Nima Izadi 11/14/2018

Handling Addresses from All Around the World

Four months ago, I joined the International Growth team at Shopify. The mission of the INTL team (as we call it) is to help Shopify conquer international markets. Our team builds tools, services and enhances Shopify’s platform to make it scale to different markets where we need to tailor the experience locally to a country: add new shipping patterns, new payment paradigms, and be compliant with local laws.

As a senior web developer, the first problem I tackled was to make sure addresses were formatted correctly for everyone, everywhere. Addresses are core parts of our merchant’s business; crucial when delivering products and dealing with customers. At the same time, they are also a crucial part of a customer's journey. Entering an address in a form seems obvious, but there are essential details that you need to get right when going international. Details that might not seem obvious if you haven't thought about it or never lived abroad.

I’m going to take you through some of the problems the team encountered when dealing with addresses and how we solved some of those problems.

The Problem with Addresses

Definition

Let’s start with a simple definition. At Shopify, we describe an address with the following fields:

  • First name
  • Last name
  • Address line 1
  • Address line 2
  • Zone code
  • Postal code
  • City
  • Country code
  • Phone

Zones are administrative divisions by country (see Wikipedia’s article), they are States in the US, provinces in Canada, etc. Some of these fields may be optional or required depending on the country.

Ordering

When looking at the fields listed above, I’m assuming that for some readers, the order of the fields listed make sense. Well, it’s not the case for most people of the world. For example:

  • In Japan, people start their address by entering their postal code. Postal codes are very precise, so with just seven digits, a whole address can be auto-completed. The last name is first, otherwise, it’s considered rude
  • In France, the postal code comes before the city while in Canada it’s the opposite

As you can imagine, the list goes on and on. All of these details can’t be overlooked for a proper localized experience for customers connecting from everywhere in the world. At the same time, creating one version of the form for every country leads to unnecessary code duplication— something to avoid for the code to scale and remain maintainable.

Wording

Let's talk about wording. What is address1? What is zone? Parts of an address aren’t the same around the world, so how to name the labels of forms when building them? The tough part of these differences, from a developer’s perspective, is that we had variations per country, as well as, variations per locale. For example:

  • Zone can refer to "states", "provinces", "regions" or even "departments" in certain countries (such as Peru) 
  • Postal code can be called "ZIP code" or "postcode" or even "postal code"
  • address2 might refer to "apartment number", "unit number" or "suite"
  • In Japan, when displaying an address, the symbol 〒 is prepended to the postal code so, if a user enters 153-0062, it displays as 〒153-0062

Translations

Translation is the most obvious problem, form labels need translation but so do country and zone names. Canada is written the same way in most languages, it’s カナダ in Japanese or كندا in Arabic. Canada is bilingual, so provinces labels are language specific: British Columbia in English becomes Colombie-Britannique in French, etc.

Our Solution (So Far)

We’re at the beginning of our journey to go international. Solutions we come up with are never finished; we iterate and evolve as we learn more. That being said, here’s what we're doing so far.

A Database for Countries

The one thing we needed was a database storing all the data representing every country. Thankfully, we already built it at the beginning of our Internationalization journey (phew!) and had every country represented with YAML files in a GitHub repository. The database stored every country’s basic information such as country code, name, currency code, and a list of zones, where applicable.

Normalization

The same way we have formats to represent dates, we created formats to describe addresses per country. With our database for countries, we can store these formats for every country.

Form Representation

What is the order we want to show input fields when presenting an address form? We came up with the following format to make it easier for reuse:

  • {fieldName}: Name of the field
  • _: line break

Here’s an example with Canada and Japan:

 Japan
{company}_{lastName}{firstName}_{zip}_{country}_{province}{city}_{address1}_{address2}_{phone}


Form Representation Japan

 

Canada
{firstName}{lastName}_{company}_{address1}_{address2}_{city}_{country}{province}{zip}_{phone}

Form Representation Canada
Form Representation Canada

Now, with a format for every country, we dynamically reorder the fields of an address form based on the selected country. When the page loads, we already know which country the shop is located and where the user is connecting from, so we can prepopulate the form with the country and show the fields in the right order. If the user changes the country, we also reorder on the fly the form. And since we store the data on provinces, we can also prepopulate the zone dropdown on the fly. 

Display Representation

We’ve used the same representation to show an address as above and the only difference here is that extra characters used to represent an address for different locales are displayed. Here’s another example with Japan and Canada:

Japan
{country}_〒{zip}{province}{city}{address1}{address2}_{company}_{lastName} {firstName}様_{phone}
Canada
{firstName} {lastName}_{company}_{address1} {address2}_{city} {province} {zip}_{country}_{phone}


The thing to note here is that for Japan, we add characters such as 〒 to indicate that what follows is a postal code or we add 様 (“sama”) after the first name which is the formal and respectful form of Miss/Mr/Mrs. And for other countries, we can add commas if necessary and account for spaces.

Labels and Translations

The other problem to resolve was the name of the labels we use to display address data. Remember, the label for postal code can be different in different countries. To solve this, we created a list of keys for certain fields. Our implementation approach is to make changes incrementally instead of taking on the enormous task (it would probably take forever!) of having our address forms work for all countries from the get-go. Based on our most popular countries, we came up with specific label keys that we translate in our front end.

So, as in our previous example, zones are Provinces in Canada and in Japan they’re Prefectures. So in our YAML file for Canada, we’ve added zone_key: province and in Japan’s we’ve added zone_key: prefecture. We translate these keys in our front end. We’ve applied this same logic to other countries and fields when needed. For example, we have zip_key: postcode for certain countries and zip_key: pincode for others. We include default values for all our label keys since we don’t have a value for all countries yet.

Screenshot of the checkout in Japanese and English

 

Translations

As mentioned earlier, country names and province names need translation so we store them per language for most of them. We translate country names in all of our supported locales, but we only translate zones when necessary and based on the usage and the locale. So, for example, Canada has translations for French and English for now. So by default, the provinces will be rendered in English unless your locale is fr. We’ll evolve our translations over time.

API endpoint

Shopify is an ecosystem where many apps live. To ensure our data is up to date everywhere at the same time we created an API endpoint to access it. This way, our iOS, Android and front-end applications will be in sync when introducing new formats for new countries. No need to update the information everywhere since every app will be using the endpoint. The advantage of this approach is in the future we might realize that some formatting isn't only country related but also locale related, e.g. firstName and lastName are reversed when the locale is Japanese no matter if the address in Japan or Canada. Since the endpoint receives the locale for each request, this problem will be transparent from the client.

Creating Abstraction / Libraries

To make the life of developers easier, we’ve created abstraction libraries. Yes, we want to localize our apps, but we also want to keep our developers happy. And asking them to query a graph endpoint and parse the formats we came up with is… maybe a bit much. So we’ve created abstractions to overcome this:

  • Other non-public components built on top of @shopify/address such as an AddressForm and an Address to add another easy abstraction for developers which displays the address form as easily as doing:

The Future

This is the current state of how we’re solving these problems. There are drawbacks that we’re tackling, such as overcoming the fact that we need to fetch information to render an address. Implementing caching solution to prevent from having to do a network call every time we want to render an address or an address form for instance. But this will evolve as we gain more context, knowledge and we grow our tooling around going international.


Intrigued by Internationalization? Shopify is hiring and we’d love to hear from you. Please take a look at our open positions on the Engineering career page.