I like QR

QRcode for bm.wel.by

QR codes are prolific but it doesn’t seem as though people are actually using them, or convinced by their value. I like them but I can understand that agnosticism because they seem to be added for the sake of it rather than because they add any value for the person doing the scanning.

The code on this post is just like that but it was two things I saw today that prompted me to write this. Firstly, via the quite excellent WTFQRcodes.com the ludicrous concept of the ‘SafetyTat’ for paranoid parents everywhere. And secondly a colleague returning from an event this morning clutching a flyer with QR code present and correct.

That flyer typifies a lazy use of QR codes that really annoys me and feeds the general ‘mehness’ towards them. All it does is duplicate the link to the website that was printed next to it and that seems to be the most common usage – so when you’re out and about, rather than having to remember a URL until later, you can whip quickly scan the code and you’re away. But when all that does is take you to the same thing that you’d see at your computer that’s a wasted opportunity. And if your website isn’t mobile friendly (the one on the flyer isn’t) then it results in a negative experience that adds no value, at all, to the person doing the scanning and makes it increasingly unlikely that anybody would scan a QR code again.

I’m not sure of a better mechanism for linking someone in the street with the digital part of something they’ve encountered. But that appreciation for them is closely linked to how they’re used. Unless it offers something specific and useful that makes sense of being handheld it is nothing more than a waste of space.

Here are 8 things that have occurred to me when I’ve seen them used, read stories about them, or come across them myself.

Selling stuff

If I see something specific being advertised with a QR code then I’m expecting to be taken straight to the item in your (mobile-friendly) store. But it needs to be easy for me to buy it if I’m on a phone – so I want payment options that don’t need me to faff about with my wallet to find my credit card details. If you don’t have a mobile store then maybe all the QR code needs to do is locate me in relation to the nearest store where I can pick it up and tell me whether it’s in stock at that moment. A quick scan, a short walk and I can own it (or save myself the frustration of not being able to get it).

What’s on

If I see an event, or a programme of events being advertised then I want to access a tailored mobile page giving me time, date, location and contact details in such a way that they can be saved to my phone. If it’s ticketed then I also want to be able to buy/reserve tickets on the spot.

About me

QR codes can contain A Lot of information. You can store vCards as QR codes so they do make sense on business cards and adverts where contact details are important. The beauty of it being a vCard is that when your phone scans it then it drops name, phone number, email address, address and anything else that’s been included straight into my contacts.

Subscribed for later

If I’m seeing something advertised that’s not product or event specific then you’re wanting to raise brand awareness and capture my interest for the future. Maybe this is beyond the remit of a QR code but it would be good to scan that and arrive at a contacts mini-site where I can subscribe to emails or do a Facebook like and a Twitter follow without having to go off and search for you on each of those platforms. There are now ways of liking and following without disrupting the browsing experience, can QR codes provide a pathway to something that uses the apps on our phones so we can do that on the move?

For the locals

There’s been some thought, and experimentation about whether local government can use QR codes to help deliver services. Two years ago Sarah Lay wrote about putting them on grit bins in Derbyshire and along with things like lamp posts they would make it possible to log an issue with that specific item straight away instead of pinning it on a map or describing its location. In West Yorkshire, Metro are sticking them on bus stops to give specific timetables. But of course, both cases really rely on getting their websites right in the first place (and when it comes to buses I think it better for councils to focus on having something as good as Shropshire’s bus timetables before getting distracted by sticking QR codes everywhere).

And those from out of town?

What role could QR codes play in helping to locate a visitor in a new and unfamiliar place? Step off a train or a bus and there’s usually a tourist information map nearby, adding QR codes wouldn’t be to show your location (because if you can QR then you’ll have maps) but to access content about the sites of interest they list – opening times, ticket prices, directions, special offers and exhibitions. Can QR point towards specific places that combine static and unchanging content alongside opportunities for real-time updates and flexible marketing.

Yesterday, today

Whenever we’re stumped by a question or curious about the history of something it’s becoming a reflex to check Wikipedia for a quick insight. The internet can give historical context to almost anything and in Birmingham the Civic Society are reported to be investigating how to use QR codes alongside blue plaques to connect a physical reference to someone with the story of their life (and this use of Wikipedia is something the QRpedia project is supporting in a variety of different contexts).

A digital ‘PTO’

But it’s not just history that can be found on the internet. The scope for being able to turn over the page and find out more and varied information about something is almost limitless. Hull has been celebrating the life and work of Philip Larkin and in honour of his poem ‘Toads’ there was a Toad Trail around the city. It was an incredible success in its own right but it sparks some thoughts about how QR might have added to the experience. Could they have connected those who came to see the toads more with Philip Larkin himself and his poetry? Could they have given a greater profile to the artist responsible for designing each toad? Could they have signposted people towards nearby businesses/attractions and offered specific special offers? Could they have turned the visit into a shared experience through checking in on the route, sharing their thoughts about each Toad or sharing their pictures (perhaps as simple as pointing to a Facebook page for each toad, in the mould of Dan Slee’s plea for many, not few).

In all these situations what is the desired interaction from having a QR code? If it’s only so people come to your website then the bare minimum of thought has to be about what content looks like on a tiny screen but life should be about more than bare minimums so it’s a shame we don’t see more inventive efforts at linking the physical and virtual. The question of how best to do that hasn’t yet been answered but it’s not going to go away. Maybe NFC, Blippar or Microsoft’s Tag barcodes will crack it but I’d be disappointed if QR codes fell out of favour before we could honestly say that we’d got to grips with their potential.

Have you seen any ludicrous examples of QR codes (that haven’t already made it onto wtfQRcodes.com)? Or have you seen QR codes used in a way that makes sense of their format rather than just tacked on the end? It will be interesting to see what the future holds in terms of the interconnectedness of all things.

About Benjamin Welby

Hi, I'm Benjamin Welby. I'm a displaced northerner currently living in Croydon, I church with a group of Christians who meet in a Soho nightclub on Wednesdays and I support Bradford City. I've an academic background in History, Politics and International Development. I work for the Government Digital Service but I left my heart in local government. This blog is infrequently updated and may feature any, all or none of these things...

  • Matt

    I have a general ‘meh’ness about them. Is this because there’s rarely a creative use? Partly, but it’s also because I can’t just whip the phone out of my pocket and scan. I have to find the app, wait a moment for the camera, focus, focus, steady. There we go.

    They’re also really ugly.

    For communicators there’s also going to be a worry about excluding those who can’t, or won’t, read the code. So then you end up with the we contents printed next to it.

    I was once given a business card containing just a qr code. That went in the bin.

    • bmwelby

      Thanks for commenting Matt,

      I’m not sure I agree with the fuss of taking your phone out – in my experience Google Goggles is very quick and reliable. Certainly preferable versus the alternative when faced with a call to action in my eyes 🙂

      Ugliness is a reasonable critique and something that Blippar and MS Tag seek to change. Given QR was born to do something functional in a factory setting maybe we’re trying to get them to be something they’re not (though bus times and similar tick that ‘helpful functionality’ rather than ‘marketing fluff’ box).

      I do think throwing a qr coded card in the bin says more about what you thought about whoever gave it to you. If you actually wanted their details would you really rather type in each bit to your phone over a scan and store?

      The bottom line is you’ve got to want to get your phone out of your pocket to access whatever’s behind that ugly black and white box and most of the time I haven’t been motivated to do so despite my affection for them