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Another Idea for Structured Authoring

Calendar March 25, 2013 | User Rich Schafer

A common theme I hear when working with our customers is that they would like to take an XML-first approach to content authoring, yet still retain a “Word-like” experience for their user community.  They have heard many great things about how structured authoring can help them solve complex business problems.  They have also heard that introducing structured authoring into an enterprise can be a daunting task.  The truth is that XML structured authoring can help you solve complex business problems, however, depending on the level of sophistication you need with your XML content, it doesn’t have to so daunting.

Structured Authoring

The promise of XML brings with it several exciting capabilities for delivering your content to the consumer:

  • The ability to separate the content from the formatting.  Using traditional non-structured authoring tools, authors spend a significant amount of time fiddling with the content so that it “looks right.”  One of the benefits of switching to an XML-first publishing paradigm is that the author can focus on the content and not have to worry what the final result will look like, and as we’ll discuss shortly, having the ability to publish content through multiple output formats means the author doesn’t need to know what the end result will look like anyway.
  • The ability to support dynamic content delivery.  By separating the formatting from the content, then incorporating structure into it, XML enables applications to leverage that structure to deliver the content, or just part of it, to meet the end-user’s needs (e.g., based on their role, or based on the device they are using).
  • The ability to easily integrate and exchange content.  If two systems agree on an XML format, those two systems can exchange content reliably whether that’s across functional areas in the same enterprise or between business partners.

Yet, taking the plunge into structured authoring does not come without costs.  It can require significant cultural change.  You must train your content creators on how to author using native XML editors.  Even casual contributors, who are used to working in Microsoft Word, must be trained in structured authoring. Depending on your user community, this can be cost-prohibitive and reduce the ROI of your initiative. It can also be impractical if a large portion of your authoring community exists outside of your organization.

But, it all depends on how much XML power you need…

One approach we’ve used is to break the content up into information objects (i.e., topics) that are authored independently rather than in the traditional, all-at-once book model.  We then integrate a browser-based structured authoring tool, such as SDL Xopus, into a Web portal allowing users to edit and collaborate at the topic level.  By breaking the content up into chunks, we can flexibly recombine or reassemble the chunks.  Additionally, we have eliminated the need for authors to understand the assembly structure and focus them more on the paragraph-level content.  In this paradigm, a tool like Xopus really shines and gives you that Word-like experience in structured authoring.

Xopus is highly configurable and customizable.  It is easy to assign elements to toolbars so that when the button is pressed, the element is automatically inserted in the content for the author.  Even with the friendly interface, Xopus prevents the author from creating invalid XML structure based on the schema.  Xopus is a big step forward in having that “Word-like” experience, yet still providing the structure you require.

When is it right to leverage a simple XML authoring application built around Xopus?  It ultimately depends on the complexity of the content and the delivery user stories.  We find that this approach works well with policy and procedure, reports, marketing, contracts, and less-complex technical documents; anything that can be broken up into information objects.  If you need to get into element-level reuse, or complex structural rules like we see in regulated or complex technical documents, then Xopus isn’t for you.

Rich-Simple-XML-Authoring

In summary, an XML-first authoring approach doesn’t have to result in a major overhaul to your organization, especially if your content can work within the framework of a simple XML authoring application.  By moving into XML, you’ll then open up a whole new world of possibilities with your content.

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