Effective UX in a DITA world

So, you’ve made the commitment to clean up your many different content formats, organize them in a DITA structure, and build a beautiful world of cogent taxonomy-consistent content types and a tagging workflow that will allow people to find the latest versions of content they seek. Congratulations! Embarking on the restructuring of your content is not for the faint-of-heart.

Here at Tahzoo, when it comes to DITA, we’ve seen many versions of the “before” and successful deployment of the “after”. And there are a few things we’ve learned along the way. Often, the primary goal of such a large undertaking is to improve the user experience. To make it easier for users to retrieve and interact with vital content. But without a strong UX team in tow to help take a strong IA and give it visual context and a navigation structure, you might just be rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.

We thought we might share some of our learnings:


  1. It’s no small undertaking.
    When you sign up to put your content into a structured DITA environment, you’re signing up to do the work. It’s one thing to get Information Architects, Content Managers, Developers, and Authors into a room to discuss a grand future. It’s all together another thing to develop a plan and smooth transformation system to take the current content across the Red Sea and into a DITA promised land. This requires detailed inventories, creating a decision-making process to decide what content should be transformed, and the elbow grease to structure and tag the “committed” content so that it works within the new system you are creating.
  2. Choice Architecture in UX. 
    We live in a Google world. In our experience, ineffective search is most often the pain point that moves a client to the world of structured content. While most of our clients would love it if we were able to wave a magic wand and make the search bar the center of our universe, no one has access to Google Algorithms. And a new search approach won’t solve the problem. So, to improve the user’s ability to find the content they seek, any DITA engagement should be accompanied by a carefully thought-out architecture that helps the user feel in control of their search process. Beyond search, a user should be able to find the information they need through a carefully thought-out path, with easy navigation and simple choices. Identify the top 20 important user paths and design a UX system to fulfill those requirements. That usually includes letting go of past navigational structures and challenging some sacred navigational cows (read: if you’re still living and dying by the mega menu, you’re probably dying by the mega menu).
  3. The role of DITA in Choice Architecture.
    Enhancing the searchability and findability of content also involves effective authoring. In fact, writing for searchability and findability is one of the principles of minimalism in technical communication. Likewise, using audience-focused messaging (in other words, writing in the language of the audience) and clear, concise headings consisting of 3 to 12 words makes content ‘findable’. Effective DITA authoring practices are equally important for good searchability, especially writing effective short descriptions. Too many authors simply ignore short descriptions. Others write fluffy, meaningless short descriptions (i.e. “this section describes widgets.”) that do not inform the reader or enhance search results. A good short description is informative and enhances the title. Let’s use a fishing analogy. A reader browsing a title is like a fish nibbling at bait. The short description sets the hook, and the rest of the content reels the reader in.
  4. Publication Centric Design and CaaS.
    Users think in terms of books, like publications that are curated to best meet their needs. It’s likely that your enormous pool of content is filled with beautifully structured and governed content. Some of the content is structured and looks like it should be in the library from Beauty and the Beast. Conversely, other content was willy-nilly slammed in there and piled high like my uncle Oscar’s desk. We recommend using a publication-centric approach, making sure there is no singular floating content. If it’s not a natural part of a publication, then ask if the content really needs to be there. Or is it possible that there is other like-minded content that should form a new collection. These are hard decisions that must be made at the content manager level. The best place to start is to look at the usability data around current content. If a piece of content hasn’t been viewed more than a couple times in the last few years, should it stay in the current structure?

