Behind the Scenes : Part 1 – Branding

Ahh.. Microsoft Expression Studio.  Today we announced our final availability, pricing, naming, and key UI innovations for the Expression family.  Expression Web is shipping now, with the rest of the family (Expression Blend, Design, Media, and Web) shipping together within Expression Studio in the second quarter of 2007 (springtime in northern hemisphere).

As the original product manager for this project (there are now 20 or so of us globally) I have had the distinct pleasure of seeing some of the project issues through from the very beginning of the cycle.  As such I thought it might be of interest to folks if I wrote about three aspects of Expression Studio that have only recently fully come to light with today’s news: the names of the products, the new amazing UI of the family (seen in today’s Beta and CTP releases), and the components that make up the suite itself (the specific tools we invested in for V1 of the family).  For today’s entry I’ll cover naming, and will add the other two later this week.

What’s in a name? 

We’ve had a lot of fun naming these products…  and by fun I really am talking about FUN.  Ha!  Laugh out loud fun J  We did the classic marketing thing and went out over 2.5 years ago and did focus groups, worked with a creative agency to generate name candidates, and then ran quant research validation with web surveys etc.  We came back with some great name ideas… but actually getting a name onto the products was a meandering process that I could never have imagined prior to working here at msft.  For those of you that didn’t follow it, we originally announced the Expression family at PDC in September of 2005, with really silly long and complicated names; we then shortened those down a bit 6 months later, and then today, finally unveiled even shorter and different/improved final names.  Along the way we had plenty of customers raising their eyebrows saying “are you serious?” when they first heard the names, but we also had folks saying “yeah, that makes a lot of sense, thank you for giving the products really clear descriptive names as that helps me to understand what you are doing with all of these new products”—which just goes to show you that there’s a range of reactions to everything in this world, including software product names!

It has been fun for me personally because it has been an amazing experience to work at such a large company and to see the demands and concerns that are specific to only a large organization like this.  It’s really easy to look at some of the end results of Microsoft product names and think they are laughably long and bad (my favorite, the way we combine long names with equally long descriptors of release CTP versions (such as “Windows Presentation Foundation Everywhere December 2006 CTP”, which is available today!).  Thing is, if you are here in the hallways in Redmond, and you are part of the process itself, you actually come to understand all the reasons why things end up the way they do.  Don’t think for a second we don’t “get it” ourselves… just look at this self-parody video that our branding group put together for an internal meeting (“if Microsoft designed the iPod packaging”).  In my previous naming assignments (before I was at msft) I was involved in naming interesting software product with names like “Commotion”, “ImageLounge”, and “CineWave”—the first time the Expression names were introduced to market over 18 months ago, we had names that rolled off the tongue like “Microsoft Expression Quartz Web Designer September 2005 Community Technology Preview”.  One of the team’s developers pointed out to me at the time that on a low enough resolution monitor (1024*768) the name actually didn’t fit in the title bar of the window!

So how did we come from where we started to where we are now, with Expression Blend/Design/Web/Media and the all encompassing Expression Studio?  Well, a key part of the journey was actually involving customers.  We’ve had over 500,000 downloads of our CTPs to date, and hundreds and hundreds of customer meetings and interactions, at their studios, at events, online, and in the forums for the products.  Believe it or not, we listened and were able to use “community feedback” to help drive changes in our processes to get to a much happier place with the product names.  For me personally I know that naming these products will always be remembered as one of the most interesting challenges of my professional career, not only to date, but likely (hopefully so as to never have to repeat) in my entire life!  But that is not to say that it was demoralizing or frustrating intellectually—everything that happened transpired for very good reasons, that made complete sense given the business process, logic, etc at any given moment in the process.

In writing this blog entry I guess in some ways I want to apologize personally to the press in particular!  I do lots of briefings with the press throughout the year, either when we have news or when we have time at events/etc. to sit down and talk about the industry.  For almost 18 months now I’ve had to spend a good 5 minutes explaining the names of these products, as they kept changing and we kept adding new products to the suite!  If you take a look at Darryl K. Taft’s story on eWeek.com today you’ll get a sense of what a pain this has been for folks in the press (sorry Darryl and a gold medal for you for being able to keep it straight!!); just look at this paragraph:  “The Microsoft Expression Studio consists of Expression Web (formerly known by the code name Quartz); Expression Blend, the new name for Microsoft Interactive Designer (formerly known by the code name Sparkle); Expression Design, the new name for Expression Graphic Designer (formerly known by the code name Acrylic); and a new tool, Expression Media.”  Arggh!  Ok, no more of that, ever again.  Now we have our real names out there and we can move on to talking about the technology and the work of designers!

As a closing thought: when my wife and I travel on vacation we often discuss during the trip (at the aiport, on the flight, in the rental car) whether travelling is about the “journey” or the “destination”.  On a trip, is it about getting lost on back country roads and stumbling upon the best restaurant of the trip on the way to Positano (Italy), or is it about being there on the beach taking a nap?  Certainly the name of a product is usually entirely about the “destination”–as far as customers are concerned they only know about the gorgeous final product name (Xbox 360, Zune, Dynamics, Live, Windows, Visual Studio, Office… don’t forget, we actually have MANY good ones here at msft!).  Certainly for those involved in naming a product, the journey is also a very important part of the experience… and I guess in the case of Microsoft Expression, you can thank us for sharing some of that “journey” with our customers, the good and the, shall we say, “confusing”.

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