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30 September 2015

Name Your Files for the Readers — If You Care

Filenames — A Trivial Time-waster that Adds Up

How do you react when you see a filename like 500002p.pdf

Is this a file that you want to open? 

Do you think that the author of the file cares whether you open it? 

This one's a little better, but not much:  BBP3.0FactSheetFINAL.pdf.

What Do You Want to Know?

When I look at a filename, the first thing I want to know is what it is. After that, I want version information. 

Some people put their initials first.  In a team folder, the listing will group the Jim files, then the Joe files, then the John files, and so on.  (And then there's Jack who sometimes uses JB and sometimes JEB.)

Then you have to search up and down the screen to find all the versions of the same file.  The larger the team and the longer the project goes on, the more this wastes time and leads to mistakenly working with outdated versions.

A government website has a folder of presentation files in this format:  


Placing the date first is redundant because you could always sort by date in the file explorer view.  Apparently, the Welby made the presentation and worked for Draper, and the topic was some cryptic initialism.  Now, how are we supposed to find presentations on risk management among 74 files with names like that?  Do you have an hour to spend opening all those files?  

There's another human element. When a filename starts with initials or has a serial number instead of a name, my eye says, "random, meaningless letters." Then my amygdala says, "look away!" 

Sometimes my amygdala wins, and sometimes my cerebral cortex wins. That contest creates stress. wastes time, and sometimes blocks communication completely. 

If you have a Content Management System (CMS) or Configuration Management System (also CMS) such as SharePoint, you have ways around this.  You can add fields for author, date, version, and subject.  

Often, however, we are stuck with filenames.  Even if your team has a CMS, you will still sometimes wish to download a file to your own drive.  If you don't remember what's in that cryptically named file three months from now, will you even bother to open it?

Since I read from left to right, and since an alphabetical sort proceeds from left to right, I recommend the following name format:

topic - [rev or yyyy-mm-dd [24-hour time if needed] ] - initials


meeting notes, team, 2015-08-01, rev A, rw.docx

Filenames should be in plain English. 

When I download files, I hate seeing files with names like BB097834.pdf.  I should not have to download and open a file in order to determine whether I want to download and open it. 

And by the way, who is JS, and does he or she even work here any more?  Does it feel professionalI to use your initials?  How professional will it seem to others, two years after you've taken that big promotion at another company and nobody here remembers whom JS was? Spell things out.

Some content management systems assign garbage names automatically.  We cannot do anything about that.  And some authors write only for their own vanity.  They do not care whether anybody reads what they wrote.  Try not to obsess over it; I've already done that for you.

A filename is like a headline or the title of an opus.  

A good author or editor knows that Job One is attracting an audience and, therefore, puts a lot of effort into creating a meaningful, eye-catching filename. Which would the classical music lover in your life rather listen to?
  • PITop066.mp3
  • Sleeping Beauty, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, opus 66.mp3

It's about more than efficiency. It's about consideration.

Copyright 2015 Richard Wheeler

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