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?

Vegas, Silicon Valley and the old and the new Detroit

Detroit at nightThe “new Detroit”? The “new Silicon Valley”? Chad Smith retweeted a blog post that asked whether Vegas was the new Detroit. Now, the post is about mortgage rates and home values, but refers to unemployment and the greater economic situation that threatens Sin City.

It is amazing to me how we propagate stereotypes so freely, even though we might teach our kids not to do so. Now, this is not a post about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of that, since it seems to be a popular way to communicate a lot in ordinary speech with just a few words – a pretty effective thing to do overall, when we share the same distinction for what is said.

Meanwhile, how often do we think about what specific stereotype the writer refers to when they use it? What does it mean when Newsweek asks whether Silicon Valley could be the next Detroit… or when CNN asks whether Detroit could be the next Silicon Valley? Ummm… politics aside, did the country just flip on its head?

So there are two main questions that come to mind for me:

  1. What is the motive or intention of the writer to use the stereotype?
  2. Does the reader share the same background of what the stereotype means?

Now, please don’t get caught up in your stereotypes of these places. I just notice while one writer in California sees a wakeup call, comparing their region to the Motor City in a negative way, another writer sees the fruits of the significant efforts of a region to bootstrap itself and reinvent a better future in the wake of a great collapse.

Vegas suffered a setback in part from the collapse in housing, which the writer also connects to a huge influx of retirees and high unemployment rates. Now, I don’t know much about Vegas, and my own stereotypes may differ from others’, but I understand how a city and a region can suffer (and not just for their football team).

What I also see happening all around me is the work of a city and a region to unlock a puzzle, to exploit our natural resources, our hard-working citizens, our outstanding universities, and (to be frank) our strong desire to build our homes and live a good life… and focus on what we can actually produce that will be valuable in the global marketplace in addition to cars.

If Vegas or Silicon Valley want to compare to the “new Detroit”, maybe they should stop writing about what appears to me to be the “old Detroit”. In a forward-looking cycle of innovation, rebirth and growth, everybody wins. What do you think?