User adoption and the psychology of names

"The Name" is the name of this Brazilian group, but we couldn't use that for the portal

There’s no clever title today, just a clever first sentence.

Let me dive into this topic with some background. I’m helping a company with an internal portal strategy, and one of our concerns relates to user adoption.

My concerns aren’t only about functionality. They aren’t just about usability. I also have a concern for naming.

You see, this global company has a lot of paper forms, a lot of email, and many subsidiaries acquired over the last decade. Each of these matters to me when I think of how users might feel about this new portal.

We have learned, reflexive and instinctive behaviors, though I suppose you might argue that reflexive and instinctive are either the same or related.

Regardless, adopting new behaviors is costly (in terms of time, energy, money and other opportunities).

Looking deeper into my concerns

So here are just a few of the reasons I care about those factors:

  1. Paper forms – moving to a web-based solution requires changing long-established human behaviors
  2. A lot of email – what electronic communication exists is largely unstructured and long-established as well
  3. Acquired companies – each business unit asserts they do things differently, and we have a lot of overlapping terminology

So in the first case we want people to use an online work order and not paper.

In the second case we want users to share conversations and upload attachments to the online work order and not pass them around in email or create lots of versions on file servers…

…and in the third case it would be great just for everyone to agree what a “work order” is!

It is this third concept I want to talk about today.

Two options, two paths?

Maybe THIS is the inner working of my Archimedles?

On the surface, we have two options: 1) we call a work order a “work order”, or 2) we call it some other thing (the term “Archimedles” [not “Archimedes”] comes to mind if you’ve read my posts closely for long).

Now, I’m speaking of a “work order” because it’s a simple concept of an artifact. I could have chosen a PO, an invoice or some other artifact. In this company’s industry, there are some commonly used documents that aren’t so universal, but end up producing a similar naming crisis anyway.

If we choose to preserve the standard name, we benefit from its history in everyday use, but we sign up for “standardizing” what people think a “work order” is. Establishing standards is expensive, though often worth it, but sometimes results in mis-communication or even minor rebellion for a time.

If we figure out a different name, even a new name, we can’t lean on the history of usefulness people already associate with the concept of a work order… but among other things we change the kind of learning processes our users go through as they work with the new portal.

We are “triggered” psychologically to notice what is different

When people see something as “new” or “different” from what they know, they attempt to figure it out in terms of something familiar, e.g., saying Google+ is “just like Facebook”. Meanwhile, they also invest some time and energy trying to learn it.

By calling something by a new name, we open the possibility for our users that what they are looking at actually isn’t what they already know, that perhaps it has some marginal utility. We can spark curiosity and wonder, and we can engage them in new and different ways.

After all, Google+ might be to Facebook what the iPhone is to the bag phone Michael Douglas carried in “Wall Street”. (Time will tell.)

Meanwhile, if we change the words we use, but our users end up feeling like it really IS just a new spin on the old work order, they could be dissatisfied and rebel against the change there, too. When we claim something is new, we make a promise… which sets up the possibility for building trust, and produces an obligation in us to deliver on the marginal utility we imply or outright promise.

A work order really IS a work order, though

Unfortunately, it often seems like we’ve used all the good names already. So we really can’t change the name of something as common as an invoice, PO or even work order. In this case, I used them mainly to illustrate the place we are in and some alternatives.

Naming is an important part of the design and rollout strategy for this portal initiative. Since we can’t take one approach or the other, we are left with a hybrid, keeping some names and adopting new ones… even inventing some where new metaphors for interaction seem proper.

Where have you considered using new names for innovative changes you develop? Has your product really been different or new? What did you notice in the form of user responses and adoption?

About ken
Creative insights, passion and technical adrenaline - strategist, agile coach and marketer, providing a good life for wife of 20 years & 2 awesome teenagers!

6 Responses to User adoption and the psychology of names

  1. bfmooz says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more on this topic, Mr. Faw. “Call it what it is” is a principle that works at a very granular level; universal fundamental principles like you mentioned such as PO’s or invoices. But when you work for a company where the core staff is a group that has essentially been together for the better part of ten years plus, it’s important to introduce not just a tool as new but a way of thinking about what we do as new as well. In many ways, we’re introducing a shift in how we do our business even more than how we fill out forms, how we send notifications, etc.

    • ken says:

      Thanks, Michael.

      A car is not a horseless carriage… though people called it that when they were first thinking about it. A computer is not a typewriter, and we can do more than transfer our recipes cards to it… though those were the initial interpretations of it, too.

      The iPod was not just another MP3 player, but initially people did not see the “system” that an iPod “is”. (In this use, “is” is an interpretation, not a fact.)

      So it is natural and even necessary that people learn new things against a backdrop of their existing knowledge, history and culture. More powerful interpretations require projecting beyond what we know at first. When we name something to pull people forward, we have to accept the obligation that it has to be more than what they already know… or their initial interpretation of equivalence will cement itself and we won’t get anywhere.


  2. Ali Mahmoud says:

    Ken, interesting read. We have a similar problem in aviation where technology moves very slowly and my company has an innovative solution. Problem with innovation in this industry is that it is automatically viewed as unsafe even when the technology could be better than anything that’s out there.

    I don’t propose to have an answer and you mentioned how we are psychologically triggered to compare it to what we know. If I could add to that I think that the status quo is comfortable and safe and change isn’t worth the risk.

    Interesting that you mentioned that “a car is not a horseless carriage”. I have two quotes for you:
    “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. Henry Ford
    “Complacency accepts things the way they are and rejects things the way they could be” Brian Houston

    • ken says:

      Ali, thanks for your observations.

      Those are great quotes… I had not thought about them when I was responding to Michael earlier, but they may be simpler and more eloquent corollaries to my response.

      The way we think in language is fundamental, as supported by your example from aviation. I expect there is a universal relevance to other domains as well.

      I don’t know that it is complacency as much as it is a result of our biology that we look for patterns and similarities in order to make sense of the world. So we want to simplify what is new, different or complicated… and we have to in order to figure out meaning, relevance and value.

      As soon as we interpret something as the same, or “just a new spin” on something we already know, we can give ourselves permission to write it off as meaningless, irrelevant or of little value to us. It makes life sensible and low-cost.

      It is therefore important for the innovator to carefully design and craft messaging that brings forth more powerful interpretations, or they will not get a return for their innovation. (In my scenario, we might produce a portal nobody uses.)


  3. ken says:

    In LinkedIn Group “SCRUM Practitioners”, Erik Klein Nagelvoort wrote:

    I personally think that naming matters a big deal: after all the way we cooperate and share knowledge is through communication, and words are key building blocks of communication. Effective wording therefore is very very important. I have seen organisations and teams become very ineffective just because of a simple naming miscommunication. On the other hand I have seen people catch abstract or complex concepts instantly after rephrasing a sentence, using more appropriate metaphores or synonyms. Great topic if you ask me

    • ken says:

      My response: Thanks, @Erik.

      Have you connected it with user adoption on a new technology introduction before?

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