Why Your App Name is Dumb

Have you noticed how absolutely stupid some iOS app names are? I really mean this — just calling your app “InstaX” doesn’t mean it is as good or as cool as the original. 1 When I am browsing the App Store you have two chances to catch my attention:

  1. With your icon.
  2. With your app name.

If I can’t decipher what your app does from one of those two (or both), then you need to be:

  • Featured on Daring Fireball, or;
  • immensely popular.

Just take a look at some of the apps that you have on your iOS device and ask yourself: “If I didn’t already know what this app did — is it self-evident from the icon and name?”

Chances are that it isn’t and some of the time this isn’t the developers fault. Perhaps the name is too long to fit, or the name is already taken by another developer. Then developers need to get creative, but they should never get so creative that potential new users can’t figure out what in the hell your app does.

Let’s look at some examples. 2

Bad iOS App Names from Apps I Love and Use

First up has to be Calvetica which is a great little calendar replacement app for the iPhone. I absolutely love this app and can’t imagine going back to the built in app, but even at that, the name and icon are pretty poor choices.

Here is the Calvetica icon:

Calvetica Icon

Take a look at that icon — if I hadn’t told you what the icon was for, would you know what the app does? I look at that icon and it tells me two things:

  1. I can seemingly add something with it (the plus sign).
  2. The app must be very simple in design using light grays and red.

Truly the icon sells the fact that design and minimalism seem to matter in the app. That’s all I get out of it and perhaps that’s all I need given the name:

Calvetica

In looking at the name and the icon together I only get one clarification: the app must use the typeface Helvetica, because that is clearly what the name is playing off of for the ‘vetica’ portion. Let’s look at the first part though: the ‘Cal’. If this app was just called ‘Cal’ put with an icon that has a giant plus sign on it — what would you think that app does? Personally I would think it is a calculator app, actually the full name and icon very much make it seem like a lovely swiss designed calculator app for my iPhone. I would still buy it it because hey a nice calculator app is always handy, but this isn’t about calculators — it is about calendars. Given that both the icon and the app name don’t seem to be that self-evident.

Moving along let’s look at another app: Foursquare. Again let’s take a look at Foursquare’s icon first:

Foursquare Icon

All that icon tells me is that it is either a game or a check-list app. It’s a blue blob with a purple golf ball and a check mark — I am not sure what else you could get out of that icon (assuming you don’t already know about the service) 3 . So let’s look at the name:

Foursquare

Oh I know foursquare, it’s a game I played in elementary school during recess — clearly this is an iOS game where I bounce a rubber ball around against the computer — neat. Except we all know that’s not what the app does, it checks you into different locations and declares you the Mayor of random places. Yet, the only part of the name and icon that even vaguely resembles that fact is the check mark — which again is more closely associated with to-do lists and not check-ins.

This, I think, is a major problem with many iOS apps that aren’t games — you see this repeated over and over. If you are not a game you might consider being a little more explanative in your icons and naming conventions.

An App Name That Is Saved by the Icon

Just like above, this is an app that I use and love. What makes this app different is that even though it has a poor name, the icon saves its bacon.

The app is Instagram, which has a name that really doesn’t mean a whole ton to those unfamiliar with the app. Insta + Gram — sounds more like a telegram or one of those little singing teddy-grams, than it sounds like a social Polaroid app. In fact if I had to guess based off the name alone I might guess that it is another group messaging app.

Take a look at the icon though:

Instagram Icon

Now you know this is one of one-million photo apps in the iTunes store. Pair that icon with the name ‘Instagram’ and you now get the sense that this app is about quick photos of some sort — which in truth is a pretty accurate description. The icon in this case aves the mediocre name. This is a fine solution as you rarely ever see the name standing alone in the app store — so the fact that the larger attribute (the icon) is easily descriptive of the app means that potential customers are more likely to be drawn into the app description page.

Runner-up: Soulver.

An App Whose Icon Is Saved by a Name

Now we need to pick on Simplenote — an app and service that I really love. 4 Unfortunately looking at this icon tells you nothing about the app:

Simplenote Icon

What about this icon tells you what the app does, or even what the app could be called? Nothing, really. But, the name: “Simplenote” is damned descriptive and tells you exactly what the app is about: taking simple notes. That is pretty strong and even with the weak icon any person in the market for a note taking app should understand what this app is all about just from the name.

