QR Codes: worth the effort?

December 17th, 2012 by davidsmith | 1 Comment

You’ve see them around, but have you ever used one? The truth is, we’re not all using QR codes all the time without a second thought. So are they fated to be generally ignored and then replaced by something newer and easier? One thing’s for sure: they do a job that something’s going to do, sooner or later.

QR code on a bottle of cider

What are they?

Essentially a QR code is a kind of barcode which crams much more information into a similar space. They’re designed to be read using some kind of optical reader, and their target device seems to be camera phones, able to interpret the image using built-in software or through the use of a downloadable app.

Scan the code image and within seconds you’re presented with the information it represents, usually either a web address or an address book contact card that can be saved on the device.

Square, on Windows Phone

Creating the code images is easy. In fact you can generate them for free online using various websites and do with them whatever you please. There’s even a free app on Windows Phone, called Square, which exploits them rather ingeniously, enabling you to share contacts and even images with other devices by generating QR codes on-screen and on-the-fly, which other users can scan straight from your phone screen. A simple cross-platform method for sharing data.

Are they useful?

They are actually. They fill a common gap in the user interface of hand-held devices.

Entering web addresses, contact details or even basic notes on a mobile phone or tablet is always a bit of a chore. On-screen keyboards simply aren’t as good the real thing, and even real keyboards aren’t everybody’s best friend.

Yet the ability to use all that data on those devices is what they’re designed for.

QR code on a demonstration electric car

Often when you’re out and about you’ll come across a product or company that has a website you’d like to see or contact details you’d like to keep, but you can’t use your phone without taking the time to laboriously enter all the details. Even today many people tend to reach for a paper and pen to make quick notes.

The only other interfaces your hand-held device has with the outside world are the camera and microphone. Manufacturers are starting to do a lot with voice control of mobile devices, Apple’s Siri being the most obvious example, so it’s clear a distinct effort is being made to use these interfaces to make content more accessible. A natural progression, one might argue.

Augmented Reality (AR) is another trending development, this time making use of the camera most hand-held devices have built-in.

QR code on a shop door window

So using your camera to scan QR codes seems part of the current trend toward using these alternative interfaces to access information. And this trend may finally bring interest in QR codes to a critical mass.

Are there alternatives?

Yes and no. Near Field Communication (NFC) is a new technology just starting to appear in the latest mobile phones. It’s a bit like Bluetooth, but even shorter range. We’re talking inches. The idea is that you can simply swipe near, or touch a device to, another surface implanted with an NFC chip, and the device will detect the chip and read the information from it. This may be static data, or it might be dynamically controlled by a parent system, as is the case with POS checkout readers that allow you to pay for goods with your phone.

Making a payment using NFC

These NFC chips could play the same role as QR codes, allowing you to grab contact details or web addresses simply by touching your device to a card or poster. The obvious drawback here is that dedicated hardware is necessary – whereas a QR code just needs print and paper. Cheap as the chips are to buy and encode, they’re never going to be as cheap as printing your own barcode onto paper, or simply displaying it on a screen.

Will they survive?

I believe they have a genuine and important use. Optional, of course, but it seems there are plenty of legitimate opportunities for them.

Anyone who puts their website URL on anything, be it a product, a poster, leaflet or sign, would do well to consider including a QR code. They don’t even need to be particularly large.

A QR code on a chocolate bar

I can image a time when everyone knows what they are, uses them on a regular basis and even looks for them, and in that time they’ll need only be very small, taken for granted at the foot of every printed URL and phone number.

I have to admit though, I’m an early adopter type, and I’ve rarely used a QR code. Why? What makes the difference between a technology that succeeds and spreads and another that is clearly useful but never catches on?

Essentially it’s the ability to do something useful that you can’t do in any other way – but in an easy intuitive way. So maybe the barrier is that you need to install an app. Maybe if you could just point your phone at a QR code and it worked, it would catch on. Or maybe it’s just slowly, quietly building the critical mass it needs.

Well, watch this space and we’ll see how things unfold.

Posted in Marketing, Technology

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