One brand to fool them all

As you might have realised, I work at Curtin University, formerly Curtin University of Technology (CUT), formerly – though conceivably somewhat apocryphally – Curtin University of New Technology (CU*T), formerly the Western Australian Institute of Technology (WAIT), formerly Perth Technical College, formerly Perth Technical School, formerly – and definitely more apocryphally – the New Holland Colonial Blacksmith and Breakfast Bar, formerly the East Gondwana School of Blunt Instruments.

We’re not good at names.

One of the most frustrating aspects of this particular institutional blight is how it plays out in the University’s ICT services. There are those who must spend long dark hours of their lives dreaming up grandiose names with which to inspire the huddled masses to come forth and be dazzled by yet another online service. The problem is that we have hundreds of such services, and it’s an act of cognitive warfare to suggest that we should memorise that many bizarre acronyms and cute but hideously overly-generic terms and the circumstances in which they must be applied. Without wishing to blame anyone in particular, it’s all getting a bit ridiculous.

You can see how and why it happens. The University’s ICT infrastructure has grown organically, bits and pieces being added over time with no real coordination. This is probably inevitable in a large, diverse organisation. The plethora of different ICT services resemble a market, with each different product competing for mind share. However, it’s not a market, and in theory we’re supposed to use all of the relevant services. So, when a new service is added or updated, it suddenly becomes Very Important that everyone bow down before the mighty ingenuity involved, and recognise the sudden urgency with which the new technology must be adopted. The next service to be added or updated after that requires the same thing, and so on. To make it happen, each of these new services can’t just be named – they must be branded. ICT services are not just provided at Curtin – they are, in the marketing sense, sold.

Several years ago, University management commissioned the “OASIS” website, with the aim of integrating all the disparate online services (and introducing our beloved Official Communication Channel). OASIS originally stood stands for “Online Access to Student Information Service” (a backronym, one presumes). Now, however, it doesn’t seem to stand for anything. It’s just a meaningless name, and thus is itself a perfect example of the problem at work.

OASIS was originally marketted as the “One Site to Rule Them All”, which it sort of is, but only at a very superficial level. There’s a lot of delegation involved, and the “ruling them all” bit only goes as far as logging in. Once you’re logged in, you still need to navigate a maze of services that are still essentially separate niche applications. The fact that these are not fully integrated, functionally and stylistically, is not the first problem. The first problem is what they’re all called.

Names of these services include “eVALUate”, “StudentOne”, “eStudent”, and “eAcademic”, among others. My point is perhaps more easily grasped by an outsider, for whom these names must seem rather useless as descriptions of what the systems actually do. Indeed they are – eVALUuate has nothing to do with grading or student results, StudentOne is inaccessible to students, eStudent provides nothing that students will find useful on a regular basis, and eAcademic is actually used to access student information. (The true functions of these systems are, of course, better understood by Curtin staff and students than by outsiders, but only by being forced to use them.)

Now, there are many ways in which these services might be better integrated, but a not-insignificant amount of confusion and cognitive waste could be alleviated simply by coming up with names that actually make sense. By this, I mean intuitively obvious, not requiring large-scale internal marketing programs. The ICT branding we have at the moment is a complete waste of resources at every level. In my ever-humble opinion, all these services should have purely functional names. They should not stand out. They should not be cute, or cool, or inspiring, or grandiose. They should be simple, accurate, no-nonsense descriptions of the services provided. For instance:

  • OASIS should be called “Curtin online services”
  • eVALUate should be called “Course/teaching feedback”
  • StudentOne should be called “Student database”
  • eStudent should be called “View/update your enrolment details”
  • eAcademic should be called “View student details”

At least, that gives you some idea.

I don’t know how the mind of a marketing person might react to this. I’d hope that a good marketing person might recognise the merits of functional naming as a means of encouraging the use of ICT services.