So QR codes are still around. And it’s bugged me.

For those of you who don’t know what a QR code is, they are those “square barcodes” now seen in magazine ads, billboards — even your airline travel ticket. But I ask you an important question: when was the last time you actually scanned one?

For most, the answer would be ‘a long time ago’ or “I’ve never done it, no idea how”. Which makes them, oddly enough, totally defunct.

Why did we start using them anyway?

The main value proposition of a QR code is that you can compress a lot of information into one small box. Whether it’s a long URL (perhaps containing a lot of tracking information — indeed, even down to the individual bus shelter the code was scanned at), a Tweet or some other form of content — it’s sure as heck a lot easier than typing it into a browser.

However, we now have short URLs, and they’re something consumers are rapidly getting used to typing into their phones.

So what’s wrong with them?

Ultimately, the simple problem is that consumers don’t know what to do with them. They know that they are some kind of barcode that usually sends you to a website, but they’re not sure how to scan it. Until iOS and Android phones (who have a combined 88% market share in Australia) natively support scanning QR codes with their inbuilt cameras rather than downloading third party apps, I don’t think we’re going to see any consumer activity toward actually using the things unless there’s a good reason to.

There are some bonus obvious issues — a roadside billboard with a QR code always begs the question to me of ‘am I supposed to scan that?’, when it’s not legal to use your phone while driving. Particularly ironic (or perhaps funny) when the billboard is promoting road safety.

Furthermore, nobody wants to be ‘that guy’ who stands there at the bus shelter and scans the code on the ad for the latest soft drink — it makes you look a tad crazy.

But they could be useful….

My caveat is that I actually experimented with the idea of QR codes quite recently. After discovering the URI redirects you can do with iPhones using Twitter, I found that you could build a really cool little system where you can encode a Tweet (i.e. pre-composed, the user just presses “send”) in a QR code, then include these throughout a report (in this case our ROI report) to allow people to easily share key points or diagrams.

However, it became a bit of a “too much effort compared to the return” problem. The effort required to pre-compose the Tweets, encode the QR codes, then additionally explain what to do with them to someone reading the document seemed a bit too dedicated — even as a proof of concept.

Planned as part of a long-term campaign, they could be really effective. But it’s important to weigh up the requirement of explaining (/educating) users how to actually use the tool you’re presenting them with against using a simpler URL that has other limitations (harder to track detailed actions). There are always steps inbetween though — using the bus shelter example earlier, you could collect the location of the phone when they open a website rather than encoding that into the QR code. So at times there can be benefits, but the prevailing attitude of “let’s be hip and include a QR code” is just a bit too misguided for me.

Have you used QR codes? What was the last one you scanned?

Update: Barbara Bercic pointed us out to this great service & case study from NZ: 

Check out this Wellington-based firm, STQRY, which is doing very well in the musems’ galleries and visitor attraction market where their QR-based apps are allowing these insitutions convey info for their visitors that add to the richness and deopth of their experience. We’ve adopted them for some of our walksways where we want to convey interesting history and facts about sites along our walkways without spending up large on signage that is always subject to damage – one small post the STQRY code and you’re away.
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