do not step out
23/Apr/2007 | 02:40

Thinking About Your Application: What's in a Name?

It's time to get thinking about what to name your Next Great Application. You're in alpha, maybe early beta, and up until now, you've just been using a code name. Probably something quick and dirty, because you had to name your project folder something when you started eight months ago. You can't use the code name when you release, so now you've gotta do the part that's just as difficult as it is fun.

Certain considerations have to be made when developing a name for your app. Can you pick something that just "sounds cool"? Sure, but what's cool now is going to look lame in a year. Shooting for "cool" also brings you close to the edge of Trying Too Hard. That isn't a place you want to be.

Dissecting Frogs Can Be a Real Mess

In general, there are four ways you can go with the name of a product, be it software, hardware, cuisinarts, or anything else:

The practical name, the conceptual name, the nonsensical name, and the connotative name.

The practical name describes what a product resembles or does; it's mostly a description of functionality, but usually incorporates the metaphor of the product. Microsoft Windows is an example of a practical name that describes part of the product (a window being a piece of the operating system), while at the same time being a reference to the product's associated metaphor (the "window" metaphor). It's really not a bad name, though I know Mac users like to dump on it with clever names like Windoze and Winblows. (You're not clever. Stop doing this.) Other examples of good practical names would be Pages and Lightroom.

Be warned: the practical name loves to show off puns, plays on words, and InterCaps. Not that there's anything wrong with that, right, QuickTime? (If you ask me, intercapping dates your application's name. Avoid if you can. QuickTime seems to have gotten away with it, but you probably won't be so lucky.)

The conceptual name is similar to the practical name, in that it relates to the metaphor of the product. Where conceptual names differ, however, is how they drop the practical resemblance aspect of the practical name. They describe the idea behind the product instead of the product itself. Dashboard falls into this category, because it doesn't describe any functional aspect of the product, but it communicates the concept on which it's based.

The nonsensical name is the blue jeans ad of product naming. It doesn't have anything to do with the product, you can't pull meaning out of it, and it's just as malleable as it is impervious to interpretation. Think Kazaa or Zune. This is probably the most volatile type of product name, because it's a complete toss-up as to whether or not you're going to gain any kind of mindshare with an otherwise meaningless name. Your marketing department both loves and hates the nonsensical name.

The last category is the connotative name. It wants to be nonsensical, but it knows that it needs to be somewhat descriptive. It doesn't directly describe the product, and it doesn't describe absolutely nothing, either. The connotative name is the sort of name that tells you something about the product after you've experienced it. Twitter, iPod, these are connotative names.

On paper, none of these categories is bad. Really, they all have their place in the vast, unending sea of products. The trick is choosing the right kind of name for your product.

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do More Pretentiously

Here's the part where I put up or shut up, right? When I started my last application, I had to name the project, and didn't want to put much time into it. I chose the first thing that came to mind, Blackout. The app was a GTD toy to help keep you focused on a single thing at a time. It BLACKED OUT the distractions. Get it? It's clever.

I knew that when 1.0 rolled around, I'd need a different name. Code names rarely make good release names. First, though, I had to figure out what was broken about the provisional name. After all, it described what the app did, right? It wasn't hard to remember, pronounce, or spell. But some things just didn't sit right.

Here's the list I came up with:

Okay, it's a short list.

I gave the matter a few days of thought and while standing on a subway platform waiting for an N train, I realized I was trying too hard to figure it out. It hit me like, uh, something that hits people when they're trying to solve something. It was so simple! I asked myself a question:

"What is this application helping you do? What is the point of focusing on something?"

To think clearly; without distraction. Yes! That's it.


Not only did it describe the concept, it fit with the look and feel of the app. You never had to ask how to spell it. Most of all, as pretentious as it sounds, the name inspired me. I had ideas about the look of the manual, late-game interface changes, and even a tagline: Because sometimes you have to.

On top of all these things, the name instantly told me what the icon looked like: a thought balloon! And what are you thinking about, exactly? Well, an application. Why not put that application's icon inside Think's icon during runtime? HOLY SHIT THAT'S AWESOME.

All of this from a name. A name so simple that it didn't come to anyone immediately. These are the sorts of patient, seemingly simple decisions that make even toy projects like Think something really special. Did I overanalyze everything—dare I say overthink here—you ask? Yes, I did.

Was it worth it?

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