The real world just doesn't fit in computers (reprise)

My wife and I recently moved half-way across the USA. Our new home is in a set of homes and the address contains a number sign, you know, this thing: "#", SHIFT-3 on my keyboards. I used the US Postal Service web site to file the address change and discovered that "#" is not allowed in the address field. Their web site wanted text, and suggested "APT". After trying several different combos, I ended up with APT, even though it wasn't correct. I figured that I'll be changing my important addresses myself, so this little discrepancy won't matter. Uh, that was my first wrong assumption.

Apparently the USPS is very efficient about notifying senders of address changes, and even my phoned-in updates to some important accounts were over-ridden by the USPS notification. So I've been painstakingly phoning, and in some cases writing letters, to make sure my mailing address is accurate. I updated an insurance policy address and just today needed to update again since "#" translated as "APT"; we had to settle on the word "UNIT".

What is it with these computer systems? As far as I can tell addresses can be very free form. My son's address includes the phrase "2nd floor". There are plenty of fractional street addresses; my new home town has a 38½ Street.

For me this is just another example of a poor system design and engineering. I'd love to see the use cases and requirements specifications for the content of the address field. Or was this just an ad-hoc decision made by the programmer while writing the code? Now that computers are here to stay, and we need to rely on them to get real work done, recognizing and accommodating the details of the lived, human world are more important than ever. These systems are already too hard to use. Why am I always adapting to the technology? When will it start adapting to me?

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5 Comments

My house is 3633C. The post office insists I live in apartment C. I have had more than a few people not arrive in confusion because they couldn't find my apartment building.

Great that you raise this. We live in a special place that the USPS refuses to recognize with our real town name, lumping us with a nearby city based on a quirkiness in the zip code we have been assigned. Frustrating implication is sometimes vendors charge us the wrong (higher) sales tax rate based on where the zip code tells them we live rather than where we actually do! And vendor customer service does not want to hear our complaints as how can we live somewhere other than what the USPS database name says! UUGH!! On top of this we have a long hyphenated community name and I would guess 6 out of 10 online address fields do not allow enough space and/or accept the hyphens. Thanks.

Your interest in seeing the requirements assumes the people who requested the system were aware that requirements are part of the process.

As you know, at our house, we don't have any of the problems. We fit the single model. We live on a street with only numbers in a town with only one zip code, and no one elses. How nice.

Reading the comments here makes me wonder if anyone at the Post Office even looked in their own database to see what the mix was.

Heck, when I design databases, (nothing more exciting than Access for our Admissions office at BA), I've always separated the "number" portion from the Street as separate fields. It makes the searching more regular.

I'm starting to find out that more and more address systems are unable to accept an address containing the "#" sign. "UNIT" seems to be an acceptable alternative. However, some systems won't accept anything but "APT". So, like it or not, it looks like we're building a divided world: one inside the computer systems, and one outside, the one we live in. So hang on, seat belts may be required.

The problem is probably not the computer systems - not directly. It's probably the data entry cards. I believe that the USPS is using OCR on their cards, and the # can get confused for an A or H now and then given different angles.

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