How do we structure our topics?

I’ve waffled on about single source and our plans for long enough so, as we are finally starting the process itself, I thought I’d capture some information as we go along. However, it’s probably good to set the scene, so I’ll cover that stuff first. Over time you’ll be able to see all the posts related to this work here.

Where should it live?

Next up in our journey towards Author-it nirvana is to decide how to store our content. Author-it stores information as topics, and as topics are designed to be reused, locating them is a key part of the Author-it solution.

One approach would be to simply dump a lot of the topics in loosely appropriate folders and let the built-in search help us find the topics we need. That way the topic names can be a little ambiguous as the content of the topic is what matters.

However that feels a little like flying by the seat of our pants so I’m keen to try and figure out the best way to store the content within Author-it not only to make it easier for the technical writers, but to future proof us as much as possible.

The Author-it Knowledge Center (sic) is chock full of useful information and includes a topic on folder structure which rightly states that:

You need to choose the approach that best suits your requirements. You can have as many folders as you need (but remember that too many, may get confusing…) and as many levels as are required. Also consider the reusability of your content. By burying objects in a myriad of sub folders, others may not know that these objects exist and end up creating multiple copies of the same information – meaning the information is duplicated in more than one place.

Another useful thing to know when creating folders is that when folders are created, they inherit the security of its parent. Therefore, when you design your initial folder structure, it is worthwhile creating some folders at the very top level to set security, and then creating any sub folders within these.

One thing my team and I are hoping to adopt is a DITA based structure. Whilst built in DITA support is not yet part of Author-it (but it’s coming) we do like the way DITA approaches topic-based writing and can easily map most of our content to the default topic types with which DITA is concerned. This also gives us an exit route out of Author-it should we ever decide to change our tooling in the coming years.

However, simply storing all of our content in 3 or 4 folders (1 per topic type) would still leave us with a huge number of topics per folder, so obviously we need some other way of structuring the content logically. And, in a nice twist, we are also going to be restructuring how we offer the published content in the future so we can’t base the folder structure on our current documentation set. That makes sense moving forward as well as we may well start offer different groupings of information anyway and I’d rather not perpetuate our current document-centric view.

So, what have we decided?

After some thought we realised that the only way to structure the content in Author-it to make it easy to locate is to focus on user role. We discounted using product terms here as some of the information we will be writing in the future doesn’t easily fall into a specific area of the product so we’d end up with a generic “Other Stuff” area which suggests that that was the wrong approach.

Essentially we have three user types for our product set; Developer, Administrator and End User. Under those folders we then break down the information accordingly into areas of product information (for example “Installation”). We tried to steer away, again, from using product specific areas but as the large part of our product is a development kit we realised that it made sense to base that information on the “tools” within the development kit, rather than trying to conceptualise the information any further.

Beneath those folders we then break out into, loosely, DITA-focused folders of Concepts, Procedures, and References, with an additional folder to hold Graphics (screenshots, diagrams and so on). DITA suggests Tasks, not Procedures but we consider a task to be at a higher-level, with one task containing one or more procedures.

So we have a basic folder structure in Author-it that looks a little like this:

    Administrator [User Role]
    	Installation [Information Area]
    		Concepts [Topic Type]
    		Procedures [Topic Type]
    		Reference [Topic Type]

We think this will work for us, and we’ll be testing it with a sample chapter or two very soon. We definitely need to get this right now before we start converting our content over but the thoughts and details of that exercise are for another post.

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Long time blogger, Father of Jack, geek of many things, random photographer and writer of nonsense.

Doing my best to find a balance.

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Julia says:

I used to worry about storage structure in Authorit until I learned to stop worrying and embrace the chaos.

I found that I never looked in Authorit folders for objects – the only place I looked was in books where I knew I would find them. So I tend to use book objects as my basic storage unit.

Of course, I still have to have a folder structure to hold my books – and I tend to separate “books” for topic storage from books for publishing – but the advantages of using books for storage include:
– I can keep a single topic in more than one book so I don’t have to worry about what folder it might be in in order to find it.
– I can store the topics inside the book in a meaningful structure that I can easily examine (more easily than opening a sub folder).

It is a nuisance that AIT 5 has lost the ability to drag all the topics from a book to a specific folder – that was a handy tidy up tool for topics that went walkabout.

Julia – funnily enough we started talking about that very thing during our planning session. I think it’s a working practise that will evolve over time.

And now that I look at it, I realise I haven’t included the top level “Books” folder we discussed, oops!

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