To Give an Idea Flight, First Give It a Name

by | Apr 6, 2005 | Marketing

XHTML, CSS, DOM, XML, XSLT, XMLHttpRequest, and JavaScript were just programmers’ techno-babble…until they were collectively christened “Ajax.”

On February 18, 2005, Jesse James Garrett (founder of Adaptive Path, wrote a brief essay entitled “Ajax: A New Approach to Web Applications” about a specific combination of web-related technologies that he had observed some other firms using to build their recent web applications.

The technologies were not new—a similar essay describing their usage had been written by the widely-read Dave Shea a month previously—but interest in them had been limited until Garrett’s article. It’s hard to write about “XHTML, CSS, DOM, XML, XSLT, XMLHttpRequest, and JavaScript” in a way that appeals to the masses.

Garrett’s essay changed all that. His write-up contained a single magical line that nobody else had previously attempted (emphasis mine):

Google Suggest and Google Maps are two examples of a new approach to web applications that we at Adaptive Path have been calling Ajax. The name is shorthand for Asynchronous JavaScript + XML, and it represents a fundamental shift in whats possible on the Web.

That was it. Stating that his company had given this combination of technologies a name helped to crystalize it in people’s minds. It was no longer an arcane technique to be understood only be software developers—it was now a concept, a philsophy, a lifestyle.

The coining of its name pushed Ajax into the mainstream. Naturally, this stirred some controversy among those who were country before country was cool, but that’s acceptable collateral damage when you consider that the power of the name got the technology written up in places like the Wall Street Journal:

The term Ajax was coined last month by Jesse James Garrett, of the San Francisco Web consulting firm Adaptive Path. He came up with the pseudo-acronym in the shower while searching for a shorthand way to explain to clients how the recent offerings by Google can perform so robustly.

Instead of forcing people to understand the details in order to see the big picture, Garrett painted the big picture for them and let them discover the details as they needed them. Once folks saw this bird’s-eye view of the technologies, they become fascinated with them—not just Adaptive Path clients, but designers, developers, programmers, technopundits, the media, and many others.

I can understand how a software engineer might take offense at the fact that this years-old concept is suddenly trendy because of its sexy new name, but it can’t be denied that this act of spontaneous branding has lifted a remarkable development technique out of the shadows and into enthusastic and widespread use.

I had a similar experience with a client to whom I was trying to explain the advantages of CSS layouts and standards-based development, as opposed to the traditional table-based layout methods used by web designers. It didn’t click until I demonstrated the CSS Zen Garden. After that, the specifics of the technology didn’t matter to her; she just knew she wanted “that zen garden thing” for her new site.

That may sound silly, but it’s not. People have lives and jobs and better things to do than muddle through the details of whatever you’re trying to explain to them. A simple overview with an easily-memorable name gives them something they can hold on to. It’s a foundation upon which you can build additional details at a later time.

The next time you have a complicated concept to explain, start with a strong name and a brief, simply-worded overview. Save the ugly details for later.

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