Paradigm Shifts are Never Pretty: Advice on Making the Move to XML Authoring
by Sarah O’Keefe
Most people are risk-averse, and profound changes such as the move to structured authoring require new skills and workflows. To ensure a successful transition, XML implementers need to assess their team members, identify allies, and build their implementation strategy around the staff members who embrace change. The term paradigm shift originally comes from Thomas Kuhn’s book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn defined a paradigm shift as a new idea that required a change in basic assumptions. Because of this, paradigm shifts are often difficult to accept. This difficulty is reflected in everyday usage of the expression; it carries connotations of a change in thinking that is hard to assimilate or even causes cognitive dissonance. The move toward XML-based authoring in technical publications is a classic paradigm shift. It requires content creators to change their writing process and learn new concepts.
The Desktop Publishing ParadigmThe desktop publishing paradigm was introduced in the mid-1980s and is currently the dominant approach to content creation. Although exact details vary, desktop publishing environments usually have the following characteristics:
- WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) — Authors see the final printed version of their document as they are creating it. They can manipulate graphic position, page breaks, fonts, and other formatting attributes.
- Template compliance through author cooperation — Authors are provided with style guidelines and templates, but they have the option of ignoring those guidelines. To enforce consistency, verification by a production editor is required.
- Template overrides are easy — Authors often use template overrides (“tweaks”) to manage page breaks and other special items.
- Powerful, feature-rich tools — Desktop publishing tools are mature (some might say “elderly”) and provide a huge set of features.
The XML Authoring ParadigmXML-based authoring is a dramatically different user experience than desktop publishing. The XML paradigm has the following characteristics:
- WYSIOO (What You See Is One Option) — Content is displayed with some formatting, but that formatting does not show the final published document. A separate process is required to create final output.
- Template compliance is mandatory — Templates are enforced by the authoring software, and authors are required to conform to the structure that is loaded into the authoring system. Consistency is enforced by the authoring software.
- Authoring and publishing are separated — The final appearance of a deliverable is controlled by style sheets that are applied after authoring is done. Authors have no ability to fine-tune the layouts to improve the appearance of the final deliverable.
- Authoring tools — The XML authoring tools do much less than their desktop publishing equivalents. In part, this is because the publishing features are absent, but even the basic word processing features, such as change tracking and spell-checking, tend to be less fully featured.
The XML Paradigm For ManagersGiven the generally unpleasant news on the authoring side, you might wonder why anyone would choose to move to XML. For managers, the XML paradigm provides the following improvements:
- Better content storage — Storing information in a text-based, application-neutral format allows managers to choose from a wide variety of authoring, publishing, and content management tools. Desktop publishing generally requires use of a specific, proprietary tool with a corresponding proprietary format, so groups are locked into a particular authoring and publishing environment. Using a proprietary file format greatly constrains the choice of a content management system.
- Automated formatting — In an XML workflow, authors are responsible only for creating content. The process of generating output from that content is shifted into an automated process. Setting up the publishing environment requires a significant effort, but once the process is created, it is automated. That is, the ongoing, repeated effort of document production is replaced by an automated process that requires significant upfront effort. This reduces overall document production costs.
- Better information — The programmatic enforcement of style and formatting rules results in more consistent information.
- Cost reduction — Although an XML-based process can result in improved document quality, the most common justification for XML implementation is cost reduction. In particular, companies that localize their content can show huge cost savings by moving to an XML-based workflow.
- Resource allocation — XML implementation requires significant resources, either from staff or consultants. Getting approval for those resources is often difficult.
- Writer resistance — Most of the benefits of XML go to managers; the problems affect the writers. Not surprisingly, this leads to skepticism about the use of XML.