Ultimate product information experience with DITA tool

Meet Frederik Carette, our Information Architect and an expert on the DITA writing tool for product information management. Today Frederik tells us about his assignment and responsibilities and why the DITA tool is used by industry leaders, and, of course, gives recommendations for companies wishing to improve their product information experience.  

 

Tell us about your assignment? What is your area of responsibility?

Currently, I work as the Information Architect for the Packet Core Common assignment at Ericsson. That means I am primarily responsible for our current way of working with Dita. As an IA, I make sure that our day-to-day operations within the Dita writing tool run smoothly. Daily I help writers if they get stuck with issues or errors they can’t solve themselves, but I am also responsible for training our new employees joining the PC Common assignments. 

A big part of my job is to deal with bigger picture stuff like examining future updates to the available tools and how we can improve and streamline our methods and ways of working to take advantage of these improvements. A part of that is also maintaining our project structure within the Dita tool and ensuring we have a smooth and correct branch-off at every deadline.

 

What do you like most in your assignment, and what challenges do you usually face?

As someone with a design background (I studied product development and design), I thoroughly enjoy the more creative parts of my assignment. I am using critical thinking and the available tools to efficiently map out new methods and ways to improve our day-to-day workflows. Discovering a new hidden or unused feature, testing it, and implementing it in our way of working to improve our daily operations is undoubtedly one of the highlights this assignment has given me. I also enjoy the many meetings I can attend with IA’s from different projects to share information and learn from each other. You can never underestimate how interesting it can be just to hear someone’s opinions and views on a topic you are completely immersed in every single day. A fresh perspective can do wonders. Lastly, I do enjoy helping our writers with their issues. Making sure that someone totally stuck gets help and advice to push them over the deadline finish line is always a big morale boost.

Naturally, all of this comes with its own set of challenges. Time constraints due to deadlines are certainly one of the biggest challenges to overcome since this happens every monthly release. Sometimes it just takes too much time to help every writer individually, certainly when we are close to a release, and the number of writers that need help is peeking. Having a good set of instructions and troubleshooting explanations is something I’m still working on and improving. Another big challenge is the constraints of the tool itself. Although it has many functionalities, sometimes that ideal solution is staring you right in the face but can’t be implemented due to a minor feature currently missing or not yet implemented.

 

Tell us about the DITA tool? What is it for? 

DITA is a topic-based writing tool that focuses on both creating and managing information. The most significant benefit of a topic-based writing tool like Dita is the fact that instead of working on an entire document, you primarily work on individual sections, i.e., topics. This allows us to work together with multiple writers on different parts of the same document. In our previous tool (document-based), a writer had to check out a full document when they wanted to make an update. This meant that anyone needing that document had to queue up and wait for the previous writer to check it back in. 

With Dita, co-operation between writers has become much smoother. Another benefit is the reusability of topics. Within Dita, every section of a document is written as a self-contained topic with its own unique identity. It allows our writers to use that identity and insert it in a different map, essentially linking towards the same topic from 2 other maps. It saves us a lot of time since we don’t have to rewrite similar sections between documents anymore. A bonus is that whenever this topic gets updated, both maps will receive that update automatically. I could talk about many more cool features and benefits that Dita can offer, like DRM (Dynamic Release Management) structures, profiling options, keys, … but that would make this answer a bit too long!

 

What kind of companies use it?

Many companies are currently using the benefits of this type of writing tool to store their vast amounts of customer product information in a manageable way that will be easy to read for the customers. Besides Ericson, big companies like Toyota, Huawei, Nokia, Intel, Bayer are taking advantage of the many functionalities this tool offers. As you can see, it is not only the telecom sector that is interested in this way of producing CPI content. There are also use-cases from the MedTech, semiconductor, automotive sectors. More and more companies and sectors are looking towards topic-based tools like Dita for their information needs.

 

What would you recommend to companies wishing to improve product information?

I would recommend planning out any significant improvements accordingly. Make sure to write out a plan and discuss it with as many people as possible to cover all angles. On top of that, any improvement plan should also be future proof, or at least it should contain some ideas for tackling any future improvements. Out of experience, I know how difficult it can be to have to roll back specific solutions because they were either made too quickly or future changes were not considered. Rollbacks, especially in more significant projects with lots of information to manage, can take a tremendous amount of time and usually bring even more problems with them. Therefore, I think a good and structured plan should always be in place before executing it. Having a well-defined way of working and structure in place can help to add improvements in the future go quickly and smoothly, and in the unfortunate case of a solution not panning out as intended, a robust planned out and structured environment can handle these setbacks without cascading to other parts of the project. One of the golden rules we always followed in our design courses applies to product information too. “Think before you act”.

 

What skills and personal traits should a professional product information engineer have?

I certainly think that the hunger to learn is one of the best traits a product information engineer can have. The tools we are working with change very fast, and new features are constantly implemented. Having that hunger to stay on your toes and adapt to these new changes is what makes you successful in this line of work. Be flexible and don’t get stuck in a certain way of working but dare to change the process. Another good trait is being able to look at things from both a macro and micro perspective. As an information engineer, you need to have good oversight of the whole project. Know how the project is mapped out and how it connects to other projects. But sometimes, it is essential to dive into the details too. Getting your hands dirty in testing out smaller features can make you see things from a different perspective and can help to come to better conclusions for improved ways of working on a bigger scale. Lastly, I think being critical of yourself is also an excellent trait to have. Don’t blindly go forward with the first idea you have but scrutinize it, talk to others about it and listen to your peers’ advice. You are making decisions for the whole team, so an idea that might look fine to you does not necessarily translate into a benefit for the entire team.

 

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