NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, UK — You are paralyzed in the consumer electronics area of a shop, wondering if it was the XC2137 or the XC2238 you had decided you wanted. Triumphantly you break free of the paralysis and decide it was the XC2137 -- only to be dismayed when the sales assistant asks if you would like the A, B, or C version, but they have only got the C version in stock. We have all been there.
At this point, most people get up-sold to the C version or even a completely different model or maker with which they are sometimes happy and sometimes not. What they should probably do is walk away until the vendor in question mends its ways.
Any search for an LCD TV on the Internet will show that this is no exaggeration. In some cases the only numbers that change in the nine-digit string that marks out different televisions are the numbers that denote screen size; for instance the Samsung UE55F8500 and the UE46F8500. Now, electronic engineers and electronics-savvy buyers can probably work that out and make sure they are not getting something too large, but not every punter understands product codes or how screen sizes are measured on the diagonal and so on.
Nonetheless, this isn't too horrific -- if you know what you're looking for -- but then they go and throw in a UE32F6400 and UE39F5500 to confuse the situation. Why have the numbers at the end now changed and what do they signify?
It would be remiss of me not mention the ultimate lover of complicated product names, Nokia.
Some phones like the 5110 and 3310 have achieved lasting fame in Generation Y [ed. note: not with me], but a quick glimpse through the 12 versions of the Lumia phone leaves me none the wiser on which phone might be best for me or even how I start deciding.
It all becomes a bit of product code lottery, but what is clear is that such companies care more about their SKU naming conventions than their customers. SKU is, of course, short for stock-keeping unit, and it seems that many consumer electronics brands want to make customers think like warehouse logistics computers.
If you want your brand to mean something to potential customers, then your product names need to reflect what matters to them, not what is convenient to you. If a company must insist on offering every possible derivative of a product because it believes customers must have almost infinite choice or they will go elsewhere, then at least give your non-technical customers a fighting chance at working out where their needs fall in the product spectrum.
There are some markets that get this right. Some car companies do an excellent job at helping you decide, a couple even using numbers as part of that process. BMW has its 1 through 7 series increasing in price. Audi has the same. Nissan goes for names that reflect its cars' uses: Pixo, Micra, Note, Juke, Qashqai, X-Trail, and Pathfinder, with Leaf as "green" electric car. There are extra options on top of those conventions but for a £20,000 to £30,000 machine (US$30,000 to $45,000), and you can pay more, a little bit of additional research is OK. Internally, Nissan cars probably do have names like the F30a/b/c, but the company respects its customers and the sales process enough to hide that from them and make their lives easier.
I would like to give these companies the benefit of the doubt and say that these ridiculous names have come from an ever expanding range of products, but you only have to look at the sectors where they offer a single product to see this isn't true. I can promise you that a better name for the Sony HMZ-T2 would be Sony 3D Immerse or even just Sony Glass.
There are some consumer companies that do a great job, like Google's phone and tablet range (Nexus 4/7/10), and Apple's Mac computer lineup is pretty simple. But they are few and far between in a sea of numbers, letters, and surprise sub-options just waiting to lose a company a sale at the last minute.
— Simon Barker is chief technology officer of Radfan, based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England.