Coupling the name and the icon together give the the clean, minimalist note taking feel that is actually a fair representation of the app itself. Unlike in the last scenario though, the strong name may not be enough to combat a user glossing over the app as they look for stronger icons. 5

Apps That Have Descriptive and Clever Icons and Names

Now we get to those apps that have both excellently chosen icons and excellently chosen names. I have two, non-Apple, examples to bring up — the first is Delivery Status Touch.

Of course that is not the name that is displayed on your homescreen, the much more succinct “Deliveries” name is used. Couple that with this icon:

Delivery Status Touch Icon

Now coupling that icon of a brown box with a shipping label on it, with the name Deliveries and you get a pretty decent idea of what this app does: updating you on the status of deliveries. OK maybe not that clear, but you do get the idea that this app is all about shipping and receiving — which is pretty good for one word and a small icon that actually contains a fair bit of detail in it.

Another great example is Pastebot, where you have a name that means something to computer users in “Paste” and the expectation of something being automated with the use of the word “bot”. Add to that this icon:

Pastebot Icon

Seeing that icon I can immediately see it is a clipboard and putting two and two together I now know it has something to do with automating the pasting of your clipboard. Interestingly, I still don’t know what the app does exactly (allowing you to paste items from your Mac’s clipboard in iOS), but then how the heck do you convey that utility with one word and one icon?

Both of these apps do a great job of combining short descriptive names with pleasingly well designed app icons to convey a general understanding of their apps to non-users.

Sales versus Clever

In looking at tons of app icons and app names it seems to be evident to me that iOS developers are attempting one of two things most of the time:

  1. Developers are going for sales numbers with straight forward and obvious naming and icon conventions. Weather apps are most prone to this, but other apps like Twitter clients are also guilty. This is not necessarily a bad thing — it is just a ‘thing’.
  2. Developers are going for a very clever name — clarity be damned. This is what happens when you start adding “Insta” to everything, or when you start making abstract art your icon. This is far more trendy among developers targeting early adopters.

I am not saying one is right and the other wrong, but there is an important distinction and very few apps that hit the nail on the head with both a marketable icon and name while still being a clever name. I think both Delivery Status Touch and Pastebot bridged that gap, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have instant success.

An Aside on Clever Names

Perhaps the most clever app name in the entire app store is Garrett Murray’s aptly named: Ego. You see Ego is the name of his app that tracks your popularity stats (Mint, Google Analytics, Twitter followers, Vimeo Plays and so on). Ego is an app that helps to either feed your ego (if you are popular) or deflate your ego, if, well you get the picture.

Ego isn’t an app that if you come across it in the app store you would immediately know what it was — either by its icon or its name. It is though perhaps the most clever name I have seen in the app store, because anybody who knows what it is — gets the name and usually finds the humor in the name.

What I Mean To Say

What I really spent all this time talking about is the absurd names and icons that developers are using. Should an iPhone user really have to get used to the fact that the name and icon of their new calendar app is best suited for calculator app, or should they immediately know what’s what? I for one have never been confused by the name of the official Twitter app, nor have I been confused by the icon. I do need to get used to many other apps and their icons and that just seems silly to me — it seems a bit lazy on the developers part.

If I decide that I want to switch my current calculator app for another on my homescreen shouldn’t the icon be recognizable as a calculator app — thus keeping me from having to read the small Helvetica type? I think so.

  1. Which would be Instapaper.
  2. I know this is what you were waiting for, and all the apps I am about to name are ones that I use and love — I just happen to think the names are poor choices. Then again, I don’t have an app so can I even really talk about this? I think yes, because after all I am a customer and ultimately what I, or any other customer thinks matters. I vote with my wallet.
  3. Even if you do know about the service there is a fair bet that you have only heard the name and still don’t know what it is all about.
  4. And that I pay for.
  5. Note: There has been a long and troubled history with Simplenote and its icon choices. I don’t want to reopen that debate, I don’t hate the current icon, but I am also not sure it is the best icon to help grow the user base.
Originally posted for members on: March 29, 2011
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