The federated database is a term that has been growing in popularity in recent months. According to Wikipedia:
Through data abstraction, federated database systems can provide a uniform user interface, enabling users and clients to store and retrieve data in multiple noncontiguous databases
Could a similar approach be used in the field of technical authoring – could we have federated Help authoring systems?
There’s a number of situations where a federated Help authoring system might be needed:
- A company is selling a system that includes products from other organisations. For example, a telephony solution might include handsets supplied from a third-party manufacturer. This systems integrator is likely to want the handset manuals to use their product name, “look and feel”, contact details and company logo.
- Another subsidiary or department is creating documentation in their own Help authoring system, and you need to include some of their content in your user documentation. For example, these could be Knowledge Base articles created by the Support department, or embedded Help written into the application screens by the programmers. They cannot or do not want to use the same authoring system as you, and you don’t have the authority or desire to enforce your system on them.
There are a number of ways a federated Help authoring system can be set up:
- One is to agree a common data structure. You could require your suppliers to make their user guides accessible in DITA format (instead of, for example, InDesign). You would need to define which text you wanted to be conditional – such as the company name, product name and contact details. In a federated model, their content would stay in their system, but could be integrated with your content when you generate the user documents. This means if they updated the manual, these changes would appear in your system.
- Another approach is to simply have the content as an embedded object in your authoring system. You would need to get your colleagues to create content where the formatting information was not embedded with the content itself, and again you’d need to agree which text you wanted to be conditional.
The attraction of this approach is it minimises the effort required by the other writing teams, and it provides a solution where you don’t have the ability to establish a single authoring solution.
If you’re doing this today, feel free to share your experience.