The UX of Three Word Addresses

Posted By Debbie on October 23, 2017

I recently watched this TED talk about a guy who along with a mathematician came up with three word addresses.

In case you haven’t seen it yet, they divided the whole world into 3 metre x 3 metre (not quite 100 sq feet) squares. Each square has a three word name. You can then direct someone to any precise space using words. It seemed like the main target audience here are people who are either in very rural, very city, or very shantytown places where they have a nearby street (which may or may not have a name) but no real address. This makes it hard for them to get mail and ambulances.

OK, I think that’s a real problem.

Their What 3 Words website explains it all. They even have a new partnership with Mercedes! Say the three words and Mercedes GPS will take you there. Hmmm, doesn’t totally match my mental picture of an ambulance trying to find someone in a shantytown… but OK.

If the Earth is 510 TRILLION sq meters in surface area and we’re diving it into 9 sq m blocks, that means we have nearly 57 trillion blocks on the earth to name. They claim their whole database is about 12MB because it uses an algorithm… but we still have some issues.

The UX Problems With This Concept

Thanks to Elizabeth Mitchell (@Pixelfish) for allowing me to include some of her points/ideas here.

1. We can’t sense the algorithm. There appears to be no taxonomy. Let’s pick a spot near Spaceship Earth in Epcot (Walt Disney World, Florida). Here is a screen show from the 3 words map. I’ve overlaid what each 3m x 3m block is called.

This means we have no idea how far anything is from anything. How far is hazelnuts.inhibited.disappearing from bundling.forgive.spurted? We don’t know by looking at them. Sure, we don’t know how far some addresses are from each other now. However, zip codes can give clues. Seeing two addresses on the same street would give a clue. Even just being in the same town gives us some idea of proximity.

2. What about vertical spaces? What if this 3 words block identifies my location but not what floor I’m on of this 20 story apartment building? If we want to get medical help to precise places, then it’s bundling.forgive.spurted, 14th floor. Does the software and system and API have room for that? I don’t know.

3. Why aren’t we just using latitude and longitude? Is it because 3 words are catchier than GPS coordinates? OK but it’s a system that now rejects evolution. This guy can’t come back later and say OH we should have done 5m x 5m… or 2m x 2m blocks. That’s it! And it has to be these three words.

4. Homophones. So many words that sound and look alike. Which one is it?

You’re reading that right. Lots of variations of course, coarse, courser, coursed.

“But Deb, if I get a word wrong, I’d know my friend isn’t in rural Russia… I’d fix it.” Yes, but what about a drone? Or please ship my package to torn.recursive.scribbles when I meant something else. We may not always have a human moment to notice and fix an error.

5. Order matters. Wouldn’t it be neat to have a 3 word code so unique that it wouldn’t matter if you remembered the words in the wrong order? Meanwhile, is nowhere near Both in Canada. Possible confusion!

6. Can a small child remember hazelnuts.inhibited.disappearing? If a child says these words wrong, will anybody find where he or she lives?

7. They say that this works across languages. Their map is in many languages. That made me think words would be directly translated across languages. I’d expect a location called in English to translate to in Italian.

BUT IT DOESN’T. The same location is filmate.maghi.ciao, which translates to movies.wizards.hello (or goodbye, as ciao goes).

In Spanish, the same location is melones.corto.caídos, which is melons.short.fallen. NO NO NO NO NO.

How Do We Improve On This Idea?

If we really want to improve addresses and make them hard to forget yet easy to find, perhaps we need to come at this another way. Let’s say we stick with the 57 trillion 9 sq meter blocks. We need to name 57 Trillion things. How about this idea?

5 words. That’s it. That’s the idea (if I’m trying to stay simple and improve this guy’s paradigm). But we need rules:

1) Word order doesn’t matter. The address for is the same place as just in case people don’t remember the order of the words.

2) No homophones, plurals, or similar conjugations. If we use red, we’re not using reds, read, or reads. If we use tear, we’re not using tears, tare, tares, tire, or tires. Let’s make sure that people saying words slightly inaccurately won’t lead to another address.

3) 5 words are best because 600^5 (600 x 600 x 600 x 600 x 600) is nearly 78 trillion combinations. That means we just need 600 x 5 = 3000 unique words. Most 5 year olds have a vocabulary of 3000 words so we can keep the words simple in case people have low education or are very young.

4) This means we can keep words simple. Colours, animal names, common objects. Does everybody in the world know about hazelnuts? We might make this simple across cultures by sticking as much as we can to words most people (using this system) might know.

5) We translate directly into other languages. in English is rojo.árbol.campo.arena.cielo in Spanish and rosso.albero.campo.sabbia.cielo in Italian. Everything translates DIRECTLY.

6) It means we can use a taxonomy. I’d need more time to think of the best taxonomy.

Let’s start with longitude and latitude. We’ll use 720 words for each HALF degree of latitude and another 720 unique words for each half degree of longitude. Knowing that, we can say a location is at soft.skunk (one for longitude, one for latitude to the half degree). Everybody with soft and skunk somewhere in their address lives between 32.0 and 32.499999 in latitude, -110.0 and -110.499999 in longitude.

That breaks the world in to 384,000 areas but we still have to name hundreds of millions of plots inside there.

Based on math, we need to then use 530 unique words in each of the last three spots. I’d want to work with more geo experts and IA people on how to finish off the taxonomy.

And then we will have done the whole world in 5 words… order not mattering; no homophones, plurals, or close words; no repeated words; with taxonomy and hints about where something is. And we only used 3030 unique words doing it. That should be in most vocabularies even for the young or poorly educated.

Gotta Name Them All… And Why Not?

Once my 720 words are in place for latitude and longitude, if we really wanted to go wild, we could break the world into 1m x 1m blocks. That’s around 10 sq feet. For the last three spots, we would need around 1100 unique, rule-following words in each of the three positions.

If we used 4740 total words, we could get the whole earth down to 1m x 1m blocks. Hey, if we’re going to break the earth into zillions of named locations, why not go for the gusto and name all 510 trillion 1 sq metre blocks? I’m sure some people live in supertiny apartments, huts, tents, etc… Find them ALL.

I love math.