QR isn’t an end, it’s a means

QR seems to have taken on a bit of a life of its own over the past few weeks. Not only have I seen far more of the codes in the wild, but there seems to be many more people writing about it, many more news articles – and also (which is nice) – lots of people emailing me to ask how they can “do QR”.

Google Trends graph for "QR"

QR is a great technology. Actually, no – it’s an ok-ish technology. The more important thing is that the awareness means gains in popularity, which in turn means more people will know what a QR code is, how to use it – and also make them aware of some of the foibles. As with anything, this isn’t about how awesome the technology is. Many, many geeky people will tell you QR is crap – which in some ways it is per se – but the important thing is market penetration, expectation, device support – and (most importantly), the content experiences which underly it.

Underlying the concept of QR though is something rather more important, which I think many people miss in their rush to play with the latest and greatest thing. The important thing is this: QR is a way of poking the digital world into the real world. In a way, QR is simply one technology in a line of technologies that does this. Remember the first time you saw a URL on a piece of print advertising? That was digital poking into real, albeit in a slightly crap way. Then bluetooth. Now QR.

Ultimately, the concept is the same in each of these cases: put a marker in the real world which allows your audiences to connect with content in the virtual world.

The technology with which you do this can be agnostic. This year it might be QR. Next it might be NFC or AR. The following – who knows, image recognition / hyper-accurate GPS / whatever. The facts remain the same:

First: People have to have a desire to engage with the marker in the first place. Why would you go to the effort of scanning a QR code with no knowledge of what that code might provide for you? Nina Simon just recently blogged about QR Codes and Visitor Motivation which asks this question. The cost curve – as always – has to balance: the value that your user gets out must be greater than the effort that they have to put in – and (almost more important), you have to make this value clear before they scan.

Second: A proportion of people will never take part / have the technology to take part. QR scanning (or – even more so – NFC or whatever the next big thing is) will be a niche activity for the foreseeable future. Bear in mind that not only does your user have to have a QR code reader installed, they also need the right kind of phone, an internet connection at the point of scan AND a contract with their provider that lets them use this connection. These things are becoming more real, but it is by no means a given yet.

Third – and possibly the most important – the content that you deliver should add something significant to their experience. This is tied to the first point. Here’s a banner I snapped when I was in London recently:

UCL zoology QR code

If you scan this you get a link to the UCL Zoology Museum (and ironically, out of shot to the left is the URL that the QR code sends you to..). From a user experience perspective, I bet you 50p I can get my smartphone out, type in the url and be looking at the relevant content quicker than you can boot up a QR app, scan and open.

In this instance, you do actually end up at a mobile-friendly site and some interesting links to QR technologies in use at UCL – which is fantastic. But the use case and motivation aren’t really articulated in the physical world.

Finally – you can easily put some measures in place to track usage, and use this to inform future activity. Here’s another example, this time from the British Library:

British Library QR

If you follow this link, you’ll find it goes to http://www.bl.uk/sciencefiction. The problem with this is that the URL is the same one as is being used on the poster, around the web and in all their other marketing. So when it comes to evaluating the use of QR – and whether it has been successful as a means to pull in new visitors – my suspicion is the BL won’t have any idea how to separate out these clicks from any of the others.

The simple solution to this is to use something like bit.ly and create a unique URL which is specifically for this QR code. More advanced techniques might include things like appending a string to the end of the URL (for example www.bl.uk/sciencefiction?source=qr) – or using Google Analytics “campaigns” to track these.

(Note that you could also get even more clever by having separate unique QR codes for separate advertising zones or even for separate posters – imagine the impact of being able to track which posters or areas have been most successful…now that’s cool use of a technology…)

Coming back to the beginning of this post – the overriding point here is that QR, and many other technologies similar to it, provide a very exciting way of bringing digital content into the real world. With some upfront thinking, genuinely interesting content can be delivered in this way and users can be made to engage. As ever, though, it isn’t about the technology but about the use, motiviation and content which lies behind the technology. These are the things that count.

13 thoughts on “QR isn’t an end, it’s a means”

  1. Mike – have you seen folk using QRcodes to trigger actions other than visiting a web page Eg to force the phone to perform some action other than opening a browser and navigating to the encoded URL? (cf http://www.mobile-barcodes.com/qr-code-generator/ )

    As QR codes gain traction for the browsing action, would a QR code that forced an action other than opening a webpage confuse/concern the user?

    How could alternative actions be encoded? Symbols next to the QR code showing what it does? Using different colour encodings to show eg black QR code calls a webpage, red QRcode requests a callback etc?

  2. Hey Tony – I know that QR can be used to do stuff like open SMS / send message / deliver vCard – but I haven’t seen it used in this way in the wild.

    I think the important point is the same either which way – the signposting around the physical bit of the code (ie pre-scan) is vital – letting the user know why they should take part and what they’re going to get.

    From my experience, people used to be really freaked out that any kind of digital experience could happen in the real world. I remember running my SMS > web system and people just not getting that messages you sent with SMS could create content on the web. Nowadays people are more into mobile internet, so probably get this. But the motivation aspect is crucial, IMO.

