The poor old QR code seems to be something that provokes strong reactions these days. I’ve written about them before, but it feels like it’s about time to expand on that a bit. QR gets called ugly, pointless, robot barf, or worse. There seem to be lots of people dismissing them, really hating on them, comparing them to Cue Cat, that ill-fated vestige of the 90’s. In many poorly conceived marketing campaigns, I agree, they are ugly and useless. But there are good and appropriate uses, and they don’t have to be ugly, and certainly not pointless.
What is your message?
The idea behind QR is that relevant content is delivered to you on a mobile device when and where you need it. If your message is not relevant to the user in the mobile context where you’re delivering it, QR is probably not the way to go. Simply delivering an ad is just not enough justification for asking your potential customer to go to the trouble of scanning. Delivering a discount offer that they can use then and there is. Likewise for sites and museums, content must be relevant to what is in front of the users at the time of scanning. Let me repeat that — relevant to when and where the user is. You must also tell the user what benefit they can expect to derive from scanning your code. If you don’t do that, why should they bother?
Can you create and support a relevant mobile-friendly site?
If you aren’t able to deliver mobile-friendly content to your users, either through a dedicated mobile site or a responsively designed general-purpose site, don’t even think about QR codes. There is no point in leading QR users to a site that will be difficult or impossible to use on a mobile device. None. 100% of the people scanning your code will be using a mobile device — delivering content that is poorly formatted or is flash-based is pointless. The same with content that is out of date. It’s pointless to ask a user to scan a code and then deliver an offer or information that is no longer relevant.
Are there credible alternatives?
There might be another way to accomplish what you want to do. If you have a short punchy URL, maybe it’s easier for users to just enter it into their browser manually. Chances are that you won’t though, because if you’re delivering truly relevant content there will probably be some kind of sub-directory involved. Once you get into a longer URL with slashes, it’s asking a lot of users to peck them out on a mobile keyboard. What about NFC, isn’t it the latest thing? It is, and looks really promising, but if you need a solution right now, NFC just doesn’t have wide enough adoption. For sites and museums, a GPS enabled app is a great alternative, provided the budget exists to develop and maintain it. But, if you’re operating on a low budget and a short timeframe, there really aren’t credible current alternatives to QR.
But, They’re Ugly!
QR codes may not be the most handsome thing you’ve ever seen, but they don’t have to be presented in an ugly manner. We’re used to seeing QR as a stark black and white patch seemingly imposed at the last moment on the surrounding graphics with no thought given to creating any kind of relationship between the two. QR codes don’t have to be black and white, just reasonably high contrast. And they can be altered somewhat to create a relationship with other graphics, if desired. Codes do not need to be displayed in a particular orientation — they can be rotated at will.
Here’s a really great example of what can be done to make QR part of a design, instead of an ugly black & white patch of robot barf. Edenspiekermann created a really beautiful design for an interpretive system in the city of Amsterdam that incorporates the code in a way that enhances the design instead of degrading it. I’m keeping this example handy for the next time I hear someone protest that QR codes are ugly.
But, They’re Useless!
QR codes are not in and of themselves useless, though I’ll admit that some of the uses I’ve seen for them have been pretty pointless. Here’s one that certainly isn’t, from Ethical Bean Coffee, based in Vancouver, Canada. Each bag of their retail coffee bears a QR code that when scanned, takes the consumer to a mobile-friendly web site with a wealth of information about the product. The amount of detail is incredible, the date of roasting, the name and picture of the person who roasted it, details about the location and farm, organic certifications, and an exhaustive list of “cupping notes” that might mean something to a connoisseur, and an explanation if, like me, you aren’t one. It’s really impressive, and supplies a way for shoppers to really engage with the product before purchase to decide which of the Ethical Bean’s eight blends would be the best for them. A lot of work went into developing this content and keeping it up to date, and it shows. A great example and standard to emulate.
The Best We’ve Got
Despite what you might think by now, I’m not a QR code evangelist. I don’t love them, not by a long shot. But I do see their value, and worry that some sites and museums aren’t using them because of negative things they’ve read. Imperfect though they are, for some situations they are a great fit. Will they be the best option in three or five years? Chances are, they may not be. But, the beauty of these codes is that they can be implemented right now for a low investment, and can deliver relevant content in a location-based way. My argument is this — they may not be perfect, but they’re the best we’ve got right now.
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