DSSSL consists of two parts: a tree transformation process that can be used to manipulate the tree structure of documents prior to presentation, and a formatting process that associates the elements in the source document with specific nodes in the target representation—the flow object tree. DSSSL specifications are device-independent pieces of information that can be interchanged between different platforms. DSSSL does not standardize the back-end formatters that generate the language's output. Such formatters may render the output for on-screen display, or write it to a computer file in a specific format (such as PostScript or Rich Text Format.
With the appearance of XML as an alternative to SGML, XML's associated stylesheet language XSL was also widely and rapidly adopted, from around 1999. Although DSSSL continued in use within the shrinking SGML field, XSL was very soon in use more extensively, and by more coders, than DSSSL had ever achieved. This was emphasised when previous SGML strongholds such as DocBook converted from SGML to XML, and also converted their favoured stylesheet language from DSSSL to XSL.