The case for QR codes

Thinking of using a QR code? Here's a helpful flowchart.
Thinking of using a QR code?

I feel sorry for QR codes. They get a bad rap. In technological terms, they’re fast becoming the Betamax of our times.

Some tech people hate QR codes so much that they’ve inspired numerous vitriolic blog posts and even a book: QR codes kill kittens. This seems a little harsh.

Here’s the thing: QR codes aren’t rubbish. Rather, the way that a lot of companies and organisations have used them is.

Slow responses

Did you know that the ‘QR’ bit in ‘QR code’ stands for ‘Quick Response’? Well, now you do.

When you saw that lorry on the M4 with a QR code on its side, you thought, ‘wow! that’s a quick and easy way of getting to that company’s website’, right? No, I didn’t think so. That’s the problem with how they’ve often been used. Not only do you need to download a separate application to scan the QR code, you also need to scan it (at motorway speed, of course) and wait for the app to take you to the website in question. Not to mention getting pulled over for scanning and driving.

Why do QR codes persist in being used as a way to point people to websites? There’s already something that does that – it’s called a URL or web address. Since when is it faster to download an app, scan a code and wait to be pointed to a website than searching for that website? The advent of services like Siri for the iPhone and Google Voice Search make this embarrassingly redundant.

The right tool for the job

Getting digital user experience right is all about choosing the right digital tool for the job. In the majority of cases, QR codes have been matched to tasks with a degree of suitability akin to choosing a damp tissue to dig your garden. The good news is that there is a better way.

A timid new world

Flown Easyjet recently? Booked a ticket for a film with Cineworld? If you have, you’ll have caught of a glimpse of the timid new world of QR codes.

Some brave companies have ignored the haters and thought a bit harder about how QR codes could be better used. In these shining examples of task-efficiency, you save paper, hassle and time by scanning a code as you wander into your film or onto your flight. Soon, we’ll also be able to use QR codes to pay for things. Neat, huh? You do, of course, have to make sure your phone’s charged but let’s not ruin the moment.

An example of Cineworld's QR code-based digital ticket
An example of Cineworld’s QR code-based digital ticket.

Museums, art galleries and tourist attractions have also made good in-context use of QR codes. Used well, they can be a great way of providing helpful, extra info about what you’re looking at with immersive immediacy. Much more useful than simply directing you to a website.

I’ve even heard of a company launching a smartphone app for its staff and putting the QR-code link to download it on posters. This is better than just directing them to a web address, of course, because you’re cramming a number of tasks (remember the poster, remember the link, follow the steps to download the app) into one action. It also worked well because the smartphones in question were provided, free, by the company. Incentives will also yield better results.

So, where next?

The examples I’ve given are just a few ways that companies are using QR codes better. In concept, they’re still a good idea. We mustn’t dilute their potential through poor implementation.

If QR codes are to be all about doing things quickly and efficiently then there’s an obvious partner for them: the smartwatch. Scanning your cinema, gig or flight ticket or paying for something on a device like a smartwatch is a great idea. Not least because it does away with the clumsy logistics of handing your phone to someone in order for them to scan your code.

Up until now, QR-code ready apps like Apple’s Passbook have resided somewhat dormant on many smartphones. In fact, most iPhone owners that I know forget that it’s even there. Marrying up QR-code scannability and smart watches suddenly makes them an intriguingly useful part of modern life. I just hope that companies remain brave enough to give QR codes another chance.


Digital versus analogue

Digital design used to be all about skeuomorphism. What’s skeuomorphism? It means designing things to look like real and familiar objects. Remember TVs and stereos with ‘wooden’ sides? Remember how Apple’s iOS interface used to look with its wood-effect bookshelves and leather-bound calendar ? Yep, that’s skeuomorphism in action. It’s all about designing virtual things to look like familiar physical things. Why? To save our poor brains from getting too confused and to encourage us to use them. I prefer to call it ‘analogue design’, mainly because the word skeuomorphism is hard to spell and to say.

A screenshot of Apple's notes app
Apple’s ‘Notes’ app from its iOS 6 operating system.

