stop treating QR codes as shiny objects!

QR (quick response) codes, you may have heard, could have many beneficial uses by enabling smartphone users to scan them to unlock additional interactive web content. Sadly, too many people still seem to treat them as a shiny object — something to be used for the sake of appearing trendy, not for practical purposes. I point to this conversation from a colleague at another college (offered anonymity) as an example:

Department: “We’re going to post QR codes at the shuttles stops so that people can use them to access the shuttle schedule!”

Web person: “Couldn’t we also just post the shuttle schedules?”

Department: “Ummm ….”

Pop quiz: Which is more convenient for a user: A piece of paper they can read, or a symbol they may or may not know is a QR code, and that they can only read if they have a QR code reader and a smartphone? You could provide both, but at the very least provide the former … at least if you prize actually letting people find out about your shuttle schedule.

Sadly, that’s not the worst example I’ve heard involving QR codes. Someone at another college told of a proposed PDF with a QR code that, when you scan it made your mobile device try to download — wait for it — the exact same PDF.

No. No. No. No. No!

I can’t stress it enough: Goals first, then tools. Don’t treat QR codes as shiny objects. They are gateways to additional information, not replacements for necessary information! The first college that sends out acceptance letters to prospective students that forces them to scan a QR code to learn whether they are accepted or not should lose its accreditation on the spot!

When I interviewed him last fall, the always impressive Tim Jones of North Carolina State rightfully termed the potential use of QR codes as “enormous, and we’re working with several departments and organizations on campus to develop some interesting ways to use QR code check-ins.” Imagine, for example, accessing additional information on a play, actors or the director from a program, or gaining a building’s office directory, history and local social media posts via scanning a QR code.

A good example at our campus involves QR codes on event posters that bring up a page when users can purchase tickets online. At #hewebroc, we had QR codes that allowed attendees to go online and fill out evaluations (with a chance at winning a prize). At lunch this week with the organizer of our campuswide Quest academic symposium, which often includes fretting over last-minute changes after the printing of the program, I suggested a QR code connecting to a web page with late-breaking updates.

I’ve heard lots of creative and inventive ideas that can really benefit users. What they all had in common was they involved solving a problem or fulfilling an action, as opposed to a desire to use a QR code for the novelty of it.

12 Comments

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12 responses to “stop treating QR codes as shiny objects!

  1. Matt

    That quote from Tim Jones seems like the exact opposite of “goals first, then tools.”

    I remain hugely skeptical of QR codes. I really doubt they’ll ever catch on beyond the geeks who like them because they just seem so sci fi or the marketers who are terrified of looking like they’re behind the curve.

  2. Like Matt, I am also widely skeptical of QR codes. Potential of anything doesn’t always match up with a realistic way to harness that potential. What percent of our constituents a) know what a QR code is, and b) have a reader app on their phone? My guess is that that number is tiny. Even as they show up as shiny objects in commercials and major promotions, I still think the barrier to entry is too high.

    Until it becomes a natively-supported standard in all smartphones, I don’t QR codes becoming much more than a novelty too many schools spent time and money on implementing when they could have been doing something more useful and innovative.

  3. IMO, QR Codes need to be a “value add.” Since smartphone marketshare is still below 50%, the content the QR Code would take you to needs to be extra or bonus. I believe they have their place. It might take some times for marketers to figure it out still.

    The most important thing to consider when using QR Codes is to think mobile. You are using a mobile medium. The result should keep the user in a mobile friendly environment.

    The reason QR Codes aren’t taking off is because marketers saw “shiny object” but didn’t think through the process. If marketers continue to supply non-mobile friendly ends, it will take even longer for the mobile audience to accept QR Codes.

  4. We included QR codes (which I personally dislike because all the aforementioned barriers of entry) on two in-house ads for a major event and another for fundraising — one takes the user to the event registration page, the other to an online giving form. Both are decent ways to use these hideous things, but I’ll let the tracking data determine that.

    I used bit.ly to create the codes (for free!), which can be tracked to tell us how many people went through all that trouble to attend our event or donate money. Results pending …

  5. Melissa

    And as far as a printed Quest program, I’d say why bother at all, if you can make a Web version that’s more usable? (Add, possibly, a PDF or other printable version for those who want one.)

