QR Codes: Don’t Hide the Magic

QR Code for UXPA website

Recently I was visiting my local barista’s shop and saw a flyer that had been posted on the bulletin board by a well-known national charity. Included on the flyer was a QR code. Nothing on the flyer explained why the QR code was displayed or why anyone should scan it, but since I’m interested in QR codes, I did scan it. My phone easily read the code and took me to a website—the charity’s local website. Their entire website. A website that was totally unreadable on a cell phone.

Why Do People Scan?

People scan to get something, something that will make them feel better. People feel better when they’re entertained or have learned something new and useful. Or, best of all, when they can make or save money.

The Japanese have been using QR codes much longer than the rest of us; no surprise since the QR (Quick Response) codes were invented there in 1994. Why do today’s Japanese scan the codes? A June 2009 study from NetAsia Research (via 2d-code.co.uk) showed that their reasons for scanning include:

  1. To use a coupon (31.6 percent)
  2. To apply for a special promotion (22.7 percent)
  3. To have more information on a product (22.7 percent)

In short, the Japanese scan to save money and to spend money more wisely.

In February 2011, the marketing firm MGH in Baltimore, Maryland conducted an online survey of 415 smartphone users. The results indicated that 53 percent of those surveyed scanned QR codes in order to get a coupon, discount, or deal, and 52 percent scanned to get additional information. Thirty-three percent scanned to enter a sweepstakes, and 26 percent of scans were to receive more information in the future. Twenty-four percent wanted to watch a video, 23 percent bought something, and another 23 percent of users scanned to interact with a social media service.

Which Countries Use QR Codes?

3GVision, which provides barcode reading and technology services, reported that in the third quarter of 2011, the top mobile barcode-using countries, based on number of scans in 141 countries, were (in descending order) the United States, Germany, Canada, UK, Italy, Netherlands, France, Spain, Australia, and Hong Kong.

Note that Japan is excluded from this and most other studies because it is an outlier. QR Codes were invented in Japan, and that country used them for a number of years before they started appearing in other countries, so the percentage of people scanning QR Codes in Japan is far greater than in other parts of the world.

In another survey, Internet usage researchers at GlobalWebIndex reported on the percentage of QR code usage among Internet users in 27 countries. In this survey Japan was included. The survey showed that 29 percent of Japanese Internet users were using QR codes in 2011, 22 percent of South Koreans, and 17 percent of the Chinese. Americans and the British were at only 8 percent. Even lower were Brazilians at 6 percent and Russians at 4 percent. There is room for growth.

Media Sources of QR Codes

QR codes can be placed in an unlimited variety of places. For marketing purposes, the most common locations include store windows, in-store displays, public transit displays, product packaging, newspapers, magazines, flyers, direct mail, websites, and television screens.

A study in June 2011 by the digital metrics and intelligence service comScore reported that more than 49 percent of all scans were of QR codes in printed magazines or newspapers, and more than 35 percent were on product packaging. Websites on a computer were more than 27 percent. Posters, flyers, and kiosks came in next with more than 23 percent, and business cards/brochures, storefronts, and TV were all between 10 and 15 percent.

It’s important to realize when studying survey results that currently there is more scanning done in certain areas because there is a greater display of QR codes in those areas. This also affects the reasons why people scan. Results are skewed because people can scan only those QR codes that exist, not the ones that could exist.

 Specific Functions of QR Codes

Anyone concerned with user experience who is using QR codes should be aware of the wide variety of opportunities that the codes can provide. The primary use of QR codes is to initiate actions by Internet-connected smartphones, including:

  • To initiate a telephone call; to place an event into a phone’s calendar; to place information into a phone’s contacts list; to place an email address into your phone’s email application; to download an application to the user’s phone (a major use by phones running the Android operating system); to send/receive a text message; to see/send a social network post.
  • To download audio or video about an object, location, or surroundings—particularly useful in tourist areas, art galleries, museums, and for real estate information; to display a map and navigational directions; to view schedules of entertainment and transportation; to see news, stock market, weather, sports, and traffic reports; to view a webcam for real-time visual information.
  • To link to a website; to initiate a web search; to provide a menu of options; to download a document, such as an article, letter, newspaper, spreadsheet, menu, manual, e-book, coupon, or entry form; to download photographs or other images.
  • To search for, find reviews, and purchase a product; to download a ticket; to enable an online payment for products and services.

QR Code Principles

My experience at the coffee shop leads to two QR Code principles; the charity violated both of them. As the user, I can attest that it was not a positive user experience.

QR Code Principle #1: Tell users why they should scan the code.

It better be a compelling reason. Mobile phone users are compulsive, but they still don’t like to waste their time. Tell them why they should invest time scanning your code and how pleased they’ll be once they have done so.