Apple’s departure from skeuomorphic design to so-called ‘flat’ design has challenged skeuomorphism as a design approach to digital things. You could argue that some had already done this (Microsoft’s Windows 8 interface springs to mind) but, of course, Apple is the most Designer (note the capital ‘D’) of all virtual brands. When it does something in the world of design, people sit up and take notice.

A screenshot of an iPhone's home screen showing use of 'flat' design
The home screen from an iPhone after Apple adopted ‘flat’ design for its iPhone operating system.

Just because Apple has stopped doing it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t design digital things to remind you of physical things. Did you ever imagine that the ‘floppy disk’ save icon would still be used in 2014? No, neither did I. It doesn’t escape me that when my daughter starts using computers, she’ll probably use this icon without ever having seen an actual floppy disk. That’s weird.

Relics of the analogue world such as the floppy-disk icon remind us that we often need to rethink design once conventions become obsolete. This said, do we always need to banish the analogue from our digital spaces? Is ‘analogue’ design always indicative of out-dated design? I’d argue it isn’t. Here’s why.

The joy of analogue

Bellroy makes wallets. Beautiful wallets. Wallets that remind you that analogue things are often beautiful things. Their website could simply sell you their wallets using a digital store but it doesn’t. It embraces the joy of its analogue products in every inch of its digital space. From the stitched fabric of its backgrounds to the ability to compare its wallets to other physical things, it’s a celebration of analogue.

Bellroy’s wallets are said to have a healthy dollop of ‘old-school craftsmanship’ at their heart and its website certainly reminds you of this. You can almost detect a whiff of the rich scent of its leather as you work your way through its pages. Bellroy has created a perfect marriage of digital and analogue. Its website reminds you of the joy of analogue.

A screenshot of Bellroy's virtual try-on feature
Bellroy’s ‘Virtual Try-On’ feature. Image taken from


When’s a watch not a watch?

Digital watches have been around for ages. I had one when I was 10. It had a pathetic light in the left-hand corner that let you see a quarter of the time when you were sat in the cinema. Some of my friends had ones with calculators. Most chubby, adolescent digits couldn’t use it, of course, but it looked pretty rad on your wrist. Plus, there was always a rumour that someone had managed to sneak one into a maths exam to jab their way to numerical victory.

Apple’s watch is the latest attempt to make us think again about digital watches. Once again we’re being asked to reconsider the scant real estate of our wrists to see if we can make better use of them (lazy wrists, always along for the ride).

Being a bit of a watch aficionado  (I have 5, including a watch that tracks my runs), I’ve been keeping a close eye on developments. I even managed to configure Motorola’s Moto 360 into something that looked about half as good as one of my watches. As I did this, I noted that the default display option for most digital watches is analogue. Why is this? I’ll be the first to say that an analogue watch face is not a quick or efficient way to tell the time. Particularly at a glance. The reason analogue reigns in the watch world is because we’re used to it and it represents time-honoured, trusted design. It’s become a sign of quality. For some reason, a digital watch face makes a watch seem less of a watch.

And the little hand is pointing to my email…

The problem with the latest iteration of digital watches (smart watches) is that they’re not watches at all. In nearly all cases they fail to meet to two basic success criteria for a watch:

  1. can I use it to tell the time without fuss or bother?
  2. will it keep telling the time, accurately, for a reasonable amount of time?

I’ve yet to see a new digital watch that does both of those things well.

Shifting paradigms

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that smart watches have no future. What I’m getting at is that smart watches aren’t watches. They’re wrist-worn computers better used for micro interactions with your smartphone and to harness the power of the internet of things.

If you want to tell the time in a useful way, get an analogue watch. If you want to start exploring how to carry out digital micro interactions without getting out your (now considerably cumbersome) smartphone, then get a smart watch. I’d recommend you wait until at least the second iteration of your chosen watch though. They’re not all that useful yet.
A screenshot of Rory Cellan-Jones' smart watch showing 319 unread emails. The caption reads: 'My smart watch tells me I have 319 new emails. Now how useful is that?'A screenshot of Luke Puplett's wrist showing a drawn-on picture of a watch that says 'You always have email'.