Naming things is hard

Naming things is hard
Photo by Frederick Medina / Unsplash

I'm very fortunate to have the opportunity to create new things as part of my job. I'm not coming up with official product names, but there's a whole world of things that I need to tag with a memorable label. It's hard.

  • Initiatives/projects
  • Channels/emails/chats/documents
  • Blogs/videos

I've said "naming things is hard" in a lot of situations, and there's little more discussion needed. But I like the puzzle inherent in this and continue to make progress in helping to keep it from tripping me (and those around me) too much.

So what's the right balance for finding a good, memorable name for something vs. spinning wheels and fussing over little nuances?

Finding an approach

There are a couple of categories I look at:

  • How creative is this name? Represented as Algorithmic to Creative
  • How specific is this name? Represented as Generic to Specific
Box with two axes, Algorithmic vs. Creative, Generic vs. Specific
Visually, I lay it out the categories in my mind like this.

Picking a name that is near the edges generally involves more time.

Too low and left or low and right? Be ready to spend time explaining what the thing is.

Too high and left? Save some time to provide links and footnotes for all of the things you know, and others don't.

Too high and right? Prepare to dedicate a lot of thinking time for something that may not even exist.

How do you find a balance on these?

Turn the question into an automatic decision

I have no magic solution to this problem, but I've made a conscious decision for how to approach naming things. I try to focus a bit high and left of center.

Box with two axes, Algorithmic vs. Creative, Generic vs. Specific. "Day-to-day sweet spot" shown as a circle near the center in the Specific/Algorithmic quadrant.
I try to land my first pass in something Algorithmic/Specific--but I'm open to feedback to make it more creative or more specific.

I choose to limit creativity in this stage, because far too often nobody cares, or if they do, they'll want to weigh in and change it too. Limiting creativity makes it easier for me to let go and not get too attached.

I choose to be more specific in my names because I find it helps me with searchability later. "Finding things" is hard, too, and more specific names help with discoverability.

And yet, there are exceptions

I have a few questions that help identify some key exceptions to this process.

Is this a branding exercise?

As I called out at the beginning of this note, things like product names are a whole different ball game. Product names, categories, company themes, and the like are best handled by a team from diverse backgrounds, to help land on something good, rather than being stuck "making do" with a mediocre brand.

Am I renaming something?

The chart I showed is meant for naming new things, not for renaming existing things. That chart would be more of a decision tree, with most things leading to "leave it as-is".

How permanent is this going to be?

Most email threads will fade out of existence after a message or two, so a crummy name won't haunt me for long. A web domain on the other hand? Way more of a hassle to change later.

I often think of this in my software development work. Does anyone like spending time to refactor code just to change something that was poorly named?  No. Unfortunately, I still get this wrong, but somehow it feels better to have put in a bit more effort. Though, I have definitely caught this situation before it was a problem and was glad to have thought a few moves ahead.

Final thoughts

Despite dedicating a whole post to this topic, this is an area where I try to limit my time worrying about it. Another, related, topic is managing expectations around the names other people and teams assign to things. Definitely another topic for another day.

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