QR codes seem to be everywhere these days, but I’m not sure if I’m convinced of their usefulness. The premise is very simple. Anyone with a smart phone can scan your code and a number of actions can occur. You can be linked to a website, a YouTube video, it can call a phone number, send an SMS message, or just contain plain text. It all just seems like a gimmick to me. Here is an example of a plain text QR code. Go ahead, scan it. You know you want to. Oh wait… you don’t have an app to scan QR codes yet? Go browse through the dozens of them on the App store and come back here. Don’t worry, I have time.
The above example may not be the most productive use for QR codes. But I can honestly only think of a few situations where the QR code would actually be beneficial to me. Business cards are one such application. You can embed all of your contact information into a single QR code placed on the back of your card. One quick scan and it can be imported into someones phone without the fear of transposing 2 numbers while trying to enter the information manually. It can also prevent your business card from being overcrowded with information. The other reason why I feel that a business card is a viable place for the QR code is the fact that it’s easy to hold in your hand and scan at your convenience. And isn’t convenience the underlying reason to use these codes? They act as a shortcut for something that would otherwise take a lot of manual typing to reach. Simple, short URL’s are not the type of information that I feel falls into this category.
Recently, while watching CNN, I saw a QR code flashed on the screen. If I remember correctly, it linked to a red cross website which allowed you to donate funds to Japan after the Tsunami. My first issue with showing a QR code on tv is the idea that depending on where my tv is located, I may actually have to get up off the couch and walk across the room in order to get a clear scan. What if I don’t have a DVR? I am now in a race against the clock to get up off my lazy ass and run across the room, all while trying to launch the correct app on my phone. Would in not be easier to just type “red cross japan” into google? My google autocomplete only required me to type “red cr” before it was suggested as a search option. 2 clicks later and I’m at the website ready to donate.
Where else are we seeing QR codes pop up?
T-Shirts seem to be a common place. Make a company t-shirt with a convenient QR code that will link people to your website. Sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? It does until you realize that you need to stop everything you are doing, chase down the person wearing the shirt. Put your hands all over them, smoothing out the wrinkles, while they stand motionless, as you attempt to snap a picture with your camera phone. Do you have a few people who want your info beamed into their phones at the same time? Form a line and take a number, we are going to be here a while. I hope you didn’t have any plans today. At the very least, if you are going to put a QR code on your shirt, please do me a favor and also include a URL for those of us who don’t feel like molesting you in order to visit your site.
QR codes are also popping up on websites. I do agree with one specific use for them on the internet. That is to provide a quick link to download an app to your smartphone. But please don’t make me pull my phone out in order to get access to the new YouTube video you just posted, when I’m already sitting in front of my PC with a 24″ monitor and perfectly capable of clicking a link with my mouse.
Magazine ads are all starting to adopt the QR code. Some of them provide a standard URL below the code, others choose to omit the text link and only display the code to try to appear cutting edge. What if I’m reading my magazine in close proximity to my computer and would rather open up a web browser and visit your site on a full sized monitor? Adopting the use of QR codes is fine, but don’t just forget about the old standard text link.
Product labels are also sporting QR codes now. Today I was drinking from an eco friendly, compostable paper cup and noticed a barcode on it, but it didn’t look like the QR codes I’m used to seeing around. I tried to scan it with the app I just downloaded and it wouldn’t work. Instructions on the cup pointed me to a website where I could download the correct app. This type of barcode is a Microsoft Tag, not a QR code. I am now forced to visit the App Store, where I can spend 5 minutes downloading yet another app, just to scan a new type of code that eventually leads me to a YouTube video which I really had no interest in watching in the first place. This in an example of the Microsoft Tag.
In order to make the above tag, I needed to log into the Microsoft Tag site using a Windows Live ID, and sign my first born over to Microsoft by agreeing to the rather lengthy Microsoft Tag Service and Tag Creation API Agreement. Microsoft lays out a pretty convincing argument for needing a new type of tag. These tags can represent data in a much more efficient way and do not need to grow in size based on the amount of data contained within them. They are also more easily scalable to smaller sizes that are still readable. So, I can see the technical advantages they have over QR codes, but I also see a few inherent disadvantages.
First, by introducing a new type of barcode to the market, it complicates things. Now I need to have multiple apps on my phone and remember which one to launch depending on the type of code in front of me. The Microsoft tags also rely on a connection to their server in order to determine the content of the tag. The actual data is stored remotely, and the tag simply points to it. The good thing about this is the ability to modify a tag later. Microsoft keeps a record of all of the tags you create in your “Tags Manager”, and allows you to edit any existing tags. Each time you scan a tag, the app must connect to the Microsoft server in order to download the meaning behind it. If everything is working properly, this happens instantaneously. But you are relying on a internet connection as well as a server to feed you this information. I think after the recent Amazon server issues which effected so many people, we are all a bit more weary of depending on an unknown remote server. What would happen if Microsoft decided to stop supporting these tags in the future and shut their server down? Now that v-card tag on the back of your business card instantly becomes a colorful pattern of triangles with no function other than to sit there and look ugly.
In contrast, all of the information contained in a QR code is embedded directly into the image. No internet connection required. This makes them much less efficient in terms of the amount of information that can be conveyed, but also permanent. If you used one to send out your contact info to people, you better not ever change you phone number, or you will have to generate a new QR code to go along with it. But this is no different than the rest of the information on your business card. Both methods have their pros and cons, but neither is a perfect solution.
One last place I have seen QR codes is tattooed on peoples skin. Yes, the new trend in geeky tattoos is the QR code. People embed sayings, names, links to their websites or their birth dates in these codes. Perhaps they can replace medic alert bracelets one day. I just not sure if I want to depend on the paramedic owning a smartphone to save my life.
Taste in tattoos can vary widely, and if you genuinely like the look of the QR code from a design perspective, go ahead and get one. But a few years from now when QR codes are long gone and forgotten, the link to your website no longer works, or your tattoo fades to the point of being unscannable, you may regret having it permanently inked on your body. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I personally find them ugly and intrusive. Whether on my body or on a movie poster, or any type of ad campaign. I can just hear all the graphic designs screaming in their heads when their clients reveal the desire to incorporate a big ugly block of black squares into their beautifully designed ad campaign. Perhaps you prefer the look of pastel colored triangles and choose a Microsoft Tag instead. Good luck making that match your style.
Lets also not forget that significantly less than 50% of the population have smartphones capable of reading QR codes. This is obviously shifting, and the predictions say that by the end of 2011 the majority of phones will be smartphones. But a majority simply means more than 50%. Out of those, only the newest phones come with pre-installed scanning software. The statistics will also vary depending on your target demographic, with the younger market being much more likely to own a Smartphone. QR codes used in an ad campaign aimed at an older audience may just be a waste of ink.
Only time will tell if QR codes are here to stay. I may be in the minority here, but I sincerely hope that I will not be forced to look at them everywhere I go. When all smartphones have full qwerty keyboards and people walk around texting 20 hours a day, is it really that much trouble to type a URL into your mobile browser? Maybe people aren’t using QR codes to their full potential yet, but as of today, I just don’t quite get it.