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Topic-based information is essential to today’s computer user, whether using web software or shopping online. Most users use information to get “unstuck.” Learning methodologies or reading the Great American Novel are for the student or the insomniac. Most experienced users can figure out how to use more intuitive software but hit the occasional snag in a process. Only then do they turn to the information set, Googling for an answer.

So how does this inform today’s documentation efforts? The Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) is based on three main types of information: Concept, Task, and Reference.

  • Concept – Why do I want to use this piece of software?
  • Task – How do I use this piece of software?
  • Reference – What does this software do?

Start a project with the reference material because most of the initial users of a new release are more experienced and established customers. They know their way around and need only to refer to the help to jog their memory about a switch on a command, or an unfamiliar parameter on a dialog box. If nothing else can be ready at release time (for whatever reason), make sure that the reference material is in place for the early adopters of the release.

The next thing to tackle are the tasks, because nominal users need sequential steps to accomplish something with the software. These tasks must be short and discrete topics, not long tutorials to teach (although tutorials have their place in technical documentation).

The last thing to be written are the introductions, summaries, and overviews (concepts) because this information is better understood after the reference and task material has been tested and documented. Using marketing collateral is helpful at this stage to present a company message of how the software is intended to be used.

Credited to Mark Metcalfe –