Friday, July 11, 2008

Why Migrating From Word To An XML-Based Document Authoring Tool Won’t Be Easy …

Every once in a while, you run into a situation that supports a position of yours to a tee. Here’s one…

XML-based authoring tool vendors claim their products are getting easier to use with each release. They’re right. Comparing today’s xMetal to the original is like comparing night and day. However, my position is that there are four unfortunate corollaries to this trend that are going to make life tough for many doc groups in the next few years.

1 - As the tools get better, the need for authors to understand the underlying technologies is apparently declining. For example, if a tool lets you define styles by using a dialog box, do you need to know CSS coding, or even what CSS is? Which brings us to…

2 - As the tools get easier to use, there’s a sense in many companies that there's less need for training.

3 - XML-based authoring tool vendors talk about authors using their tools to create content much the way authors do now with Word. The implication is that migration from Word to an XML-based authoring tool is conceptually similar and thus shouldn’t be too difficult.

4 - The XML-based authoring world is very different from the Word world, and those differences are going to create some unfortunate assumptions.

The result of these corollaries is a lot of confusion, which brings up that situation I mentioned. (Before I proceed, let me make clear that what follows is not a slap at xMetal. It’s just that a very basic feature of xMetal illustrates the four corollaries perfectly.)

To create a new document in xMetal, you select File > New.

The first decision point, and problem, is whether to create a document from a template or a blank document. It’s confusing since any new document is “blank.” What this is really asking is whether to create a new document based on a DITA template or a non-DITA template, specifically XML or SGML. If authors understand the difference between DITA, XML, and SGML, it’s an easy decision. But if authors don’t understand the difference, haven’t been trained, and are thinking in Word terms, the very first step in a new project is confusing.

The second decision point, and problem, is when you decide that the General tab options make sense since you want to create an XML document rather than a DITA document. The help even says to choose the DTD, schema, or rules file for the document you want to create. But if you select the Blank Well-Formed XML Document option, there’s no place to choose the DTD, schema, or rules file. You’re just thrown into a new document. But if you select the Blank XML Document option, xMetal asks you to select the DTD, schema, or rules file. So there’s something different between the Blank Well-Formed XML Document and Blank XML Document options, but what? And isn’t a document that’s well-formed, whatever that is, better than a document that’s apparently not well-formed? And why would any tool let you create one? It all makes sense once you understand that the Blank XML Document option is really the Blank ‘Valid’ XML Document option, if you can find someone to explain this. If not, authors coming over from Word will again be lost on their first step.

The solution, of course, is to understand XML’s underlying technologies, ideally through directed training as opposed to floundering through a new technology. This may seem like a lot to read into one menu selection, but there are many assumptions behind that one menu selection that, if unaddressed, will leave new authors lost and frustrated.

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