If you’re in a country where QR codes are still new, along with the QR Code itself include some basic instructions such as “Scan this QR code with your camera phone. Go to your phone’s application store to get a free QR code reader.” This is cumbersome but necessary, unless your target audience is already familiar with the codes. Even then, give them a reason to scan it.

QR Code Principle #2: Take the user to a mobile-friendly website.

A website can look wonderful on a desktop and terrible on a phone. It must be designed specifically for reading by mobile devices. At the very least, it has to be run through a software “mobilizer” which, once the server recognizes that a mobile device is knocking on the door, instantly converts all of the information on the desktop website into a format readable by the mobile device. If the data is presented only in desktop mode, the website’s owner has wasted time and money and lost—maybe even angered—a potential customer, client, or supporter.

Keep in mind that the information should be readable on all smartphones, not just the very newest models. And don’t forget the so-called “dumb” or feature phones. Most of them can’t read QR codes but that doesn’t mean their owners, who number in the very many millions, don’t matter. Don’t make them feel excluded. Whenever possible, provide an alternative to QR codes. Give a URL or phone number as well.

Further QR Code Principles

The well-intentioned charity person who put the QR code on the coffee shop’s flyer had the right idea, but the wrong execution. He or she wasn’t alone. Major corporations make the same mistakes. But their mistakes can involve millions of dollars in wasted marketing and advertising costs. And there’s no need for any of that loss. Here are some more useful principles:

  • Use QR codes only when they’re needed. Don’t provide users with information they can get faster or more conveniently another way. QR codes can be magical, so let the phone user experience some magic. Give them video, give them sound, give them wonderful money-saving opportunities, but make sure it’s fast, useful, enjoyable, and only available through QR codes. In short, give them the best user experience possible. They’ll be happy, and you or your client will be happy.
  • Track your scans. Use digital analytics to track how, when, and where they’re scanned, and how well your own specific goals are realized. You’ll also gain information that helps you improve your use of the codes.
  • Keep your URL short. The less information the QR code contains, the less dense it is and the more easily readable without error. Use a URL shortening service such as Bitley.com. Plus, the URL can point permanently to a location where you can—quickly, easily, and whenever you want—redirect the user to another location.
  • Make sure your QR codes appear in geographic locations where there is good mobile phone service (unless the code does not require an Internet connection because it provides only contact or other information that can be embedded in the code.) You can’t control where newspaper and magazines will be read, but you can pay attention to outdoor and indoor locations where your codes are posted.
  • Ensure that the codes are the proper size for the medium on which they appear and the location at which they will be scanned. One rule of thumb is 1:7; that is, a one-inch square code should be scanable at a distance of seven inches. Another is that QR codes on labels should be scanable despite the curvature of the container. For example, the recommended size for a QR code on a bottle of wine is between .5 and .8 inches, which is large enough to scan, but not so large that the scan is distorted by the bottle shape.
  • Test your QR codes thoroughly, making sure that they work with all popular barcode scanning applications on all popular mobile devices.

QR Codes in the Future

You’re probably familiar with Gartner, the global information technology research and advisory company that publishes regular “Hype Cycle” reports on new technological innovations in a variety of industries. The Hype Cycle deals with acceptance of these innovations. It begins with the Technology Trigger, moves upward to the Peak of Inflated Expectations, down the Trough of Disillusionment, up the Slope of Enlightenment, and finally, reaches the Plateau of Productivity.

In its July 2011 chart, Gartner positions QR codes as beginning to move up the Slope of Enlightenment,which Gartner describes as follows:

“More instances of how the technology can benefit the enterprise start to crystallize and become more widely understood. Second- and third-generation products appear from technology providers. More enterprises fund pilots; conservative companies remain cautious.”

This suggests that in July 2011, QR codes still had two to five years before mainstream adoption. But why wait until then to master the use of QR codes? Millions of people are already scanning QR codes or awaiting good reasons to scan them. Just keep in mind that QR codes are for mobile phones. This is obvious, of course, but often overlooked. The operative word is “mobile.” When people are on the move, they want information fast, usually to help them decide what to do or where to go, or to take advantage of something at their location that they couldn’t access any other way.

QR codes are focused. If a mobile phone gives us access to the entire world, a QR code focuses down to a very specific piece of that world—be it a movie trailer, an audio news report, the interior of a home for sale, the arrival time of the next train, an explanation of an exhibit, or an opportunity to save money. There’s a magical world inside that little square. Use it carefully and it will serve you well.

Winter, M. (2012). QR Codes: Don’t Hide the Magic. User Experience Magazine, 11(4).
Retrieved from https://uxpamagazine.org/qr-codes/

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