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Some backstory: I ran in the Stack Overflow election, and lost. Poor me. The SE gods took pity upon me, though, and sent me a link to a form where I could give them an address and they would send me stuff. Like any sane human would, I wanted the swag.

The form has six address fields and a full name field:

enter image description here

I'm in the US, so I put my name in the Full Name field, my street address (123 W. Anystreet) in the first address field. I put my city/state/ZIP in the second field, and left all the rest blank.

It's been bugging me ever after, though: Why are there six address lines? Do addresses even exist that need six lines?

Why not consolidate it into one big text box, with newlines supported?

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14  
Theoretically, 6 is nowhere near enough to do a full address. In the UK the official format is as follows: "Person Name, Care of, Sub-building Name, Building Name, Building Number, PO Box Number, Organisation Name, Organisation Department, Dependent Thoroughfare, Thoroughfare, Double Dependent Locality, Dependent Locality, Post Town, Postcode" (though I doubt many addresses use them all) –  Ben Mar 7 at 14:05
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In all cases I've come across, I've got around that by combining the Double Dependent Locality with the Dependent Locality. And by all, I mean all 0. –  corsiKa Mar 7 at 16:13
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"I put my city/state/ZIP in the second field" - Isn't that 3 separate bits of information? Why not put that in 3 separate fields: 2nd, 3rd and 4th? You now have just 2 spare fields, but what about the country? –  w3d Mar 8 at 16:53
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@Ben do they put all of these in separate lines, really? –  mirabilos Mar 8 at 22:15
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The best UI would be one in which you get two address lines, and a [+] button to add more lines if you need to, up to a reasonable maximum of 9. :) –  Kaz Mar 9 at 0:40

4 Answers 4

up vote 34 down vote accepted

As a Stack Overflow / Stack Exchange employee, my guess is that this was a Google Forms doc put together for the specific purpose of gathering addresses this one time. We do this internally a lot to gather information. Using a product like Google Forms allows anyone to get something done without having to involve developers or designers.

I imagine the person creating it needed a form with at 6 address lines and made it as simple as that: a Google Form with 6 address lines. Yeah, it's a bit confusing and I wouldn't recommend this as a practice for most websites or applications, but given the target audience (Stack Overflow users, so internet power-users) and finite purpose (collecting addresses once) going with a quick and simple form works.

Also since is being sent specifically to individual people (and not anyone from the internet), every user knows who to reach out to if they have an issue.

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That's about what I thought, but still wondered... ;) –  Undo Mar 7 at 3:14

Though I don't have an answer behind why all the fields were named the same, I think the idea was to ensure that all potential international addresses could fit into the form design without designing custom forms for every international address.

Here are some examples of international addresses

enter image description here

Amazon also a generic international format as mentioned in this article

The generic international address format offers an alternative to maintaining multiple address block variations to support country-specific solutions. The generic format lets you manage variations in name and street address by providing a single input field for each element of an address. To accommodate variations in the address block layout and city line, you can use a set of generic input fields.

enter image description here

All this said, a simple answer could be so that it would just be easier to print the address and all they would have to do is to print it out line by line and you have a ready made label in the format which was entered by the user (with no restrictions on what goes in each section).

So if I had entered

Mervin Johnsingh
House No 1
Some apartment block
Some locality
Bangalore,560023
India 

The label would be printed out the same way I entered it and the responsibility of the correct address falls on the user rather than forcing him to specify details such as city,district etc.

For those who are interested here is a good listing of international address formats which shows most of the formats could fit into the 6 fields

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so why not provide 7 fields or 5 or just text area field? –  Chairman Meow Mar 6 at 22:53

6-line addresses (or rather 7-line, including the name of the addressee) do occur.

Consider for example a typical UK residential address:

Miss S Pollard           name
1 Chapel Hill            building number and street name
Heswall                  locality
BOURNEMOUTH              town with a post office
BH1 1AA                  postcode
UNITED KINGDOM           country

If the delivery was to a place of business, the address would need an extra line for the name of the business. I've known places with an institution name, a building name, and a street address, plus the town, postcode and country make 6. Some addresses may need a c/o line. That could reach to two more lines than fit on this form.

