Your Users are Boring. Help Them Stand Out!

Your users are boring. They have no substance, no identity. Not on your site, at least. All they have are usernames. Or maybe a favicon-sized avatar, or a little profile picture. But guess what? If you have a lot of users (and you want to, right?), that’s not enough for most people to tell most people apart.

I’ve been thinking about online identity since discovering an excellent new (really new, not just new to me) blog on the subject, Own Your Identity by Josh Porter, of Bokardo, and some others who seem to be equally excellent writers/thinkers. While they’re talking about the whys and hows of getting your identities on other sites under your own control, I’d like to talk about why it’s so important for sites to provide identity to their users, and how to do it.

Who Needs It

Sites that…

  • Have user accounts.
  • Have users who are visible to the public.
  • Have users who are visible to each other.
  • Have users who contribute content.

“But my users want to be anonymous!”

Identity != exposure. Identity is about uniqueness, about what sets one user apart from the other; it’s a set of characteristics that represents the person on your site, not necessarily hard facts about the person in front of the screen. A pseudonym is as much of an identity (within the bounds of your site) as a fingerprint. Unfortunately for your users, they’re also about as distinguishable from one another to the average eye.

Why You Need It

Giving your users the ability to distinguish one from another is the single best thing for the health of your community that will happen this year. Why? Better identity = better recognition, which equals:

  • Connections! Connections are great, because users who connect to other users on your site keep coming back!
  • Accountability! Every community gets spammers and trolls and troublemakers (read my post on how to stop bad behavior in online communities); identity helps, well.. identifying them. More importantly, it stops bad behavior before it starts.
  • Credit! You also have great users in your community. You don’t have time to recognize them all one by one, and what makes them great to you won’t make them great to others. Let your users give credit where it’s due, and your best users will love your site for the reinforcement it provides.

How to Do It

First, how not to do it. Minimalism shouldn’t mean indistinguishable, and most sites aren’t much better than Reddit at this. Problems:

  1. Usernames all look alike.
  2. A tiny avatar is seen as three things: color, shape, and light or dark. 9 distinguishable colors x 3 shapes (round, square, asymmetrical) x 2 shades = enough variation for about 54 users.
  3. You can’t count on clicks. Users will not click through to a profile page to make another user stand out in their mind.


  1. Make identity a priority. Content is king, but creators are the king-makers. It’s important for your users to be able to see who’s giving them King Arthur, and who’s giving them George Bush, Jr.
  2. Differentiate usernames. The easiest time I’ve ever had telling usernames apart was on a late-90’s forum that awarded users the ability to change text colors and add effects like “glow” and “shadow” to their names. Of course, the site’s design sucked, and I understand you don’t want to sacrifice design for display. Instead, provide controlled options and limit repetition:
    1. A limited number of colors that complement your design, and are the appropriate shade to display against the background.
    2. A limited selection of fonts. Even more than color, this gives a username personality.
    3. Think outside alpha-numeric! A trail of numbers at the end of a username allows for much less visual variation than letting users insert characters that go between parts of a username, like dashes, underscores, and spaces.
  3. Make pictures large enough to stand out. 50×50 is ideal. 30×30 is the minimum. When appropriate, encourage avatars. Logo-like images have more variation than faces, even at 50×50.
  4. Provide persistent expression with every contribution. Post signatures, user ‘titles’, image overlay banners. Something that lets the user express themselves succinctly, and is attached to all content they contribute.

I’m sure there are plenty of clever UI gurus who can come up with other best practices, making use of CSS or even AJAX effects to enhance the display of identity. But until then, there’s no reason why services couldn’t at least go from this:

To this: