When you start looking into it, moving homes in England has a very modern approach. You can close or move all utility accounts online. Time it right and before you’re in your new flat, all the new bills are waiting for you and (as weird as that may be), that’s a great thing. Technology to the rescue!..

Or rather, that’s the story I would like to tell. What it’s really like is that every utility website will offer these features and, at least in our case, none of them would actually work. The post office refused to match the address it was offering me (which I wasn’t able to manually edit) with the one on the credit card (which I also couldn’t freely edit) and so didn’t do my redirection. The gas website wasn’t able to handle the fact that I haven’t lived in Britain for the last three years. The council website went ok… but really all it did was sign me up to get the proper forms through mail, which I still had to fill out pen & paper and mail back.

It feels to me like whatever money was invested in these websites is being thrown away. Most of what is needed is in place, but if you really want these services to be helpful and save your firm money, you have to be prepared to invest in them all the way to maturity. It just seems like this hasn’t happened and what I’m seeing is half-finished work.

This is also a good example to remind devs of edge cases and graceful failures. If you serve a city like London, be prepared to accept international addresses when dealing with previous address history. If for some policy-related reason that’s just not possible (and this should be your only excuse), fail gracefully. Let the user/client know what the problem is and what they should do.

If you want to do string matching, especially for addresses, you must allow for flexibility (the difference between the address on my card and the one on the postal website was of no more than two characters). I understand that if you’re the post office you tend to think that the address you have in your system is the only correct one, but be mindful of the fact that there seems to be more than one database for UK addresses around the web and they don’t all match exactly.

Of course I forgot to mention that cancelling any non-utility service nowadays must almost always involve a phone-call or office visit. This is a sales-based limitation, probably counting on the fact that talking to a person at the other end (that is well trained in how to persuade you not to cancel your account) will result in fewer cancellations. I’m actually sure that it works, I just don’t think it’s necessary. Try suspending your account on Facebook and you’ll see that you can be pretty persuading online as well, with no human interaction. It just requires a bit of imagination and work. By forcing me to call you (especially if it’s one of those “toll-free number that costs money on every other network except BT”) all you’re doing is annoying me, which is a bad idea especially if I am cancelling because I was previously annoyed by something related to your service.

All in all, I am a big fan and supporter of the attempt to move to all this data processing to the online world, but I am saddened by how slowly it is moving and how badly the solutions are implemented. With the experiences I’ve been having, I almost feel like not trying to do anything like this online in the future, as it just feels like an added delay to printing and mailing out the forms.