    The Content as a Service model (CaaS) is also an important alternative here, and one that will grow in importance. Consumers will demand more control over the content and its delivery. Publication-centric design is unlikely to go away, but consumers increasingly demand control over what content is delivered and how it is delivered.
  5. The power of a good archive.
    One of the biggest insights clients surmise when they take inventory and begin to structure their content is the realization that the current archiving process (if there is one) hasn’t been used or hasn’t been governed consistently. With many clients, their content is like the Hotel California – content can check in any time it likes, but it can never leave. So, start where you need to start. But as you begin the content transformation process, it’s important that you create a place for content that is Redundant, Outdated, or Trivial (ROT) to be archived. When you begin the migration process, make sure to develop a proper archiving means and method to allow for expired content to have a place to go. Make sure content has a ‘born on date’ and is tagged with regular review cycles so your new, shiny DITA world stays current and actively managed. AND make sure you put the authoring resources and workflows in place to ensure this happens effectively.

    In The Stranger’s Long Neck, Gerry McGovern describes an inventory of Microsoft’s support site. Of the 10 million articles on the site, more than 3 million articles had not been touched since they were published. Think about the cost of producing all that content that no one ever used! Not to mention the cost of maintaining that content on the site. Archiving those 3 million articles was much better for the business and for the users.
  6. Visual representation of your content.
    Everything makes a difference. Line spacing or leading. The way you represent actionable, clickable links. How your table of contents is organized. The minimalization of accordions within accordions. The way you filter information in a search. The colors you use. The selection of imagery and icons to support the display of content. The consistent use of headers and the organization of breadcrumbs. Buttons, tables, mobile, toggles… and the list goes on and on. If you’re making the effort to restructure your content, there is an inordinate amount of UX and UI work needed to make sure that your hard work is maximized in the site. We help our clients think through these UX and UI issues every day
  7. A user-led journey.
    It’s likely the reason you are in the process of restructuring your site is because it was conceived and built by SME’s and developers, who focused on solving problems they had not fully validated with actual users. Unless you have done the work to interview many users at various levels of experience to identify their pain points and chart their primary motivations, you are likely to reinvent the same wheel. Do one-on-one interviews to fully understand the problem and then evolve the proposed solution with those same users. Make repeated changes to the site as you discover and solve new usability issues. When you move to a structured DITA format, you’re making the commitment to create something entirely new. And always keep the user in mind. Great UX begins with empathy. Put yourself 100% in the user’s shoes.
  8. Getting people on board.
    In our experience, one of the biggest challenges involves change management at all levels in the client organization. In the C Suite, most questions are centered around cost and schedule. But at the author level, the concern is much more fundamental. Many content groups are directly affected by this commitment to a structured format, so you must be prepared to answer the many aspects of this simple question: “What does this mean for me?” There is always handwringing around large content restructurings. Team members may be required to learn new systems, asked to think about their approach in new ways (i.e., publication-centric design), feel like their job is threatened, or asked to follow new workflows and approval processes. Content Managers may have to build justification for more resources to do the work. The change management around an undertaking like this cannot be underrepresented. Much like a successful basketball team, you must prepare a man-to-man defense strategy, making sure you have team members working at all levels of the organization to build trust and consensus along the way.

    Finally, you can’t talk about building consensus without discussing the technical requirements for creating and managing content. Too often, authors are expected to work with poor tools, and no consideration is given to their experience or needs. The correct authoring tools can be the key to a successful transition. A useful resource is Author Experience: Bridging the gap between people and technology in content management by Rick Yagodich (https://xmlpress.net/content-strategy/author-experience/).

Is it worth it? All this change? All this effort? In our experience, the answer is usually a resounding YES. As we work with clients to perform REJ and ROI studies, it usually doesn’t take much to demonstrate the tangible (calls to the help desk) and intangible (feeling better about my job) benefits. Moreover, it’s not uncommon for an engagement like this to be a career-maker for the people involved.

My confirmed bachelor uncle used to say, “Marriage is a great institution, as long as you’re ready for an institution!” Put another way, if you have the will and the support to transform your content, hold on! Or, “Grab a handful of fur and ride the wild bear.” With this effort, you can create a superlative user experience and reap benefits for years to come. And if we can help you think through the steps involved, please feel free to give us a call.

Don Low and Robert Johnson

Managing Director, Tahzoo Studios

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