Every so often, for various reasons, people change their names. This process is usually complicated and stressful and requires large amounts of time and effort. Often though, the most significant stressors are how poorly different companies handle the entire concept of a name change. I recently changed my name, and the experiences I've had with a vast majority of services has been outright horrific.

Why do people change their name?

Name changes are a relatively common occurrence. Upon marriage, nearly 80% of women elect to change their name. Marriage isn't the only reason someone changes their name, however. Some people go by a nickname and later decide to change their legal name to match. Others change their name for more sensitive reasons, such as for safety or during a gender transition.

Changing your name is not an edge case situation; this is a common practice. In more sensitive cases, not correctly supporting a name change may be distressing or even dangerous.

What is required to change your name online?

If you haven't changed your name before, you may not be familiar with the process of updating online services to match your new name.

For the most part, most online profiles can easily have details such as name changed through a settings page. This process is most common for services that do not know your legal identity, such as social media or other miscellaneous online accounts. Changing your name here can be a straightforward process, and while time-consuming, not complicated to do.

However, services that require a legal identity must have some form of identification to prove a new legal name. This proof is often some government document such as a marriage certificate or a change of name certificate. For the most part, this process is also straightforward, if not slightly more time-consuming.

Where do they go wrong?

The above processes sound simple enough, but it's rarely actually that easy. I'm someone with a lot of online accounts. I've gone through and changed probably over 100, yet out of those, only a tiny portion was as simple as I described above. I won't name any specific companies, but this is a broader issue that affects almost every business to some capacity.

Updating information incorrectly

Multiple services that require legal proof of name change have incorrectly updated my information based on the forms I supplied them. In the worst case, my middle name erroneously became my last name. As you can imagine, this can be problematic with services that require legal proof of identity.

Name changes via contacting support only

Some services do not advertise the ability to change names anywhere, and only upon contacting their support can you do it. While this is not the end of the world, it could often be done much simpler through an online settings page. This change would improve both the user experience and lessen the load on support staff.

Not believing people can change their name

I have also had a service argue with me for a week via their support chat over the concept of name changes. They asked me to justify why someone would do this and eventually agreed when I provided legal proof of my name change unprompted.

Not entirely propagating name changes

Even if they support quickly changing your name, many services won't propagate these name changes to mailing lists or support systems such as Intercom. If someone updates their name, they want their name updated everywhere in your service. I've found that practically only companies that store accounts for mailing list reasons propagate the changes to their mailing list. The only way to stop receiving emails in an old name is to unsubscribe from the mailing list for many services.

Publishing the former name

A few services publish the former name to make it easier to find people who have changed their name. DO NOT DO THIS. For more sensitive situations, this can be dangerous. Services that do this are endangering people. If someone has changed their name, their old name is irrelevant.

Not supporting name changes

I had a few accounts that entirely did not support changing the name, even via support. In these cases, I had to get the support chat to completely delete my account to create a new one with my new name. It was likely technically possible to change the account name, but the support staff could not do it due to tooling or access limitations. Having to re-create an account is a horrible user experience and a great way to lose customers.

Not allowing email address updates

While potentially more complicated to support depending on implementation details, it's not uncommon for people to change email addresses alongside name changes. This pattern is more common in corporate settings, where email addresses are assigned based on names. Not allowing an email address to be updated means names cannot be entirely changed.

Single sign-on can worsen this problem depending on implementation. As Google and other companies allow changing an email address, some sites error on sign-in once the email has changed. In these cases, the user entirely loses access to the product.

Conclusion

Overall, most tech companies do not handle name changes in their products well. It's likely where you work does one of the above. If not, great. Otherwise, this is likely a low effort improvement that can massively improve the user experience for a sizeable portion of your users.

Not only is a simple name change process required for inclusivity, but it's also required by law in some countries. When someone has to update 50 accounts, having 40 with a complicated and stressful process can be difficult. In more sensitive situations, it can even be dangerous. Tech companies should strive to make sure that this information should be user-modifiable.

Maddy Miller

This article was written by Maddy Miller, a software engineer at Clipchamp at Microsoft. In her spare time she works on writing articles, as well as developing the Minecraft mods WorldEdit, WorldGuard, and CraftBook. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect her employer.