Main illustration: Alice Lee
Any word can be powerful, but names are transformative. A good product name gives that product a certain shape — for the team designing it, and for those who use it.
To choose a memorable name for a product, start with the jobs you want people to associate it with.
A name can help people create a mental model for your product, which helps them to remember and associate your product with a particular job.
Other factors come into play, including how a name sounds, and how distinctive, appropriate, likable, extendable, and protectable it is. But most important is that the name is remembered and understood.
So to choose a memorable name for a product, you can start with the jobs you want people to remember it for.
Who needs to remember the name?
Operator is a bot we designed to do simple, straightforward jobs. In fact, we didn’t start out with the aim of designing a “bot” at all – we started with the jobs first.
As we began research into the bot that would grow up to be Operator, we learned that, contrary to prevailing bot design recommendations at the time, our bot didn’t need much of a personality to get its job done. In fact, the more it tried to be human, the more humans rejected it. That’s why we avoided giving it a name at first: having a bot that introduced itself by name damaged it in the eyes of end users.
But as Operator matured, we had another audience to consider: our customers.
We wanted our customers to remember and understand all the jobs Operator did – so they could get a handle on this thing that was helping their end users.
The paths we didn’t take
We decided early on that we didn’t want to use a proper, human name, for two reasons:
- It would endow our bot with more personality than it needed.
- It would associate it with bots that do have a persona, like Alexa or Siri.
We also sidestepped some issues by avoiding a human name. Gender has been a problem for bots designed to have personality. But we knew any choice of gender would load Operator with associations. Even though we were drawing on an old, Mad Men-era name, we didn’t want old, Mad Men-era stereotypes.
And gender wouldn’t improve Operator’s ability to do its job. In fact, extrapolating from our research into personality, it likely would have made it less usable.
We also discarded the idea of simply calling it “Intercom”. This was a viable direction – think of Google Assistant’s “OK, Google”. Their brand is so deeply associated with algorithmic intelligence and the retrieval of knowledge that building a voice for that brand was far wiser than creating a separate entity. Making their assistant an animated, voice-activated version of the search engine itself was a paradoxically subtle choice.
Our starting point was different, and so our design direction was different.
Because we designed our bot starting from a job, we felt a kinship with names that described the job. A job-oriented name creates borders for us to design within. Those borders set subtle constraints for what’s appropriate for the feature or features that evolve from those designs.
Because of that, our naming workshop circled back to the jobs Operator started out with.
Those jobs fall into two camps:
- Things humans can do, but that are easily automated.
- Things humans can’t do, because (being human) they aren’t always online.
That sets a pretty broad set of constraints for our bot. Between those camps, it can take on many tasks:
- Collect contact details to keep people connected.
- Answer simple questions.
- Send status updates.
Of those jobs, one common characteristic shines through. Operator isn’t designed to create a relationship. It only speaks when it can serve a specific purpose.
If you were talking to a phone operator 60 years ago, their role was clear: you were talking to a human, but without the intent to carry on the conversation. Creating a relationship wasn’t the job.
In a similar way, we knew from our research that Operator worked best as a quiet figure. Its role was to be a conduit between people – just like a human phone operator.
We knew Operator was a name used by a few other bots, by songs, by movies. In naming, sometimes there’s nothing new under the sun. Operator still felt like our sweet spot. We considered names like “Front Desk”, and for a while even called it “Responder”.
But the strongest names we came up with fit within an idea of old-school tech that’s still intuitive, but able to be reframed. These things are the human-powered machinery of communication.
As Operator becomes associated with Intercom, we hope that its presence will feel like a natural part of Intercom. We hope that you’ll expect it when you open Intercom Messenger, just as an operator was once expected when you picked up a phone.
A name to grow into
A good name creates a strong association that can be easily remembered. But to create that association, you have to define what jobs you won’t cover. You must create a border around the job you want the product to do.
Choosing a name is like any design choice. Deciding what associations you don’t want to create means deciding what direction you want the product to take — deciding the direction of growth.
We chose a name with a built-in design opinion. Operator was a choice to move away from the “human” end of the chatbot landscape. Because of that choice, Operator should never try to be too human. The name, as much as the rest of our principles, is attuned to the design choices we made.
That doesn’t mean Operator can’t grow. Our customers are already asking how and when they can build new capabilities for its platform. But in keeping with the name, it will always be to support human conversation, not replace it.