User adoption and the psychology of names

http://www.flickr.com/photos/rodrigobertolino

"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?

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Resurfacing the Sun

Since 1982, Sun has maintained that the network is the computer.” Now 29 years later, Sun Microsystems is a part of Oracle Corporation, but their original vision statement means a lot more to me than it did 10 or 15 years ago.

To start, what network do you think Sun was intending? In a 2007 YouTube video, they refer to a “social revolution” that is “sweeping the world”. Since you are reading this post, no doubt you have your own assessments of what has been continually building through the ensuing four years.

Of course, Sun also spoke at the time primarily from a posture of the need for networking services and getting everybody “on the network”. More fundamentally, you could also ask what “computer” Sun was talking about?

If the “network” is the social network that, in its current form, is brought together with various tools of communication, coordination and production including Twitter, Facebook, forums, blogs and other channels, then every human participating in social interaction might be seen as a part of “the computer”.

So without going too far into discussion of Douglas Adams’ “Earth computer”, aren’t we sort of computing the meaning of Life, the Universe and Everything as we engage with each other, building meaning and stronger relationships in these new media? We all sort out how we fit into the “social river”, and at least for me I notice how it increasingly shows up in how I look at other people when we are together in person as well.

In Trust Agents, which you may have already read, Chris Brogan and Julien Smith write about how our opportunities for social interaction with those physically around us (like neighbors and community members) may be limited because the only thing we really have in common might just be our location. On the other hand, in the real “Earth computer” we strengthen bonds in our relationships with people around the world based on the strengths of our interests and our abilities to help each other.

I think of that like the strengthening or reenforcement of neural paths in the brain (not like I am an expert in neurology… just that I visualize it as similar). The more we reinforce those connections, the quicker and more effectively we can solve problems together. So a change to Sun’s phrase could be “the network is the brain”… but that doesn’t sound as good.

And where our working together is for the sake of providing help through the building of closer relationships, then the problem the “computer” is working on is not only some collective social “life”, but a better life for each of us who engages in providing help to others.

What do you think?