  6. Tim Nekritz

    MATT: That’s my fault because it lacks the context of the conversation but I thought it conveyed a perspective. That Tim and North Carolina State are very good at matching technology to practical use; his statement dealt more with educating other areas about its potential, not pushing it cuz it’s shiny. But I’m similarly skeptical of QR codes at this point because of low user base. I don’t think most people even know what a QR code is.

    JOEL: Agreed. As a technology that currently has two barriers — ownership of a smartphone and downloading an app — QR codes can’t be viewed as an end to themselves. And like you said, I think schools want to feel on the cutting edge, but there’s no point in investing too many resources in an unproven marketing area.

    LANE: Absolutely right with the value added observation. And the mobile. (You’re so smart.) I consider QR codes part of the geosocial picture as anything, and are best if providing location + valuable content. Sadly, the pushing of them as a shiny object just provides a backlash that makes them seem less viable.

    SHANE: One positive is the trackable nature of the codes. If those are low-investment experiments that yield nothing, then at least there’s evidence they aren’t currently viable. And did you know people are trying to sell expensive QR code production packages? Ludicrous, since bit.ly can get you the basics for free. Snake oil salesmen on the Internet? Who knew?

    MELISSA: People are still clinging to print to a degree. Jack said he cut back to about 2300 (iirc) copies and they were quickly snatched up. Our content ecosystem is still in the print-to-web consumption transition.

  7. Melissa

    I maintain that you will give out however many copies you print. However, I also think that if you publicize the location of a (good) Web program, and at the same time make it known that paper programs will be scarce or unavailable, you’ll get some grumbling the first year or three while you yank people out of their comfort zone, and then once the transition is made, it’ll be as though there never was any other way. Assuming the Web program is as good or better than the paper one was, a QR code posted on walls around the venues is a great addition.

  8. woychickdesign

    Tim: This seems to be the growing sentiment (and dismay) among those who see the possibilities of new technology – that those chasing the latest trend will poison the well for more strategy-driven use and adoption. We recently took a couple good-humored swipes at tactics-obsessed marketers:

    Project launch
    http://bit.ly/p17iL3

    Magazine of the Future:
    http://bit.ly/qzgSe2

  9. Most Android phones come with Goggles a Google app that can read QR codes. Not the best app for the job but it does come standard.

    As for growth, I am watching it grow every day. I have been on this ride since it started and just this past week I was amazed at the amount of QR codes at a resort town on the Jersey shore. The chamber of commerce had given QR code stickers that every restaurant had proudly displayed on their front windows. A pizza shop had one on their menu, real estate agents had them on signs in front of houses for rent. It was as if I stepped into a world where QR codes ruled and print was nearly dead. Except for the occasional “We are re-opening on Tuesday due to Hurricane Irene” scribbled on a piece of 8.5×11.

    I don’t think of QR codes as some weird tech that most people don’t get. I think of them as bookmarks in a web browser that we all are walking around in. At any time we can check out someone’s bookmark, and if everyone follows the rules, we get a nice little nugget of information, or a free little game to play. QR codes are a mystery game themselves. A game that sometimes needs a reward system to get people to play.

    Quad-Core phones are being developed as we speak and the first one is slated to be released this month. Smartphones are more like ultra-portable powerful computers that can make a phone call. Tech will progress and the user base will adapt. I have faith they will catch on or something like them that has not developed will.

  10. Many of the same people who insist on QR codes are the same asshats that look at a well done thoughtful design and say “can you make this pop?”

  11. chauncestanton

    Good points, Tim. By focusing on a user’s need first, you can figure out the right solution. We went through this process for something that sounds simple: “how does a company with a 100 or a 1,000 business locations make sure that the employment posters (required by state and federal law) are current?” We included QR codes on all of the mandated labor law posters that our app (Compliance Check) quickly displays a thumbs-up/thumbs-down type display. This makes compliance audits very simple for large organizations. http://ow.ly/8Hdkx

  12. Pingback: vacuum company uses QR code. and it kind of sucks. | InsideTimsHead

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