How to Name Your App

Naming software is hard because the name needs to convey a lot of meaning about what the program does to an unfamiliar audience, and do it all using only a word or short phrase. You want something memorable and easy to say – which becomes more complex when designing with a global audience in mind.

Android's recently-announced competition to name the latest operating system has been met with skepticism. The accompanying parody video pokes fun at naming as an unskilled and silly exercise. The name for something like the latest version of an operating system doesn't really matter from an end-user point of view. Only super-technical people will notice or care. Call it Nutella McNutella face, as Tech Crunch suggested, or version 9.9.4.1, and a general audience will be satisfied that it's the latest choice.

Why Names Matter

In contrast to an established operating system, an app's name is an important way to differentiate what the program does and to encourage end-users to try it. Names are particularly important for internet-freedom projects where people may have limited bandwidth, be searching for information in a language they don't speak well, or trying to make a quick choice between similarly-named apps in an app store. A strong name can help build trust and drive adoption among users who need the project most, and get more people communicating securely.

Even open-source software developers need to consider their "brand" – that is, the way they express their project’s benefits and values. Coming up with a memorable, compelling, and differentiated name for an app is a skill practiced by brand strategists. Most brand strategists work in the highly-commercial world of advertising – i.e., encouraging people to buy things. However, that same skill can help developers of all kinds reach a general audience and enable them to better protect their privacy. Here are a set of practices practices from commercial naming than can be adapted to an open-source context.

Photo of a McDonald's restaurant
McDonald’s is one of the most-recognized name brands in the world. Imagine a world where privacy-preserving software names are as identifiable. Image by Mike Mozart, CC-BY 2.0.

Clarify Your Purpose

A successful name conveys something about the app, either functional benefits or an attitude. Clarifying the values the app represents is an important first step. Naming conversations can be difficult because they can expose differences in opinion among contributors about the most important benefits of the app.

To get everyone on the same page, try filling in the following sentence, leaving the name blank for now. </p>

For [type of user], [name] is a [frame of reference] that [key benefit] because [reasons to believe].

E.g., "For teenagers, Snapchat is a photo messaging app that hides messages from your parents because the interface is too confusing for adults."

Here are some thought-starter questions adapted from Brand Strategy Insider to help you complete the above sentence.

Capabilities:

  • What does the app do?
  • When the app does a better job than competitors, how is it different? (e.g. Faster? Cheaper? More fun? More reliable?)

Culture and Purpose:

  • What will the development team never compromise on?
  • What are the team's the core beliefs?
  • What larger goal or cause does this app serve?
  • What does this app want to change in people's lives?
  • What are the ideas that the customer and development team agree are important?

Personality:

  • Is the product serious or playful?
  • If the app were a drink, what would it be? (E.g. home-brewed oolong tea versus a Starbuck's mocha?)
  • If this project were a person (or celebrity), who would it be?

Aspirational Self-Image:

  • What does using the app tell others about the customer?
  • How do customers want to be seen?

Generating Ideas

After you've answered the questions above, work with your team to identify a list of three to five adjectives that describe your app’s brand. It may take some time to get to agreement on the adjectives.

Once you have the adjectives, brainstorm a list of at least 20 name options that reflect those adjectives. Let the list sit for a few days, then review your choices with fresh eyes. Select your top choices and move on to the exercises below in Choosing a Name.

If you have time and can find willing participants, it's a good idea to go through this brainstorming process again, starting over from your adjective list, and including different people. A second, independent round of brainstorming before moving on to choosing a final candidate is a good way to get comprehensive coverage.

To help seed ideas for brainstorming, look at example naming resources, such as Wolf Olin's Naming Handbook for inspiration. Here are some categories of possible names, with U.S.-centric examples:

  • Acronyms (UPS, IBM)
  • Descriptive (Whole Foods, Airbus)
  • Alliteration and Rhyme (Reese's Pieces, Dunkin' Donuts)
  • Evocative (Amazon, Crest)
  • Neologisms (Wii, Kodak)
  • Foreign words (Volvo, Samsung)
  • Founders' names (Hewlett-Packard, Disney)
  • Geography (Cisco, Fuji Film)
  • Personification (Nike, other myths)

Take a critical look at the apps on your phone. What kind of names do they have?

My home screen has

  • Translations from analogue: 7 apps. (e.g. Clock, Notes)
  • Descriptive: 3 apps. (e.g. Headspace, Lyft)
  • Evocative: 3 apps. (e.g. Kindle, Signal)
  • Neologisms: 6 apps. (e.g. Instagram, Trello)

Choosing a Name

Once you have a list of candidate names, start vetting them.

Open the door and shout out the name.
Saying the name out loud, such as "Hey, come look at this thing on XYZ" is a way to bring your project to life. If it's hard to say or you feel embarrassed saying it, then it's probably not the right name.

Try using the name in a sentence.
Is it hard to spell or type? How does it fare with speakers of other languages?

What's the verb that means to use the app?
Right now in San Francisco, WhatsApp is starting to become a verb, but I hear "message me in WhatsApp" or "text me in WhatsApp" as well as "WhatsApp me." Consider if you want your name to work as a verb. For example, Google Drive confuses many people, in part because no one knows what verb to use. Even habitual users struggle to describe using it. "Link it to me on Google Drive?" or "Share it with me on Google Drive?" "Drive" works as an analogue for a disk drive, but the verb phrase probably isn't "Drive it to me." The poor name choice makes it difficult to talk about and form a mental model of how the sharing features of the program work.

Is the name already in use?
Is the domain name available? What search results come up on websites and app stores? Are there legal conflicts? (A rigorous review may require the help of an attorney.)

Is it good enough?
Keep in mind, naming is often anti-climatic. It's fine to settle on an option that elicits a neutral reaction rather than love-at-first-site enthusiasm. The best names are often straight-forward or obvious. "Dropbox" is one example of an app with a clear, straightforward name.

Does it make sense to potential users?
Get user feedback on your choices. This can be as simple as saying that you're working on an app called X, and if someone asks you what it does, turn the question around and ask them what they would expect at app called X to do. Making side-by-side comparisons of app store descriptions or websites introducing the app can help clarify how end-users perceive different names.

What's in a Name?

The name and the values your “brand” expresses are how people find your app in a sea of similar alternatives. It helps them distinguish between options that are trustworthy and those made with snake-oil. Sharing the name is how they encourage their friends to use it, too. If your goal is to get a privacy-preserving app into the hands of as many people as possible, having a strong, memorable, and evocative name is an essential step that your team must take.

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