly important to me.

TCW: Increasingly, technical communication professionals are realizing the value of XML authoring. To date, only a small percentage of writers have made the move. The vast majority of writers are stymied – for a variety of reasons. Some don’t understand how to make the business case to management, others are unsure whether they (or their staff) can successfully adapt to writing structured content for reuse, and still others are afraid of moving to a new authoring environment. What is your perspective on these challenges?

MB: We attempt to address some of these challenges with our products, while others go away as people begin to understand XML better.

Perhaps the most critical of the things you mention is that technical writers want to determine how XML will affect what and how they write. The truth is XML does not affect the approach to authoring at all. XML only changes how content is stored – not how it is written! The writers themselves decide how content is to be structured and then create (or adopt) an XML schema that enforces the structure. This is a really important distinction because it shows how important the schema is. With the correct schema that meets the business requirements of the author, adopting XML becomes much less of an issue. However, using a schema that does not meet the business needs of the authors is a sure way to make life difficult for people.

Once an organization understands how they want to structure content, our products come into the picture by allowing them to author in Microsoft Word, and by allowing the structure and rules associated with the schema to be translated into the Word environment in a way that makes it easiest for users – whether they are technical writers or subject matter experts. The result is that the authoring experience is natural even if the requirements of the schema are quite rigorous.

Finally, adopting tools and standards that do not disrupt the organization’s infrastructure or business processes makes it much easier to sell the concept to management. I’m not saying that there is no change—but it is much easier for people to see that it is change for the better and what the direct benefits will be.

TCW: It sounds like this is where DITA, the hottest topic in technical communication circles, comes in.  As you know, the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) is designed for technical publications, and really suits the technical writer. Many technical communicators are hoping that Microsoft will turn Word 2007 into an XML authoring tool where they can use DITA and that can keep pace with Adobe FrameMaker, XMetaL and Arbortext Editor. Most analysts we speak with say the “I’ll wait for Word” strategy is a bad one because Word 2007 will not offer the functionality technical writers need. The confusion, they say, stems from Microsoft’s announcement that their Office line of products will support XML. What does your Xpress Author for Microsoft Word product do that Microsoft Word cannot do alone? Can you help our readers understand what Word 2007 will and won’t do?

MB: I would agree that the confusion comes from the term “support for XML” which is at the same time accurate and easy to misunderstand. What Microsoft is saying is that Office will allow standard XML files to be viewed, manipulated, and saved. In the truest sense, this is support of the standard. But it says nothing about the user experience.

Word 2007 uses XML as a native format, and it allows the user to author with the schema of choice. This can work well for the very technical user who is familiar with the details of the schema and the technical rules it represents.

Let’s take HTML as an example that everyone is familiar with. Notepad supports HTML since it allows the user to load a file, edit it, and save it in a manner that is compatible with a compliant HTML browser. However, most people do not choose to create HTML in Notepad because it is not a good user experience for them.

Obviously, Word is way more sophisticated than Notepad, and provides lots of XML features. But the analogy holds, in terms of the user experience, because neither Notepad nor Word 2007 are designed to implement the technology in the absence of a very technically-savvy user.

In.vision’s Xpress Author for Microsoft Word sits between the XML schema rules and the authoring interface. It is an extensive product that has been over five years in the making. However the result is simple – all of the XML technical complexity is removed, and the user simply creates content in Word with a normal authoring experience whether the schema is DITA or a custom schema.

TCW: What DITA-specific functionality have you included to help writers take full advantage of DITA and overcome the many learning and usage challenges that DITA presents?

MB: Well, we actually have a suite of products. Whenever a technology comes along that is as hot as DITA, everyone jumps in and adds a few features to their existing tools so that they can “join the party.” But seriously, meeting the needs of tech writers who want to move production documentation to DITA takes more than adding map support to an existing XML editor. To begin with, the product has to meet the business requirements of technical writers, and not all writers or all projects are the same. We thought a lot about how moving to DITA is different for a team creating aircraft maintenance manuals than for a team creating user assistance tools for large-scale software. And it is not as simple as one group might be coming from a Frame orientation while the other might be more used to Macromedia RoboHelp.

All this led us to the need for new products that provide a technical writer perspective on controlling entire DITA projects from initial map creation through authoring, and finally, conditional publishing. We are excited about our suite of tools because we haven’t seen anything comparable in the market so far.

image

To begin with, the Xpress DITA Studio is an integrated design environment that allows the tech writer to create and maintain a long-term documentation project. The broader view of content provided by DITA Studio makes designing and implementing a reuse strategy something that can easily be achieved. A lot of effort has gone into reconciling DITA maps with the TOC orientation that has traditionally been so important to tech writers. Because a DITA map can be a culmination of a TOC, browsing order, topic relationships and more, DITA Studio provides filters and panes that separate these aspects of a map for easier editing and maintenance. This also create a kind of “what if” environment that helps architect the overall content model.

The authoring interface is a seamless component of the design environment, which allows the technical writer to create or edit individual topics within a larger context. As content is created, indices may be maintained at the topic, map, and project levels. The ability to see and change indices globally allows the tech writer to easily create and maintain consistent index vocabularies. 

Add to this the Xpress DITA Accelerator for Word which is designed to allow subject matter experts to author topics outside of DITA Studio, and you have a workflow of content between technical writers and SME’s.

TCW: That’s an invitation if ever I’ve heard one. How can our readers learn more about XPress DITA Studio? And, at what upcoming trade shows and conferences will you be demonstrating this solution?

MB: First off, feel free to download our brand new DITA Studio brochure. If you would like to see Xpress DITA Studio for MS Word you can contact our sales manager Dave Dalton via email. We also plan to participate in these upcoming conferences:

TCW: Thanks for your valuable time and for your effort to help my readers understand the DITA authoring tools landscape. I’m certain many technical communication professionals will be interested in learning more about your exciting new product suite.

MB: Thanks for your time Scott, and I look forward to speaking with you again and getting your thoughts about the our new DITA tools.

Tags: , , , , ,

Comments are closed.