recently decried the “first come, first served” username system that so many digital platforms adopt. In response to my post, a lengthy Hacker News discussion was born, and I spent a Sunday answering thoughtful emails and Tweets. Readers asked questions, shared ideas, and pointed out many novel username systems in operation. Below are follow-up notes edited into a Q&A.

Thanks to everyone who chimed in. While I’m on this kick, feel free to send more feedback via Twitter.

What do you think about recycling old usernames?

You register an account, maybe post content, and then leave forever. Is it right for an algorithm to snatch away your dusty handle?

Last year, Tumblr did just that. It sent emails to all inactive subscribers and offered a choice: login or die. If the member checked in, their inactivity was forgiven. If the member blew off the warning, Tumblr would play Salvation Army with that member’s username. Forsaken members could reclaim their data down the road; they just needed to pick a new name to house that data.

I don’t recommend Tumblr’s system because none of the forfeited names will go to the right people. Imagine an up-and-coming member named ‘zoebarnes1986.’ She’d love a better handle, but what’s she supposed to do, check the availability of ‘zoe’ and ‘zoebarnes’ a dozen times a day? It’s more likely she’ll live in ignorance as ‘zoe’ flitters away to a newbie. And Tumblr would never publish a list of expired names, because that would make itself vulnerable to blackhats, like this guy.

Deleting usernames en masse also makes me sweat. Old bookmarks, false positives, identity confusion, and loss of search traffic are a few of the challenges.

If you want to recycle old usernames, follow GitHub’s lead. Instead of releasing names like a crazy person, GitHub allows its members to claim idle names. A customer support agent will look at the nuances of the claim and make a judgement call. Your most valuable members will love being treated like human beings.

What do you think of Blizzard’s identity system?

Blizzard Entertainment, of World of Warcraft fame, employs a unique system for its Battle.net portal. Here’s how it works.

Anyone can register any name. There could be 4,000 people named Jane on the service (and there probably are!).

The catch is that each Jane is assigned a four digit number. So the URLs look like this:

…/profile/Jane-1829/
…/profile/Jane-2313/
…/profile/Jane-4215/
…/profile/Jane-2919/

Four digits creates 10,000 permutations. If more than 10,000 people want Jane, Blizzard tosses another digit to the end; no big deal.

Blizzard’s system is mostly egalitarian. The URLs are also decent because a simple word plus four numbers is better than lazily assigning a 15-digit ID.

It works for Blizzard because no one will put their gaming ID on a cereal box, business card or TV commercial. “Follow @Cheerios-1922 on Twitter!” won’t make a brand manager sing.

I like this system if you anticipate a hundred million members. Everyone gets a mediocre URL, which lets people stand out through other means. Use this framework if you don’t anticipate a cereal or a Kardashian ever joining your service.

An aside: I said earlier that Blizzard’s system is “mostly” egalitarian. That’s because random numbers can have unintentional consequences. Imagine being stuck with an unlucky 4-digit number (1313? 1941?) and, conversely, imagine winning the Jackpot with 7777.

What about SoundCloud?

SoundCloud’s username system solves a pain point in the registration process. It’s still first-come, first-served, but with a twist!

Say you’re frying an egg and decide to join one of SoundCloud’s competitors. You hit the registration page, type a username, and click ‘Go!’

Your requested username is already in use. Please try again.

Hrm. You try your second choice.

Your requested username is already in use. Please try again.

You look up and too much smoke is rising from your cast iron skillet. You exit the site and return to breakfast.

The next day you decide to join SoundCloud. This time you’re frying bacon.

You enter an email and a password.

“Huh? Registration’s done already? But where’s my username!?” you ask.

Aha! You realize that you were randomly assigned one! It’s hideous, but you can change it later. For now, there’s bacon to be attended.

This system streamlines registrations and keeps the good names from fly-by-night members, who won’t bother changing their default assignments. My only gripe is that SoundCloud makes it too easy to upgrade; I would make people pay for the privilege with blood and tears!

What about Facebook Pages?

I tried to change my iPhone game’s Facebook username and … well, just look at this!

username message

Above: (Image recreated)

Behold, the worst ‘Congratulations! Your username is available!’ prompt ever devised. Airport security signs are less ominous.

It reminds me of the old man deli owner who’s been robbed one too many times. Cardboard “NO SHOPLIFTING!” signs pervade his store and a rifle leans against the wall. Bad guys aren’t dissuaded but normal customers are very uncomfortable.

Fix your username system with smart design, not threatening verbiage and exclamation points.

To Facebook’s credit, it requires a certain number of Page Likes before you can set a username. Barriers like this work well and I’d describe it more fully if browsing Facebook’s Help area wasn’t like navigating the garden labyrinth from The Shining.

Here’s an idea: URL zones

One reader, who requested anonymity, proposed the idea of URL zones.

Anyone can register any username, but instead of pulling a Blizzard and transforming Jane into Jane-2381, you assign her to a dictionary-friendly URL zone. Profile links will look like this:

www.myservice.com/saturn/Jane
www.myservice.com/mars/Jane
www.myservice.com/jupiter/Jane

You could use zones to separate classes of users. Companies could go here:

www.myservice.com/business/IBM
www.myservice.com/business/Microsoft

And customer support agents here:

www.myservice.com/staff/Adam
www.myservice.com/staff/Nimble

One day maybe the best users could end up with root privilege:

www.myservice.com/Mo

Putting it all together

Let’s mash-up the best practices above with the gamification system I proposed in my original post.

  • Get rid of the username field during registration, like SoundCloud
  • Assign people a dull ID number to start, also like SoundCloud
  • After reaching basic milestones, let people upgrade their ID number into a username, which would either go to a URL zone or get a Blizzard-esque 4-digit appendation
  • After reaching bigger milestones, let people upgrade to a superior account name (no numbers or no zone)
  • Create a claim-based recycling system like GitHub so nothing goes to waste
  • Maybe create a separate registration tier for businesses/brands, depending on the nature of your service

It’s worth a shot!

The big picture point

Many great products have been built by re-imagining a feature that everyone else took for granted. When Pinterest launched, it didn’t display images on a normal grid like everyone else; it displayed them like masonry bricks. That one cosmetic tweak added an X factor that made Pinterest stand out. Spend the time thinking through your systems and, maybe, start with your usernames!

Adam Ghahramani is head of digital product for a creative agency in New York City. Find him at adamagb.com or make friends on Twitter (@adamagb).