While I'm at it, here are a few things about US addresses that differ from a UK address:

  • The postcode contains letters as well as digits. It can be 5 to 7 characters long.
  • The postcode is below the city name, not on the same line. (Mixing that one up is unlikely to foul up the delivery though.)
  • There is no such thing as a state or province. (Some sites have lost sales to me because I gave up trying to work around their “state field must not be empty or contain only whitespace or contain _ or …” restriction.)

Wikipedia has a list of address formats by country (currently covering only about 1 country in 4). There is considerable variation. The UK example is by no means an outlier in terms of address size. As we've seen above, 7 address lines cover most cases but can be restrictive, though I expect that in practice most addresses can fit with some harmless rearranging.

For extra fun, some countries go from most significant to less significant element, i.e. put the country name at the top and the name of the person at the bottom.

Most post office administrations will work hard to deliver all letters, even with incomplete addresses, though it can sometimes take weeks, and there is a risk of loss if a key element is left out. Parcel deliveries are more iffy: often, if the routing software can't work out where the destination is (a country and postcode is usually enough at that stage) or if the delivery truck can't find the right building, the parcel will be returned. Worse, if the delivery agent can't find the right person, the parcel may be delivered to another person who may not always be trusted to deliver it.

All in all, you should be very liberal when allowing people to write their address in the right format. People know their own address and their local address formatting conventions better than you do.

There's one exception to that rule: for international delivery, the name of the country should be written in French or English (the official and working languages of the Universal Postal Union), and in practice it is probably safest to use English plus the name in the sending country's main language (e.g. “ALEMANIA / GERMANY” if writing from Italy to Germany). This is one area where you as the sender and professional know best, and you should let the user select from a list. Just make sure to keep your list up-to-date.

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Nitpick: that's only a 5 address line in your example. The name field was separate from the address. (Your overall answer is fine.) –  thursdaysgeek Mar 6 at 23:15
    
@thursdaysgeek that being said, I don't think the question was "why does it use 6 fields instead of 5?" We could probably find an example with 6 lines. –  Pierre Arlaud Mar 7 at 9:44
    
It would be 6 lines if it was, say, Flat 21 // 1 Chapel Hill // Heswall // etc.... Up to 8 lines isn't unheard of, not just UK: Flat 21 (flat number - also, could be company name) // St Bob's Hall (building name) // 1 Chapel Hill (street) // Heswall (district) // Bournemouth (town/city) // Dorset (county/province/state) // BH1 1AA (postal/zip code) // UNITED KINGDOM (country) - though only flat number, street number, post code and (if from overseas) country would be essential. –  user568458 Mar 7 at 13:46
    
We have the same style postal codes in Canada. We often put city/town, province and postal code on a single line: Vancouver, BC, V5V 5V5. Not always with commas. –  Kaz Mar 9 at 0:36

Unlike most forms that give specific labels for City, State, Zip, Country, etc, this one just uses 6 generic lines.

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and for us abroad users, six lines is the bare minimum! –  Benny Skogberg MCSA Mar 7 at 16:46
    
That's an accurate observation, but why is it the case? We're not cued to split those pieces of information across the boxes: normally for me, "Line 2" is City, State, and Zip combined. –  doppelgreener Mar 9 at 3:14
    
@JonathanHobbs only the creator of the form can answer the specifics. But generally speaking, my guess is that it doesn't matter. This isn't a form that's be validated or machine read. It's just accepting data to make some quick mailings. –  DA01 Mar 9 at 3:22
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Any form that gives specific labels including "State" and "Zip" is broken UI, since for the majority of global addresses the concepts of State and Zip are meaningless, but they need other, different labels. However, X generic lines, if filled appropriately, gets your mail delivered. –  Peteris Mar 9 at 13:52

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