  3. Hi Mike – totally agree with your point about QR poking the digital world into the real world. But I think QR codes might also have an element of ‘gamification’. Obviously there is no scoring of points or anything like that, but using a QR scanner is just a more fun and game-like way to do a routine task like navigating to a website than typing the address into a URL bar. As an experience its more amusing. Also, I can definitely envision QR being used (if its not already) as a literal game – like a treasure hunt for hidden QR codes that link to unique content.

  4. @libcroft – thanks for commenting. I agree about the fun element, and I think it’s a good point that this may be enough for some users to engage with the technology. It seems almost magical that a mysterious symbol can cause things to happen in the way that QR does. I’m a big fan of gamification too – I built some tech which was used at IWMW 2010 (http://iwmw.ukoln.ac.uk/iwmw2010/) where the delegates put themselves into teams, hunted out hidden codes and then had to answer a question to gain points. People seemed to like it – but it was a pretty geeky audience.

    • QR as magical portal! I think that’s definitely an aspect.
      And I don’t think you have to be geek to enjoy a treasure hunt. You talked in your post about people having to want what the QR code will take them to – well if that thing is a limited resource (a QR code that only works for the first 10 uses?) or is hard to find then it is instantly more attractive and desirable because of the element of competition.

  5. To be honest I’m not overall convinced that QR codes are here for very long – while they’ve been successful in some areas – notable Japan – they’ve been around there for some time, while it feels that in the UK they will be quickly overtaken by other tech (as you mention – possibly NFC). However, the problem I have with them is not really the tech but the result – just to exemplify …

    I visited the National Space Centre in Leicester last week and noticed a QR code on posters/leaflets that encouraged you to interact with the Centre via it’s Twitter/Facebook accounts. Being a geek, I dutifully pulled out my phone, opened a QR scanning app, got the QR code in the camera frame, scanned it, and eventually found that I had the URL for the centres Facebook page – at this point I switched off the phone not even bothering to follow the link.

    My experience reflects your point above about the relative hassle of using a QR vs just going to a browser (at least on a iPhone/Android device), and also the disappointment of going to that trouble and then just getting a facebook URL – nothing I can immediately interact with, no additional information about where I am – just something that would be much more appropriate for me to do at my computer when I get home (I don’t even use the Facebook web interface on my phone, only the app)

    My personal feeling is that if I’m going to use a QR code it’s got to deliver something more than just a link I’d have found anyway – something I can interact with immediately, something that rewards me, maybe something special that isn’t available without the QR code. It feels like this kind of thing would work much better with (say) QR codes for specific parts of the museum (perhaps delivering content relevant to your current location in the space) than just general advertising.

  6. From all that I’ve been reading, it seems QR can work – but only if properly done. Pointing to a Facebook page (ala Owen Stephens) isn’t making it work properly.

    I raised this question on Twitter, Facebook and G+ and found that most have only used it to link to a URL, usually showing data that was on the sign that held the QR code. What was the point??

    Another topic was pointing the QR to wikipedia – my personal issue with museums and galleries pointing the QR code directly to wikipedia is a) inaccuracy but more importantly b) what if the page moves? How will they track that? Clearly it would be better to point to their own website where they have control.

    Yes it’s still new, and yes it seems that museums and galleries are actually embracing them- or at least *trying* to. There are examples of museums loaning ipods to help assist the audience members that do not have smartphones.

    I think we’re in a stronger position to educate Joe Public on the benefits and ease of use of QR at this point. I am new to NFC but from what I read, it’s very much an augmented reality type device (or have I read that wrong) that almost does TOO much for the average end user. But that is just my opinion.

  7. Hey Mar – thanks for commenting.

    I think Wikipedia is a good starting point but I do take the accuracy thing (and as per our long conversation on Twitter the other day – clearly there are some issues..).

    Page pointing shouldn’t be a problem – but it does require a bit of up-front thinking – ideally you’d have a URL redirector. Not only would you be able to track clicks, but it should also allow the redirect to be changed. So the incoming URL is the same, but the outgoing one could be adjusted if need be.

    NFC isn’t an experience as-is – it just means that all you have to do is swipe the device near the sensor rather than boot up a QR app to actively scan it.

  8. This is a really clear post on something people are getting really confused about just now – at least in terms of how to use QR Codes.

    On the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year a huge number of theatre companies have put QR Codes on their flyers and posters. Its interesting in that in the hyper-competitive three weeks that is the Fringe the companies are learning to be cleverer in their use of the codes.

    What is working, and what more and more companies are switching to, is special time-limited ticket offers and, more cleverly, showing a venue’s location on a googlemap (so you can see how to get there). Just using them to take users to a show micro-site or facebook page is proving to be useless, and so they are stopping that use (the smarter ones at least).

  9. @Nick – thanks for commenting. Agree – it’s interesting watching how people are learning to use codes like QR in more intelligent and user-centric ways. Ditto really interesting to hear about the festival and the modes of use there – cheers!

  10. After commenting yesterday I was thinking about coming back to say that probably integrating the QR scanner into a wider museum ‘app’ for smartphone platforms would be a really good idea – but dammit if the Powerhouse Museum are way ahead of me (again) – really really interesting stuff (esp the overlay of QR scans on the gallery floorplan) http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/dmsblog/index.php/2011/08/23/early-app-and-qr-code-scanning-data-from-love-lace-exhibition/

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