Should You Specialize When Adopting DITA? Or, DITA Through the Green Glass Doors.

If you’ve heard about DITA, then you’ve probably heard about specialization – creating new information types based on ones that already exist in DITA. Specialization is something that you’ll probably end up doing at some point, but should you specialize during the DITA adoption phase?

The answer depends on whether you’re adopting DITA on your own, or you’re adopting it under the guidance of an experienced consultant. Eventually, you’ll understand on your own what should be specialized and what should not. But coming to that understanding is a process. Specialization has benefits, and how much benefit depends in part on your culture, your goals, and your processes. Specialization itself is not without cost though. How high or low the cost is depends to a great extent on the tools available to you. Finding that balance, and knowing how to design a beneficial specialized information type, reminds me of the game ‘Through the Green Glass Doors’.

It’s a group game that starts by explaining that not everything can be brought through the green glass doors. But, the group won’t be told directly what the rules are for what can come through. The game leader then gives some examples:

“You can bring a moose, but not a mouse.
You can bring cheese, but not ham.
A speaker can’t come through, but his speech can.”

The group then tries to figure out what can and cannot come through the green glass doors by asking whether specific things can come through. The game leader might even helpfully give a counter-example. “You can bring these, but not those.” As the group starts to catch on to the patterns in the answers, they start asking better questions until they know exactly what can come through the green glass doors.

Knowing what to specialize in DITA is a lot like that, except there are no rules preventing consultants from sharing what the rules are. It’s just that the explanations might not make sense to you until you start to understand the rules on your own and start to be able to ask better questions.

There are tremendous benefits to specializing right away when adopting DITA. It avoids later rework, and lets you get the most leverage possible from the semantic markup of your content. But unless you understand what goes through the “green glass doors”, you’re not ready to specialize DITA on your own yet.