February 2014
By Sissi Closs

Image: © Sarunyu Glanjit/ 123rf.com

Sissi Closs is a DITA pioneer and a professor of Information and Media Technology at the Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences in Germany. For 25 years, she was the joint owner and CEO of the Comet business group for software documentation, which she sold in 2012. Now, she is the owner of C-Topic, a consulting company for information architecture. At tekom she is part of the advisory board of the technical magazine ‘technische kommunikation‘, in the European Academic Colloquium Review Board, and she is also a speaker and author.




Contextual content

A common content pool simplifies the creation of training material and technical documentation. Appropriate classification methods and DITA provide possibilities to set up such a pool and to exploit it for all kind of media and user groups.

The right information at the right time – a long -cherished wish appears to have moved within reach. This is made possible by mobile devices and their capabilities of context-based acting as well as the concepts, strategies and methods for personalized information offerings that have matured over many years. At the same time there is now a chance that the areas of technical documentation and training – which are typically separate departments in many companies – shall merge and use synergies.

Authors should offer their target audience appropriate content tailored to the audience’ requirements. This applies equally to both product information and training content. Employees from technical documentation and training are therefore facing similar challenges:

  • How can we create content in such a way that it can be re-used for different purposes?
  • How can the sources be edited with different tools?
  • How can we efficiently produce tailored deliverables from these sources?
  • How can we maintain a common pool of content consistently over time?
  • How can we determine the context so that fitting context-related information products can be produced?
  • Who can participate in content creation and how do the participants collaborate as a team?

Usually technical documentation and training departments develop their own methods respectively and use different software to meet the challenges. This leads to identical processes being executed multiple times, content is generated redundantly at several places and the results achieved often do not match. Therefore, a strategy that builds on concepts of both areas and results in solutions both areas can implement appears to promise more success.

Flexibility through modularization

Topic-based structuring has become established in technical documentation to efficiently offer information as needed for different purposes and target groups. According to this structuring principle, content is divided into pieces, so-called topics. Information products are formed flexibly from a pool of topics following the construction kit principle. Topics and their relations to each other are however a challenge with regard to both organization and content. It is necessary to deal with large amounts of pieces. The modularization can’t be done arbitrarily, since this would lead to chaos instead of the desired added value.

Consistency due to classification

To keep the masses manageable, classes and properties are defined. They ensure uniformity and consistency. However, it is not easy to find appropriate classes for topics. Three concepts are presented in the following sections for building classes.

1. The class concept technique

This technique serves to develop new classes iteratively and systematically with appropriate classification criteria and to adapt them if required [1]. This needs classification criteria that are suitable for context-related information delivery. The criteria used for technical documentation are based on modeling methods such as information mapping or functional design, but also consider the technical possibilities. For example, content is modularized in a way that parts can be presented using speech or video .

The context related  information delivery must however go further. It is particularly necessary to consider the user’s skill level when classifying the content. Here, modern didactic methods should be taken into account that do not consider education to be purely “conveying stuff” but as a process of developing creative and operational competencies.

2. The CTL-concept

Contextualized teaching and learning is a didactic approach developed by John Dewey from constructivism at the beginning of the 20th century. It is again enjoying a lot of attention at present. The maxim says:

  • Learning takes place in a number of contexts in private, social and professional environments.
  • Learning must be embedded in the different contexts.
  • The focus lies on problem-based learning.
  • Learning from each other (peer learning, collaborative learning, and cooperative learning) has high significance.
  • Integrative learning enables the learners to guide themselves in the learning process.

According to CTL, learning and understanding take place only if new information can be embedded meaningfully in the knowledge framework that already exists [4]. This approach is also reflected in the situation-related learning theory of Arnim Kaiser, which he calls topical understanding of education [5]: “A person always acts in a situation, human actions are principally embedded in situations .” The topical method changes the view to a situation and considers it from various angles.

3. The skill profile

Approaches for classification have developed for learning content in line with these theories, which help to systematically structure the learning process and the related learning content. This includes Bloom’s Taxonomy [6] and advanced classification models such as the skill profiles based on Rauner und Dreyfus[7].

