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I'm working with groups of product identifiers and need to be able to represent when the last couple numbers of the identifier are unspecified.

For example, a product might have the following product IDs:

1000-1234-01
1000-1234-05
1000-1234-10
1000-1234-50

I would like to represent this group with just the first eight digits, and use a masking character to indicate that the IDs are actually 10-digits long but the user doesn't need to worry about the last two digits, for example using X characters:

1000-1234-XX

But I'm concerned the X character may not be universally recognized as a "placeholder" character. They might confused the X as part of the ID. (My users are in the US, but I can't assume their cultural background).

Other options I can think of:

  • Elipsis: 1000-1234-…
  • Underscore: 1000-1234-__
  • Times: 1000-1234-××
  • Whitespace: 1000-1234-
  • Question marks: 1000-1234-??
  • Asterisks: 1000-1234-**
  • Bullets: 1000-1234-••

The masking character is less ambiguous when users will recognize the format of the number, e.g., for credit card numbers XXXX-XXXX-XXXX-4000 or phone numbers (555) 123-XXXX, but is more critical when you want to avoid ambiguity.

What is the best character to use in this case?

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  • when you say 'unspecified', is there a task the user needs to do here? Is there a cost to the user for it being unspecified? Just looking for more context to possibly rethink my answer based on how I interpret the post. – Mike M Oct 2 '20 at 1:53
  • The task is analogous to “Please choose your model number”. The last 2 digits represents the color of the product, but we don't care about the colors so we just display a list of model numbers excluding the color digits. – Quinn Comendant Oct 2 '20 at 19:21
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When in doubt, go with the most common pattern users are likely to encounter outside your application.

Asterisks are quite common. You'll see them in password recovery, banking applications and the like.

  • Elipsis can be confusing, as the dots don't hint how many characters are being masked. It's not 1 for 1.
  • Underscores can blend together, looking like several characters, or one wide one
  • Question marks give the implication that the system is missing the data
  • Whitespace can give the impression that the system has failed to load the data, or it's missing
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  • Asterisks are traditionally used to indicate "wildcards" or unknowns in search strings. This is probably why they're commonly used to denote unknown values elsewhere. – Andrew Martin Oct 3 '20 at 7:47
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    Asterisks seem like a good choice. I wish there was a big version of asterisks because they can just look like dots in some fonts at small sizes. Oh, there are some! Alternate asterisks in unicode: the FULLWIDTH ASTERISK might be useful, and if a large one is needed there is the HEAVY ASTERISK , and of course how could I not mention the HEAVY EIGHT TEARDROP-SPOKED PROPELLER ASTERISK 😎 – Quinn Comendant Oct 3 '20 at 18:37

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