Language selection

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How to thoughtfully 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: those words — ideally, carefully chosen — show the people we serve that we can offer the right solutions and resources to meet their needs. When a name doesn’t fit, it’s confusing and can lead to misunderstandings.

We learned from this and are sharing a few tips in this blog post!

What to do when expectations don’t line up…

The first product team I joined at CDS, as a Content Designer, was called the Pre-Discovery team. Pre-Discoveries were digital analyses of government programs to help public servants scale or build a digital service within their own teams. They were first conceived as a way for CDS to gauge a partner’s potential for an ongoing engagement.

But, as we started to support digital teams across the government, we kept hitting the same problem: Our stakeholders were asking questions we didn’t have the answers to — like, “When will we move from Pre-Discovery to Discovery?” or “Did we pass the test, will you continue to partner with us?”

While the name “Pre-Discovery” easily fit into CDS’s previous ideas about partnerships, the word “pre” made people assume there was a next step — a longer-term partnership with CDS, like a Discovery (that was not planned!) After going through a couple, it became evident that the name of our service was misleading.

Part of a Content Designer’s job is to cut through complexity and ambiguity — so I started looking into the service history and realized that the scope of the service had evolved since its creation. First it was called a Digital Assessment (but we weren’t auditing 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 was not meaningful to our clients.

Through conducting a number of content design exercises and testing our ideas with our clients, we identified a new name for our service. Our process had 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 delivering the service, comb through user research and artifacts, and ask questions that examine the following:

  • What does the service/product do for users (from their perspective)?
  • What are other things like it called? Similar services?
  • What does the name need to do 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 appeal to them? What do users call the service?
  • What are some synonyms or near synonyms, what’s its opposite?
  • What are other ways of looking at the product/service?

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

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

2. Try word mapping

A word map is a fun, visual way to throw a bunch of words together that people are using to describe a service (like a semantic field) and then sort them into common themes. I like to put each word in a shape, like a little word bubble.

Once you have a pile of words so big it looks unmanageable, you start grouping words together by category or relationship. You can use arrows, lines, colours, etc., to highlight themes and relationships, or you can do something more casual by grouping common ideas and related meanings in proximity to each other.


Title: The Exploration Word Map (from Pre-Discovery to Exploration)

What’s most helpful about this technique is that in the process, you get to know the context and what the service is for, and that’s essential to selecting a name that fits.

Breaking information down into categories simplifies the task and helps you understand what’s similar or different about certain words or text strings. In these words you can find the meaning of the service and that will lead you to a name. Or, if you’re lucky, you might find the right name somewhere in that word map.

3. Test your ideas with users

Interviews and workshops with users are a critical part of the naming process. While best practices and mapping exercises suggest options for a new name, discussions with unbiased clients from different contexts serve as a reality check.

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

These interviews can be a part of a larger design research effort. In our case, we asked our clients about names as a 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!

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

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

A takeaway from this experience: If a service name doesn’t quite fit and has you scratching your head, don’t learn to live with it — change it! Chances are, if you’re unclear on the service’s purpose based on the name, your audience is too — whether they’re public users accessing government services or public servants looking for help bringing about digital change!

Interested in exploring your digital readiness? We can help! See how.

Curious to discover other content design techniques? Well, we have a few suggestions for you:

  • The book Everyday Information Architecture by Lisa Maria Martin is a fantastic primer to get you started with analyzing content, categorizing and organizing information, while growing your awareness of how people understand words and information.

  • For more on sensemaking in complexity, Abby Covert’s book How to Make Sense of Any Mess is a great place to start.

  • In their book, Good Services: How to design services that work (a must-read for public service design), Lou Downe recommends naming a service with a verb. That way, you say what the service does from the point of view of the person receiving the service. (In our bilingual context, a noun with the suffix “-ation” which signals “a process” worked better. And sometimes this has the bonus of being the same word in French.)