Please, keep it simple

February 24, 2012 | 6 comments

I really feel like Microsoft turned a corner a few years ago, and I’ve been impressed with their decision-making for a while. Windows Phone? Pretty neat, actually. “Authentically digital” interfaces? A thousand times yes. Simplified Windows 8 branding? Completely agree.

Their decision to simplify their application line-up is another smart move. Your Windows Live ID is now just your Microsoft account; Windows Live Mail is just Mail; Zune Music Player is just Music. And so on.

Just as they’re removing all those bevels and shines with their authentically digital Metro interface, they’re removing the gimmicky branding that’s dogged software naming over the last ten years. Names like Windows Live Photo Gallery are confusing, they smack of design-by-committee, and, contrary to the presumed intention, they sap the product of any discernible personality. Just freaking call the thingĀ Photos and concentrate on making it useful.

Kudos to Microsoft on making that decision.

Startups should also learn from this. Don’t try and invent your own vocabulary: your users won’t thank you for unnatural branding that clutters up your interfaces and forces them to think about what your feature actually does. If it’s a photo gallery, call it Photos, or, y’know, Photo Gallery. If it’s a music player, call it Music. And concentrate on making it fantastic.

In other words, differentiate your product by making it the best damn product of its kind. Anything else is disingenuous.

Update: Note that I’m not arguing against brands here! But minimize your brands. Twitter has tweets, because a tweet was a new thing (a 140-character status message). But Instagram has photos rather than Instaclips, Asana has tasks, etc etc. I’m not arguing that Google should have been called “Search” at all – but Google Docs is a reasonable name, rather than Google Pro Suite or something.

Another update: Stephen Downes got in touch with me to let me know there’s a racist meaning for this phrase. As Stephen pointed out to me, according to Wikipedia, the phrase predates the racist version – but nonetheless, I will avoid it in future. Racism is against everything I believe in, and I apologize to anyone who may have been upset by the association. I’ve altered the post title.

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6 Comments

  1. I’m a loud and proud Windows Phone user these days, and although hadn’t thought of it in these terms I have appreciated the simple categorisation the interface offers me. People. Games. Photos. Conceptually great to know what to expect and less focus on tools more on what I want to do.

    Katie Piatt February 24, 2012 (11:44 am)
  2. Well said! With all of the complexities of the technological world, simplicity shines like a star.

    Gary February 24, 2012 (2:02 pm)
  3. Should Google have been called “Search”? Should Amazon have been called “Bookstore”? Or EBay “Auctions”? There’s something to be said for having a unique name, as long as you don’t go overboard with it.

    Even “Windows” is just an arbitrary name these days. Sure, back in the 1980′s, it was the main feature of the software, but these days it’s just a random word: “Windows Phone” has no windows. :-)

    Alex February 24, 2012 (2:03 pm)
  4. There have always been some fairly clever marketers at Microsoft (and many that aren’t). I worked on the team that helped build the first version of the Microsoft CRM product (Now called Dynamics I think). Part of the thinking that went into the original product name was that competitors would constantly be saying the name of the Microsoft product when pitching their own product.

    Mark M February 24, 2012 (2:25 pm)
  5. @Alex: Spot the difference. The examples in the article are products, the examples you give are companies.

    Tim Oxley February 24, 2012 (2:48 pm)
  6. The worst offender, as far as Microsoft products’ names go, is Windows Internet Explorer. Too long a name, and too similar to Windows Explorer. While we’re at it, Windows Explorer shouldn’t even be named Explorer at all, given that it does something completely different from IE. I imagine it must carry that vestigial name from the age when Microsoft insisted that users should browse their desktop as they do the web. The terminology in IE is annoying as well. “Shortcuts” instead of links, “favorites” instead of bookmarks… terms still used to this day in IE 9. Give me a break!

    On a related note, I’ve never uttered the name “Microsoft Office Word” non-ironically. I’ve always referred to it as “Word” or “Microsoft Word”. What was Microsoft expecting us to do with the extra verbiage in Word, Excel, and Power Point’s former official names? Yes, it’s time to put an end to tl;dr names for products.

    Andres Cabezas February 24, 2012 (3:40 pm)

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