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Is there any evidence which shows whether users are more able to recognise another user's Photo over their Username or vice versa?

I am interested in understanding this from a usability perspective.

Lets say on a site such as this network, a user has both a username as well as a photo/avatar.

  • On DVK has a very recognisable avatar
  • On Jon Skeet has a very memorable username

Which of these is more recognisable/memorable?1

i.e. If DVK was to change his picture2, would this throw users off (not quickly recognising who the post if from) or would there be more of an issue if Jon Skeet changed his username?3

1. Lets ignore rep points, as it is not relevant to my question.
2. The caveat here is that 'DVK' is also a memorable username, but for the sake of this example lets ignore that.
3. Please reference research where possible.

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Also consider the likelihood of the user changing these values. I imagine avatar is much more likely to be updated than username. My mental models of avatars is that they can change where as I expect usernames to stay the same. – Sheff Jun 6 '14 at 10:45
A small addition to some good answers: We usually use usernames to reference different users when communicating (like you do in your question). I think this is a great advantage in making the username more memorable. – Deruijter Jun 6 '14 at 11:49
How are these examples in any way memorable? Jon Skeet is famous entirely because of his reputation, not because of his name (DVK is probably recognizable for the same reason). The first question here about photos vs. names is a good one, but the rest of this question is pretty much entirely subjective. Your examples are using the Stack Exchange platform, where reputation is nearly always part of the presentation of your account. – Joshua Barron Jun 6 '14 at 16:04
@Sheff Since SciFi was used as an example, I will point out that among the top users, several have changed their name at some point. Usually it's a derivative of the previous, but even so it's not always obvious. – Izkata Jun 6 '14 at 19:08
Apropos nothing, recognizing users is not a good thing on a Stack Exchange site. Posts should be weighed on their own merits, not on who posted them. – DVK Dec 9 '15 at 2:58

10 Answers 10

up vote 26 down vote accepted

Some people have a great memory for words, other people a great memory for faces. Some have both or neither.

Some avatars can be completely generic and difficult to remember, such as Gravatar's autogenerated avatars.

enter image description here

Others can be very unique and memorable. Your DVK example is a good one.

Some usernames can be completely generic, such as this site's "user3216857". Others can be very unique and memorable. This is also very individual, since topics or references that impress me might not impress someone else (e.g. the username Gandalf wouldn't be especially memorable to someone unfamiliar with LoTR, but it's safe to assume that more SO newcomers would remember the name Gandalf than Jon Skeet - which is only memorable because he is Jon Skeet).

People process images faster than written words, even in their native language. Also, images contain more information and they are much more diverse. If you squint a little, all words will look pretty much the same, while you can still tell apart your average avatars. So they're usually easier to identify. This is separate from memorability.

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Some of us actually do recognize Gravitar's patterns, at least for folks we see frequently. – keshlam Jun 6 '14 at 12:57
1 – Almo Jun 6 '14 at 19:11
@keshlam OK, I'll change "impossible" to "difficult" then :) – Vitaly Mijiritsky Jun 9 '14 at 6:13

It depends on the person.

A bit of an extreme example, but a dyslexic for example might struggle telling apart John Skeet and Jonno Teeks, whereas a color-blind person might not be able to tell two people apart that have combinations of certain colors in their avatar.

In general though, avatars tend to offer a wider variety of options. You can use letters, words, colors, shapes, etc. whereas usernames can only do a certain amount of characters, mostly in a single color.

Then again, usernames are often unique, and people won't be able to change them.

Combining those characteristics: avatars serve as a great "first glance" recognition but aren't set in stone, whereas usernames are good for specifics and certainty.

So in general, avatars are more recognizable, but less authoritative.

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Depends on whether the user name is used for identification or "just" for display. If the latter, changing user names is easy. On SE this is done quite frequently. I have seen people changing one nick name to another and from a nick name to their actual name. Haven't seen anybody yet changing from their actual name to a nick name, but my guess is it has been done as well. For example when someone wants to go offline (altogether). – Marjan Venema Jun 6 '14 at 13:37
No need for dyslexia. It always takes me a moment when two users with the same capital letters are both commenting. Like if someone with M______V___ started commenting here aside from @MarjanVenema – Izkata Jun 6 '14 at 19:13
You just misspelled Jon Skeet's name. Be prepared for the wrath! – Amal Murali Jun 7 '14 at 3:28

Standard reminder: Graphics are often of little or no use to folks who are reading the screen through assistive technology. The simplest answer -- as here in Stack Exchange -- is to display both.

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To the other questions I would add accessibility concerns. For many with poor sight a username is much more easily used either by using zoomed text or some for of text reading. Even for those who don't need screen enhancements (e.g. me) avatars can be hard to tell apart e.g. Twitter and using pictures, may are difficult to tell who they are as photos are not well taken or the user is trying to be clever and show something which works on a reasonably sized photo but not a thumbnail.

Given that last thought I would add a concern about general differentiability it is much easier to make two avatars very nearly the same and not notice compared to usernames, if the users are trying to confuse people - which some will do.

