DITA in Context: At IA Summit 2007
The Information Architecture Summit (http://www.iasummit.org) is a great place to learn from thought leaders in user experience design, interaction design, information architecture, and related areas.
A few people at the conference come from a content background. As an example, Pabini Gabriel-Petit is a user experience architect with a publishing background. Her online magazine http://www.uxmatters.com has a more edited feel than most online publications.
For the most part, though, the attendees are design-oriented. Viewing the user experience as their base, they are interested in the relationship that the user has with the information environment, including but not limited to online user interfaces. To stretch these boundaries, the keynote speaker, Joshua Prince-Ramos, spoke about his career as an architect of buildings. The design process for buildings involves audience analysis, task analysis, and constraint satisfaction, just as the design of user interfaces and documentation do.
The IA Summit is incredibly generous with presentation materials, so you can look at the site to see what was presented. If you can't wait for the presenters to get back to their home bases and post their slides on the official site, you can check out http://www.slideshare.com, where versions of many of the talks may also appear.
I had two interesting hallway conversations about DITA during the conference.
John Allsopp spoke about the need for some standards for describing screen areas. There are a number of dimensions that serve as sources for terminology, such as layout (top, center, bottom) and function (header, content, footer). Accordingly, there is a lot of variability in the classes that are used to associate styles with these areas. He is interested in building a community to discuss how to standardize this terminology. Intriguingly, his paradigm coming in was based on HTML: what value should the class (and id?) attribute(s) have? But there's a case to be made that defining the semantics in an XML language would make it easier to support multiple dimensions. He's aware of the microformats community, but not of the <data> element in DITA. The <data> element might be one level of abstraction too deep for his purpose, but on the other hand, it does offer a great context in which to experiment. This leads to a question for the DITA community:
How would DITA support real screen layout in the HTML class attribute? (And would that support clash with existing DITA presumptions about how to populate the HTML class attribute?)
The second hallway conversation was with an attendee from IBM, Keith Instone. (Thanks to Jennifer Bohmbach for bringing us together.) After a brief conversation about topics and the basic topic types, we came to a question about information centers. When DITA topics are delivered in an Information Center as they are currently constructed, the intended interaction is that the user would switch from the application to the Information Center in order to explore supporting content. Since the DITA architecture is rich in means to integrate chunks of information, this leads to a potentially fruitful follow-on discussion.
How can the DITA architecture and the architecture of the contexts in which DITA is used be enhanced and extended to permit better integration of DITA content into user interfaces?
As Michael Priestly noted in his blog entry MP: CMS/DITA 2007 Day 1, the Total Information Experience (TIE) initiative at IBM is pointed in a similar direction, with a somewhat broader scope. It will be interesting to see how these communities, experience design and content architecture, influence one another as they become aware of each others' issues and approaches.
-- Bruce Esrig