Single source documentation is about reusable content. In single source documentation, you build different outputs from the same source content. So for example, you may require user guides, online help, training manuals and a quick start guide for your software. These can all be created from the same source content. It’s very cost effective.
What are benefits of single source documentation?
Reusing content saves money. There's no need to have different departments each writing their own documentation. It’s much more cost effective to create all your documentation from the same source. Tech Pubs, Marketing and Training could all use the same content. But adapted to suit their needs.
Single source documentation is easier to maintain. When products change you don’t have to update lots of documents. You just amend the source content. Output to the different publications is simple. It makes new product roll-outs easy and quick.
A house-style is so important. It is the public face of your company. Documentation from a company should look the same in terms of fonts, colours and layout. Single source documentation makes this much easier.
It also helps stop a companies documentation being of variable standard.
How is single source documentation created?
There are various options. These depend on your requirements.
One approach is to use a software utility to create the source. For example Adobe’s RoboHelp or FrameMaker are excellent. So is MadCap Flare.
Another approach is to go down the XML/DITA route. DITA was originally developed by IBM. It is XML based and content is held in a database. The content is then used in ‘delivery modes’ such as help and support. For more details on DITA, see Introduction to the Darwin Information Typing Architecture.