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Remember or recall words or images is highly individual and depends on which hemisphere of the brain is dominant. My right half of the brain is slightly more dominant than the left, which makes me remember a face rather than the name. Sometimes I'm embarrassed when meeting people on the street and I recognize the person, but don't recall their name. If we start talking it takes a while before I remember the name because I need other details as well.

That's why avatar and username together are important to support both memory styles.

Some people are just better at remembering in a certain way—even identical twins may vary in that regard—and it can relate to which hemisphere of the brain is dominant. Visual memory (which we call episodic memory) relates to the right hemisphere of the brain, which is associated with intuition. Verbal (semantic) memory is primarily a function of the left hemisphere, which we link with analytical thinking. The difference between the two kinds of memory becomes most obvious when it comes to recalling a deeply emotional event—9/11 or the day JFK was shot, for example. People with a strong semantic memory recall headlines, quotes, and phrases; those inclined toward visual memory retain the pictures and images of the event more vividly.

Reference: Ask Dr. Gupta: Why Do I Recall Words Better Than Pictures?

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If it's only about recognizable or memorable, then it's avatar.

Wikipedia page of Avatar stated this (too bad no research or article backed this up)

...the avatar is placed in order for other users to easily identify who has written the post without having to read their username.

that implied avatar is indeed easier to be recognized. Because, you can catch a glimpse of image without having to focus on it (or is it just me?), yet username has to be read.

And that statement more or less matches with my experience. In a forum with big avatar, avatar is the first thing I recognize. I opened many threads and saw many posts. After some times, I realized, "eyyy that ava again," and that's where I 'realize' the username, and if I'm lucky, remember it.

I also found that is user X uses, say, Son Goku avatar for a long time, or changing the avatar, but still Son Goku image that clearly displays the face, before realizing it, everytime I see Son Goku avatar in the forum, I will immediately associate it with that user.

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As most people have said, it depends on the user.

For me personally it depends entirely on the context.

  • On forums I'm heavily dependant on usernames for identifying people. I tend to remember people by their usernames on forums (and here). I think this is because forum users tend to use avatars detached from their identity such as cartoon characters or memes.

  • On Twitter and Facebook I'm heavily reliant on the avatars of users because those people tend to represent themselves by their own face. I either learn what they look like (if i don't know them personally) or if it's someone i already know from the real world I know their face.

I So my answer would be think about the context of use and base your decision on that.

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On Twitter half of my current page uses avatars and half actual pictures and of the pictures many change them so here usernames are what I follow – Mark Jun 6 '14 at 11:35
Yeah I was in a situation previously where i followed select number of users but since i've increase my number of people following I'm seeing a similar pattern. Mainly faces however there are companies and some users who don't use their face. I think the main point is if your project is social based avatars are probably the identifier. If it's information or resource based a username would probably work just as well. – slaterjohn Jun 6 '14 at 12:36

Certain avatar images are very memorable and distinct. Some are almost indistinguishable. Likewise with user names. Someone who was asked to remember the username of "Jon Skeet" and was asked a day later later to identify it from a list of the ten most similar usernames might have a good chance at identifying it, while someone who was shown a generic gravatar and asked to identify it from a list including nine randomly-selected ones would have a relatively poor chance even five minutes later. On the other hand, someone asked to remember a username written in an unfamiliar script [e.g. a hypothetical user "絕對沒有"] would have a hard time than someone asked to remember the gravatar of Jon Skeet (sompared with the ten most similar gravatars, assuming nobody copied Mr. Skeet's picture). The differences in memorability between different usernames and avatars would seem to outweigh any general advantage usernames would have over avatars or vice versa. Incidentally, without looking back at the previous hypothetical username, can one one remember whether it was "絕對伏特加", "絕對沒有", or "絕對值" [Chinese characters from Google translate]

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Although it is not exactly about avatar and user name, there is a research paper about distinctive file icons called VisualIDs: Automatic Distinctive Icons for Desktop Interfaces in SIGGRAPH 2004. Visual distinctiveness is unsurprisingly useful for both short term memory task (browsing for a specific file) and long term memory task (sketching and describing icons two days later). One interesting principle is that arbitrarily unique icons can be recalled regardless of their contents or meanings to the user.

Note that this research assumes a priori that "Search and memory for images is known to be generally faster and more robust than search and memory for words" with a reference to Data Mountain (UIST 1998). Despite no direct comparison to textual memory, I believe that this research can supplement that visual memory is stickier i.e. changing a distinctive and registered avatar would throw users off more than changing a username.

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It depends not only on person, but also on service.

if you need to type username often ( or see it in your message ) then username is more memorable ( twitter )

Making avatar very small also prevent avatar to recognition.

Some services might allow to use not only latin letters in the username which make them weird

Speaking about weird. It also depends on chosen username and avatar.

Long username is hard to memorize, photo of user face in an avatar 32x32 is hard to remember or recognize

As a conclusion very depends on service where both of their are going to be used.

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