QR Codes: A Mirage in the Desert


I've been intrigued recently by QR codes. More accurately, I've been intrigued by marketing people and their infatuation with QR codes. I've been very curious about when they are being used correctly and when they are simply obfuscating information. There are likely good uses for QR codes, this article attempts to help give some tools on how to create more excellent experiences and some pitfalls to avoid.

What's Behind Door 1?

There is a curiosity evoked when you see a QR code. What is behind this code? You find yourself wondering. Even though QR codes were invented in the mid-90's, it wasn't until recently, with the proliferation of QR reading apps and high-quality mobile phone cameras that using QR codes in the USA became a possibility. Now they are widespread, appearing on napkins, newspaper ads, billboards, and you name it.

One particularly clever QR code, which was seen in the wild at SXSW this year, simply had a big QR code with the tagline: Do you ever scan a QR code just to see what was there? (Actually, it probably said something a little different. That's not verbatim). This seems to play on why we buy lottery tickets with the foil you can scratch away. It is interactive. You don't know if you won immediately, you actually have to work and be curious—slowly revealing the underlying message with a quarter or penny and bated breath.

So pure curiosity might work with QR codes, but only to a point. Curiosity is a luxury of the early-adopter. If you don't have a QR code campaign going yet, then the chance of evoking the same curiosity is limited. However, you still will retain the feeling of interactivity, since the user will always be required to scan, swipe, or at least point her camera at the ad.

Ease of Use and Tracking

QR codes were invented to track automobile parts (according to Wikipedia). Today, they generally encode either text or URLs. For URLs QR codes make sense, since the user can simply scan the QR code instead of typing in a long or complex (or even short and succinct) URL.

These URL's, since they can be longer or include a tracking param can very tightly identify the user's location. That way, a well-tracked marketing campaign can granularly figure out how many people scanned a billboard in times square, scanned an ad in the WSJ, scanned an ad in the Times, or simply typed in the URL by hand. This gives marketers a good feel of how many people viewed their website as well as exactly which ad returned the most users.

Encoding Large Amounts of Data

Perhaps you want to encode a large amount of text in a QR code. You can store up to 4000 characters in a single code. If you are an art museum wanting to save on space, you could send the user all of the text via the QR code, translated into different languages. This saves space on your walls and gives the gallery an extremely clean feel. On the other hand, you could direct users to a webpage about the art they are looking at, including a small version of the work so they know they scanned the right code. This won't work if the user doesn't have a data plan, but if they have a scanner app on their phone, it is a safe bet they do.

This, unfortunately, leaves non-smartphone users in the dark. These users would be forced to pick up a hefty guidebook at the entrance to the museum.

Differentiating Many Items

At my work, we have created an employee library (Credit to Jonan S. for the idea) where employees can put their books up for checkout by other employees. Each book has a QR code and number on the back. This allows checking out books simply via the QR code. No typing necessary. Granted, the number appears so users without code scanners can easily enter it.

This is closer to the original purpose of the code. It also opens up some marketing ideas. Maybe your campaign includes 20 QR codes and users can play 'memory' with the codes in order to win a prize.

The Problems with QR Codes

QR codes have many important uses. But please, if you want to use one, make sure there is a point to it. Don't hide URLs and text for the joy of using a snazzy new marketing technique. QR codes are tools, not an answer to every marketing campaign's problems. Like a mirage in a desert, users see QR codes and think, "Hey! I wonder if the information I need is behind this thing?" Why not rain this information down on your users so they don't even need the mirage of an oasis.

Progressively Enhance your Ad

Progressive enhancement is a web term that's a few years old. It's something many developers have gotten good at. Basically, progressive enhancement means that users of old browsers and technology get a good experience and layer and layer of code are added to new browsers and cutting edge users so that their experience is truly awesome. Don't hide anything truly important behind a QR code, so it is accessible to all users (unless there is a very good reason for doing so). On the other hand, make the QR code deliver a worthwhile experience to users who scan it so their effort isn't in vein.