How to Appropriately Name Government Services

The words we use as public servants to name government services and programs are important. They shape people’s expectations. Think about it: these words – ideally chosen with care – show the people we serve that we can offer the right solutions and resources to meet their needs. When a name does not match, it is confusing and can lead to misunderstandings.

We learned from it and share some tips in this blog post!

What to do when expectations don’t match…

The first product team I joined at the Canadian Digital Service (CDS) as a content designer was called the pre-discovery team. The pre-discoveries were numerical analyzes government programs to help public servants scale or create a digital service within their own teams. They were originally designed as a way for CDS to assess a partner’s potential for continued engagement.

But, as we began to support digital teams across government, we were still running into the same problem: our stakeholders were asking questions we didn’t have answers to, such as, “When will we move from pre-discovery to discovery?” or “Have we passed the test, will you continue to partner with us?”

While the name “pre-discovery” fits easily into previous CDS ideas about partnerships, the word “pre-” made people assume that there was a next step – a longer-term partnership with CDS. , as a discovery (which was not planned!) After passing by a couple, it became clear that the name of our service was misleading.

Part of the job of a content designer is to cut through the complexity and ambiguity – so I started looking into the history of the service and realized that the scope of the service had evolved since its inception. First it was called a digital assessment (but we weren’t auditioning or testing government programs, we were learning about their digital service delivery), then it was renamed “pre-discovery”. A name that seemed more neutral, but didn’t make sense to our customers.

By conducting a number of content design exercises and testing our ideas with our clients, we identified a new name for our service. Our process involved three steps.

1. Ask the right questions

Asking the right questions can lead you to a meaningful name.

To find candidates for a new name, talk to colleagues providing the service, comb through user searches and artifacts, and ask questions that examine the following points:

  • What does the service/product do for users (from their perspective)?
  • What do you call other things like that? Similar services?
  • What should the name do the most – be memorable, be distinct, really say what it does? Or be funny? Formal or official?
  • Who is it for and what kind of language do they use or might they attract? What do users call the service?
  • What are the synonyms or quasi-synonyms, what is its opposite?
  • What are the other ways of looking at the product/service?

Once you’ve identified the main ideas, analyze what those words mean, where they’re used elsewhere, and what Google says about things with the same or similar name.

Then go a little further: what are the connotations associated with these words or services and do they support the meaning you want to convey? Are they neutral or do they conflict with meaning?

2. Try Word Mapping

A word map is a fun and visual way to group together a set of words people use to describe a service (like a semantic field) and then sort them into common themes. I like to format each word, like a little word bubble.

Once you have a stack of words so big it seems unmanageable, you start grouping words by category or relationship. You can use arrows, lines, colors, etc. to highlight themes and relationships, or you can do something more casual by grouping common ideas and related meanings close together.

Title: The Exploration Word Map (from pre-discovery to exploration)

What’s most useful about this technique is that in the process, you get to know the context and what the service is for, and that’s key to choosing a name that works.

Dividing information into categories simplifies the task and helps you understand what is similar or different from certain words or text strings. In these words you can find the meaning of service and it will lead you to a name. Or, if you’re lucky, you might find the correct name somewhere in this word card.

3. Test your ideas with users

User interviews and workshops are an essential part of the naming process. While best practices and mapping exercises suggest options for a new name, discussions with unbiased customers from different backgrounds serve as a reality check.

In structured interviews or workshops with existing customers, you can ask about different potential names, what meaning they convey, and how those labels align with and diverge from the service received.

These interviews can be part of a larger design research effort. In our case, we asked our customers about names as part of an exit interview where they provided feedback on the service as a whole. By validating that our proposed name communicated the intended meaning and response, we were able to move forward with confidence.

From pre-discovery to exploration

When I started word mapping to better qualify our digital analytics services, the word that stuck with our team was a simple word: Exploration. We were exploring digital service delivery to the Government of Canada with our partners. In many ways, we were charting new territory, making small discoveries along the way, and guiding partners in exploring their own services by looking at them in a new light.

Currently, we are meeting with new partners where they are at in their digital journey to explore their unique digital terms of service (read our blog Explore the terms of digital service delivery to learn more). Explorations don’t always lead to another partnership, and that’s okay!

One takeaway from this experience: if a service name doesn’t work for you and has you scratching your head, don’t learn to live with it, change it! Chances are that if you’re not clear about the purpose of the service based on the name, so is your audience – whether they’re public users accessing government services or civil servants looking for help to bring digital change!

This article is reproduced from Apolitical.

Ashley C. Reynolds