How and Why to Use Component-Based Authoring: First in a 3-Part Series

Why change the same information in a lot of places if it's possible to make a change once and have it appear in every place it's needed? In this first installment of a 3-part series on component-based authoring, Knowledge Center contributor Eric Severson explains how to use component-based authoring in your business and why it's a good idea to do so.

This is the first installation of a 3-part series on component-based authoring. Click here to read the second article, "How Component-Based Authoring Works: Second in a 3-Part Series" and click here to read the third article, "Best Practices for Component-Based Authoring: Third in a 3-Part Series."


Do you remember what the world was like before word processing? In that dark recess of the stone age, documents were written with typewriters. Administrative assistants still took dictation. If you wanted a simple document or a report to look professional, you took a trip to the local typesetting shop. If you wanted to actually publish something, you talked to a printing and publishing company.

What a revolution, then, when tools such as Microsoft Word and Adobe FrameMaker came on the scene in the mid-1980s. Suddenly, it became possible to produce your own documents-and to make them look good. As WYSIWYG interfaces evolved, you could see exactly how your document would appear in print. You could change its format to your liking with a simple point and click. It's no wonder that these tools have since become the favorite of authors everywhere and a fixture in the industry.

Instantaneous communication is now expected

But the world has changed since the early 1980s. Our needs are being driven by different forces now. Professional-looking, printed documents still have their place, but they're no longer the primary way people communicate. We now live in an online world dominated by e-mail, Web sites, wikis and blogs. This online world is being inhabited by users with increasingly less patience for printed documents. With expectations driven by Google and the Web, we expect to find instantly available, relevant and up-to-date information-through devices we can carry in our pockets and hold in our hands.

As easy and familiar as they are, today's WYSIWYG authoring tools were not designed to support this new world. Helping you control the way a document will look in print doesn't count for much if your primary publishing channels are dynamic Web sites and feeds to handheld devices. Plus, if the real need for your readers is to get right to the topic they need, writing large print documents would seem to be missing the point.

Common components with common features

As information delivery has become more complex, we also can't afford the cost and cycle times associated with hand-crafting each document and Web page. Consider the case of a manufacturer, of virtually any type, that offers many products across a number of product families. Although each product is unique and aimed at a specific audience, they're probably built from many common components and have many common features.

Now consider the documentation that goes along with all of these products. Chances are that each product has some kind of user's manual and some kind of technical specifications. Each product probably appears in a variety of catalogs, brochures and sales material. More than likely, all of this information is also repeated across a wide array of Web pages. It is probably also translated into multiple languages.

WYSIWYG is no longer cost-effective

Now suppose one of the common product components changes. This results in feature enhancements to all of the products that contain it. This may result not only in a change to each product's documentation, but potentially to all of the variations of that documentation across print, online and all related translations. If all of these documents and Web pages are separately maintained using WYSIWYG authoring tools, just one such change might result in what is essentially the same modification to literally hundreds of individual word processing and Web documents.

These changes are not only costly and time-consuming to keep up with, but pretty much assure that many of these documents will be inconsistent and out-of-date. And with so much redundancy, subject matter experts-whose time is valuable-end up reviewing the same material over and over again.

Benefits of component-based authoring

But what if you could treat each common information element as a separate component? What if you could author and maintain it all in one place, and automatically assemble and place it into all of the print and online contexts in which it is used? Just by doing this, we've seen organizations save 30 to 50 percent or more in authoring, review and production costs-and 50 to 70 percent or more in translation costs. We've also seen reductions in cycle times of over 50 percent, allowing documentation to stop being the bottleneck for new product releases.

However, the benefits of component-based authoring don't stop there. Regardless of how efficiently they are authored and assembled, large "one-size-fits-all" documents are not efficient for the reader. In technical publishing, we often see manuals that attempt to cover so many options and variations that all readers end up confused. Or we tend to see the same information redundantly repackaged across 20 or 30 manuals, each aimed at a particular target audience. Yet they all still don't anticipate the actual needs of the individual reader.

A paradigm shift is upon us

The new publishing paradigm is changing the rules. It's putting the reader in charge of which content is important and how it should be packaged. Publishing to an audience of many is changing to publishing for an audience of one. When this leap is made, the business benefits go way beyond cost savings and cycle time.

Using a dynamic, personalized approach to information delivery allows you to sell to a more diverse audience-especially those in less sophisticated target markets. It can significantly increase customer satisfaction and result in repeat sales. This is because the information no longer gets in the way of using the product successfully. And when products are complex, it can also be used internally to significantly boost the effectiveness of customer field and call center support.

Delivering information instantly

This takes the idea of common, reusable information elements to a new level, far beyond the capabilities of classic word processing and desktop publishing products. It even changes the very meaning of the words "document" and "Web page." It changes it to mean "content that is dynamically and personally created, exactly when you need the information." It's also instantly delivered to whatever media you're using, be it a Web page, cell phone, iPod or BlackBerry.

Achieving these benefits requires a new set of tools, including state-of-the-art standards like XML and DITA, and structured authoring tools like JustSystems XMetaL. What these tools do, and how they enable the new age of component-based as opposed to document-based authoring, is the subject of the next article in this series.

This was the first installation of a 3-part series on component-based authoring. Click here to read the second article, "How Component-Based Authoring Works: Second in a 3-Part Series" and click here to read the third article, "Best Practices for Component-Based Authoring: Third in a 3-Part Series."

Eric Severson is co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer for Flatirons Solutions Corporation. Eric is also on the board of directors for IDEAlliance and is a former president of OASIS--both XML industry consortiums. He can be reached at