13 January 2011

What's In A Name?

Let's talk about names for a moment, shall we?

I don't mean people names like Erwin or Matilda or Mr. Giggles. I mean names of technology systems, projects and products. Names reveal a lot about how the project leader thinks and how well he or she understands the customer. You could almost say a bad name is a symptom of bad design or an indicator of a lack of design thinking. It's possible for a bad system to have a good name, but a bad name is almost always a sign of a bad design.

In the case of the soup I photographed in a local grocery store (with my handy-dandy camera phone), I wonder how well the soup maker really understands American tastes. For all I know they sell a million of these, but I'm going to take a wild guess and say they probably don't. Yes, I know it's chicken flavor but I can't imagine ever buying this soup mix... and not because I don't like chicken.

Moving from actual soup to acronym soup, let's take a look at a project called DIMHRS. In an earlier post I wrote about how DIMHRS was cancelled after 12 years and $1B dollars. In the words of the SECDEF, all it delivered was an unpronounceable acronym. This shouldn't have been a huge surprise. The thinking process which decided "DIMHRS" is a good name is going to make similarly unfortunate decisions when it comes to designing the system and its associated processes and organizations.

In a similar note, the NRO's Future Imagery Architecture and the Army's Future Combat System were similarly troubled. Both were cancelled after eating up a ton of time and money. I contend their doom was written in their names (and in FIA's case, I even called it at the time). Any project with the word "Future" in its name is never going to deliver, because the future never quite arrives. On the off chance it does deliver, it'll need a new name right away, 'cause if we're using it now, it's not a "Future" system, is it? So why not pick a better name in the first place?

The AFC4ISR Center is an example of an organization with an indecisive name. My highly advanced counting skills tell me there are seven different specialties represented in that organization's name. What we need is a single word that represents this collection of activities. Until that time it's just a collection of competing interests, each jockying for inclusion in the organization's moniker. Not exactly a formula for success, is it? I'm not sayin' the AFC4ISR Center isn't successful - I really don't know much about their operation and I'm sure they're world class in everything they do. I'm just pointing out their name isn't helping them very much.

The issue here is not a question of taste. It's not about a name's complexity. Bad names and long acronyms often indicate unclear thoughts and indecisiveness (i.e. bad leadership). A simple, clear, descriptive name not only communicates what the system or organization is about, it demonstrates that the leaders understand their customers and their mission. That understanding (or lack thereof) is going to show up in the design of the system as well. For example, look out if you're on the receiving end of a process named the Senior Leadership Approval Process (sadly, I didn't make that one up).

Now, who wants some soup?


Glen B. Alleman said...

I know 2 of the 3 personally. One was a "cluster" of software mistakes, bad architecture, poor requirements, and just downright bad execution.

The second one is (was) a seriously flawed concept. This is an actual quote...

“Design and integrate 18 major weapon systems and platforms simultaneously within strict size and weight limitations, while synchronizing the development, demonstration, and production of as many as 157 complementary systems with the Future Combat System content and schedule.”

Failure was baked into to first day.

The Dan Ward said...

Thanks for the first-hand confirmation! I've got some direct experience with one or two of these as well. And I love the quote about integrating 18 systems & platforms... definitely sounds like the same thought process that came up with some of these names.

Drew Duncan said...

From the design side- Bad names don't always equal bad design; sadly though, a bad name is just as bad as bad design. Cock Soup is just one of many that you see. The internet has created especially bad ones. People take the name of their company and turn it into a url, often with disastrous results. One or two examples:

A talent agency called "Who represents" when they went to their computer, they used their whole name for the URL, thus creating www.whorepresents.com

This one is even worse. Ever looked for a therapist online? Chances are the URL therapistfinder.com would deter you.

Bad names are a symptom of someone not paying attention at a crucial time.

The Dan Ward said...

Drew - I thought you were joking with the Whore Presents site... but I clicked the link and it's real! Holy cow that's funny.

And you're right of course that the name giver isn't always the same as the designer, and it's possible for a good design to get a bad name. So it's not a perfect correlation... but generally speaking, it's one possible indication of something deeper that's gone wrong.