Tom Johnson’s blog post Unconscious Meaning Suggested from the Structure and Shape of Help, includes a graphic showing three shapes of content:
These three shapes are meant to represent the DITA topic triad of concept, task, and reference. I didn’t get it. As I said in a comment on Tom’s blog, I was trying to match the shapes to something more specific. It was odd that I didn’t recognize them as concept, task, and reference, I said, because I have be “battling the tyranny of the terrible troika” for the last few years. Tom asked what I meant by “the tyranny of the terrible troika”; this is my answer.
It has become almost an axiom of technical communications in the last few year that all content — ALL content — is of one of three types: concept, task, or reference. This idea is a reductio, if not quite ad absurdum, of Information Mapping’s six information block types:
Others have, over the years, proposed other lists of information types, but, except within Information Mapping’s walled garden, these have all faded away in favor of the troika of concept, task, and reference.
The reason, I am inclined to believe, is that concept, task, and reference have the virtue of being unambiguous. In all other schemes, one could start an argument about the categories. One could ask, for instance, what the difference is between a principle and a concept, or between a process and a procedure. One could ask if facts should be broken up into three types: facts, lies, and assumptions.
It is much harder to make such arguments about concept, task, and reference, in part, at least, because they actually represent three kinds of information seeking behavior: learning, doing, and fact checking.
As such, I think that the troika of concept, task, and reference do have analytical usefulness. Understanding what kind of user information seeking behavior you are currently supporting is useful and can serve to stop you from prattling on about side issues when you should be getting to the point. They are, in this sense, not so much types of information as types of information seeking behavior. As such, I think they are very useful.
The problem is that, in the popular conception influenced by DITA, the words concept, task, and reference do not refer to types of information seeking behavior, or even to types of information, but, as Tom’s diagram shows, to shapes of information: a reference is a table, a task is a procedure, a concept is ordinary text (in other words, everything else).
In Information Mapping, the types are the types of information blocks. Information blocks are not an end in themselves. They are supposed to be combined into maps. The reader of an information-mapped document is not supposed to be presented with individual information blocks, but with complete maps, which, to the reader, simply appear as a well structured document. A map, in information mapping, is an organization of information blocks into an effective whole. Information mappings is as much about how to assemble maps as it is about how to type information blocks.
In DITA, on the other hand, a map is merely a technical device for bundling topics. Beyond the idea that it is useful to put your tables and procedures in separate files, DITA has no information design theory. As the Information Mapping white paper on DITA points out:
No [writing] principles [are] defined except for the concept of a Topic standing on its own.
Information Mapping®’s principles provide guidelines to writers to ensure that their content is organized and presented in a useful and effective way for the reader. There is no equivalent in DITA.
Now, I hold no brief for Information Mapping — as a commercial product it strikes me as the equivalent of bottled water — not bad for you, but not the only beverage, and nothing you could not get out of the tap for free. But on this subject, they have a point. DITA does not have a theory of information design.
This is not, in itself, a bad thing. It is not a bad thing for a technology to be separated from a design philosophy, even if one is intended to support the other. I myself am careful to separate the information design philosophy of Every Page is Page One from the technology of SPFE.
If there is a problem with DITA, then, it is not that it lacks a theory of information design. The problem is that many people actually believe that it does have a theory of information design, and that that theory can be summed up in three words: concept, task, and reference. But a theory for breaking content up into pieces is not a theory of information design unless it also includes a theory of how the pieces should go back together.
There is, of course, nothing preventing DITA users from having or developing a sound theory about how the pieces should go back together. The problem is not that DITA does not provide one. The problem is that writers often do not see that they need one. They believe, or act as if they believed, that the devolution into concept, task, and reference is a complete information design. The result, generally, is Frankenbooks.
The result is that when you talk about information types today, people’s minds go at once to the terrible troika — thus the tyranny. But, I would submit, the troika are not information types at all, (nor topic types). They are the types of information shapes, of information blocks. Information typing (and topic typing) is about something more than this. To be specific:
[Amended slightly based on Larry Kunz’s comment.]