Related question: Asking location in the UK

My issue is as follows: I am developing a directory of sorts for places in the UK. Many places in the UK have the same name and as such I need to distinguish them in some way. I thought I could distinguish them based on their county, but this is where things get complex.

The article http://county-wise.org.uk/counties/county-confusion/ outlines county confusion. Basically there are numerous different things that people consider 'counties'. As outlined in the article above, they propose that one use the 'historical counties' as they will not change.

The problem I have found with this is that this simply is not what people are used to.

For example, in my mind:

  • Stoke Newington is in Hackney (local government area - specifically a London borough)
  • Leeds is in West Yorkshire (ceremonial county)
  • Headingley is in Leeds (local government area - specifically unitary authority)

So using local goverment areas seems the most promising, but they are also the most prone to change. If a goverment area changes I need to keep track of it (for a start), and then change all my permalinks for all establishments in that area.

There is also the user experience issue that the local goverment area for Leeds is … Leeds. So a user would see "Establishment A, Leeds, Leeds" which could be confusing.

If I were to use historical counties,

  • Stoke Newington is in Middlesex
  • Headingley is in Yorkshire
  • Leeds is in Yorkshire

In my mind all of those are wrong.

If I use ceremonial counties,

  • Stoke Newington is in Greater London,
  • Headingley is in West Yorkshire
  • Leeds is in West Yorkshire

This is just about manageable but the link above mentiones issues with the ceremonial counties as well, and it still does not resolve the issue that people will be expecting (and searching) Stoke Newington, Hackney etc.

Does anyone have any advice on the most optimal, least confusing setup for a good user experience?

  • +1 I've come across a similar problem once ten years ago and I don't think we found a satisfactory answer... And even if I did I no longer remember it. I look forward to what others find. Aug 30, 2014 at 23:36

2 Answers 2


Answers to "Asking location in the UK" suggest using a post code. I can't see very many downsides to using this solution for your current problem.

It's not entirely clear what level of specificity you have in mind when you talk about "places" but by any definition it is extremely unlikely that two place names will be in such close proximity to each other as to share the same postcode area. The post code area (first two letters of a post code) provides enough specificity to disambiguate UK town names. Perhaps this is specific enough.

Users will be able to consistently provide their post code which may not be the case for counties as you clearly are aware. This seems to me to be the "least confusing setup for a good user experience".

I have seen that @racheet suggested in a comment on another question that not all locations have a postcode. I have struggled to find any examples of this and it seems to me that the UK has a comprehensive post code system. I can't see any areas missed out on a map. Again, the level of specificity and the type of "places" you are including in your directory might be a factor in whether this could be an issue for you. Maybe this is a consideration if you want to link to a remote Scottish bothy or a tractor shed in rural Wales (each may still have a postcode area!)

Another proposed downside from @JonW in the mentioned question suggested that a post code list may be a charged resource. Ordance Survey provide a free resource which should provide a current list of UK postcode areas. This make this option free and easy to update.

Changing postcodes is a rare occurrence and, even then, only the last two characters of the postcode are liable to change. Royal Mail published a code of practice about changing addresses in which they say:

The Postcode forms the basis of Royal Mail's distribution network. Changes to Postcodes could therefore compromise the service we provide. We will, however, make changes to the last two characters of a Postcode in exceptional circumstances.

This means that changes are not significant if you opt for using the postcode area.


There are two parts to your problem. How do you disambiguate locations

  • How do you disambiguate locations
  • If you use counties to disambiguate locations, which definition of county to use

My immediate advice is that if you really want to disambiguate locations, and counties are problematic for doing that, then use another technique.

It's hard to offer specific advice without seeing your UI, but if it was me, I'd probably either show a small (thumbnail) map of each location's surrounding area, possibly on hover, or a small map with a pin in it showing where in the country that location is.

If you're dead-set on using counties, then in practice I don't think it actually matters which of the three types of county above you use. The whole point of the county line in your ui is to distinguish between two identically named places.So long as someone can look at it and tell which of the two places is the one they want, the line has done its job, even if it shows the place as being in an adjacent county to the one they think it's in.

So just pick the one that has the most comprehensive data, and go with it.

  • This solution assumes that everyone using it a) uses a mouse, b) has good eyesight and c) recognises what the location looks like from a map (might be OK for your own home addresses, but what if you're looking for your friends house in Newton Abbott that you've never seen before and don't know the area?).
    – JonW
    Sep 4, 2014 at 9:24
  • @JonW Those are good points. I think you can partially mitigate against a and b with good use of alt attributes, and I'd argue that c is more likely than recognising the name of the county a particular place is (esp with regards to pinned locations on a full country map), but I'd have to know more about the specific audience being targeted to make better recommendations.
    – Racheet
    Sep 4, 2014 at 10:43

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