Content classification according to the skill model

Learning domains


Task fulfillment

Experience based,  analytical in-depth knowledge

How things can be explained analytically and problems can be solved with respect to the situation

Task are not foreseeable

Experience-based (not deterministic) processing of tasks

Detailed and functional knowledge

Which details are necessary in technical work and how things function

Special problem-based tasks

(not deterministic) processing of tasks

Contextual knowledge

How and why things relate in this way and not in any other way

Systematic tasks

(rule based)
processing of tasks

Orientation and overview knowledge

What it is the profession primarily about

Profession oriented tasks

processing of tasks

Table 1, Source Project Comet, Landesschulamt Hessen [7]


Neutral sources in DITA format

Darwin Information Typing Architecture, or “DITA”, is well suited as source format  [2]. DITA is an XML information architecture with a clear focus on topic-oriented structuring.

The modularized content is created as DITA topics. From a pool of DITA topics, collections can be assembled using DITA maps. From the DITA map, publishing tools produce the deliverables in the desired output formats. More and more free and commercial tools support the creation of DITA sources and the publication into a number of output formats.

Beside XML and topic orientation, the great advantages of DITA are its standardization and ever growing usage. The current version, DITA 1.2, offers options to manage the content efficiently and clearly. This includes indirect addressing and the use of variables, as well as flexible options for re-use which allow adding or exchanging topic contents specifically. Moreover, the DITA standard from version 1.2 onwards offers a separate specialization with a number of elements and attributes for the learning environment [3]. Standard DITA topics can be combined with the specific topics of the learning environment in a map. This in turn allows creating the appropriate learning material.

Figure 1: Combination of standard topics and specific topics for the learning environment
Source: Sissi Closs


Sample process

The process described can be explained with a typical example from the software domain. The following initial topic classes can be used for user guide and online help, refer to table 2. A typical task topic looks like the following, here for the task “Create project” in the online authoring tool RoboHelp.

Figure 2: Task topic for product information
Source Sissi Closs


The description of the same task in a tutorial looks similar, but there are big differences in detail. For training, a special scenario is developed in which specific input values are given and the process is described based on these values, see figure 3. If the task in the tutorial is considered under the aspect that persons using the tutorial probably have different prior knowledge, then it can be seen that the task contains parts which do not interest people who know these parts already.

Figure 3: Task topic for tutorial
Source: Sissi Closs


For example, the explanation of the task bar or the description of how a file folder can be found. Considering the skill profile addressed earlier, this leads to an extended modularization, see table 3: This extended modularization now enables creating a synergetic topic with related topics for those content parts, which are offered only when required.

Figure 4: Synergetic topic for product information and tutorial
Source Sissi Closs


The example shows that extended modularization is also very appropriate for context-related content delivery. The topics of the type “Task level 2” can be offered for persons who do not know basic software operations. If only an overview of the supported help formats is required , the suitable topic can be shown, without having to search around in lengthy instructions.

The designed topic types can be mapped to DITA topics and the content can be tagged in DITA. Using the options available in DITA for variant management, the different information products can be generated automatically from the topic pool.

Topic classes

Topic class


Topic ID

Mapping → DITA


Overview, Introduction, Special features




Individual task in the form of step by step instruction



Table  2, Source Sissi Closs


Extended topic classes

Topic class



Topic ID

Mapping → DITA


Overview, Introduction, Special features

Introduction: What is the purpose of the software?



Task level  1

Functional task in the form of step by step instruction, e.g. …

Create project



Task level  2

Basic software operation task in the form of step by step instruction

Search for file folder




Term definition

Task bar


glossary entry

Table 3, Source Sissi Closs


The demonstrated procedure shows that multi-purpose content pools  can be created by combining the class concept technique with classification models for context-related learning. This does not only allow the generation of product information and learning content. The content can also be delivered as required by a person and suitable for her or his skill level. Thus with the necessary technical support, contextual information products can really be offered .


Reference material

[1]    Closs, Sissi (2011): Single Source  Publishing – Modularer Content für EPUB & Co., Frankfurt.

[2]    DITA 1.2 Spezifikation (14.12.2013)

[3]    DITA Learning and Training Content Specialization SC (14.12.2013)

[4]    Contextual learning

[5]    Kaiser, Arnim (1985): Sinn und Situation, Grundlinien einer Didaktik der Erwachsenenbildung.

[6]    Bloom, Benjamin S.; Krathwohl, David R. (1956): Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals, by a committee of college and university examiners. Handbook 1: Cognitive domain. New York; (14.12.2013)

[7]   Berufliche Kompetenzen vermitteln und evaluieren (14.12.2013)