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.

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The meaning of ‘like’

‘Good artists copy, great artists steal’

Pablo Picasso

I saw something very strange the other day. I was leaving the lounge at a foreign airport and, just by the exit, was a machine that asked me what I thought of my visit. It had three buttons on it: ‘like’; ‘neutral’; and ‘dislike’. At first, I was impressed by this social media-style approach to gathering immediate feedback. On reflection, I think this is a clumsy attempt to superimpose the Facebook-like feedback model on the physical world. It’s a good idea but its creators, like many others who’ve done similar, have missed a trick. They’ve missed out on the opportunity that seeking inspiration from another’s work allows. To paraphrase Picasso: if you copy an idea or a concept, then you’re simply reproducing it; if you steal the idea, then you’re capitalising on the opportunity to make it your own. This also allows you to innovate.

The value of ‘like’

I understand why Facebook introduced a ‘like’ button. It’s effectively a peer-recommendation tool and makes good marketing sense. Within the context of Facebook, it means ‘endorse’; ‘recommend’; ‘advocate’; ‘advertise (sell) to my friends’. It’s clearly very powerful too as it compels 2.7 billion of us to click it each day.

When ‘like’ buttons are used within other contexts, their meaning and purpose becomes clumsy, confusing and unhelpful.

What does ‘like’ mean?

The ‘like’ button is not an effective means of gathering meaningful feedback. That becomes clear when you consider the fact that many sites, including Facebook, don’t feature a ‘dislike’ button. In these instances, your feedback options are:

  • I care about this and think this is good and so will click on a button;
  • I’m indifferent to this and so can’t be bothered to click on a button; or
  • I don’t like this but can’t show this other than by appearing to be indifferent to it.

When ‘like’ goes wrong

Many producers of content management systems have jumped aboard the social bandwagon and delivered social media-style features such as ‘like’ and ‘follow’. Similar to the sentiment machine that I described at the beginning of this post, they, at first, seem both clever and useful. It’s only when you start to use them that you realise that you’re using a lazy reproduction of a workable concept put to use in the wrong context.

I came across an acute example of this quite recently when I went to visit an organisation to talk to them about their new intranet. Said new intranet was very impressive and featured a dizzying array of social media-style feedback options. Said organisation was quite conservative and so the adoption of their new tools wasn’t great. A lot of good work was done to explain the use of the site’s new features as well as new concepts such as liking and following in order to get people on board. It was when a news article was published announcing the death of an esteemed and long-serving colleague that things went wrong. Understandably, people were confused and, in some cases, unhappy about the fact that they had the option to ‘like’ an article about someone passing away. Things got so bad that they’re now exploring options to remove the ‘like’ button completely.

What, exactly, do you ‘like’?

The word ‘like’ is deceptively complex. This unassuming four-letter word can be used as a preposition, a noun, a conjunction, an adverb, an adjective and a verb. Its use is heavily dependent on its context. For example, if you click on the ‘like’ button beneath this blog post, what is it that you are telling me? Are you telling me that you like this post, the ideas within this post, the way that I write or that you like me? Feel free to ‘like’ this post anyway, of course, and, if you’ve any feedback, leave me a comment. 😉

Making ‘like’ meaningful

Let’s return to the sentiment machine that inspired this post. I think it’s safe to assume that the people who put it there want to know what people think about the lounge. Ultimately, they want to know whether they need to do anything to improve it or whether things are ok as they are. They might also want to be able to play those figures back to say how satisfied people are with the lounge or, conversely, how much they’ve improved things based upon some poor feedback.

Wouldn’t it be better to ask people ‘How was the lounge?’ and then give them options like ‘couldn’t be better’ and ‘could be better’? If most people said that things could be better then they could set up a more detailed survey (maybe face to face?) to find out why with an irresistible incentive offered for taking part. If most people said that things couldn’t be better then you probably don’t need a follow-up survey. Instead, you can simply play the glorious stats back through flat-screen TVs within and outside of the lounge. Perfect.

Measuring indifference

‘Neutral’ options within surveys have always kind of bothered me (yes, I’m that kind of person). The thing is, you see, they don’t seem to offer any value. To me, they’re the equivalent of a ‘meh‘ button.

Research suggests and experience shows that a fair number of people will go for the sit-on-the-fence option if given the choice. Some say that this is good because it means that people don’t feel bullied into committing to a particular sentiment. I take this point but if feedback that you can do something with is your goal, then this option won’t help. I suspect that Brits (like me) are particularly inclined to click on such options for fear of offending someone. Perhaps we could have a ‘Dislike (but I’m terribly sorry)’ option instead?

Socialising with strangers

I’m not on Facebook. In fact, I deactivated my Facebook account in 2008. Since then, I’ve enjoyed four, Facebook-free years. Has my life become less sociable as a result? No. Do I miss Facebook? No. Am I a sourpuss who doesn’t enjoy the company of others? Heck, no. Why did I quit Facebook? I quit Facebook because it doesn’t offer me a service that’s worth selling my personal data for.

What makes Facebook sticky?

Don’t get me wrong; I understand that, for some, Facebook is a useful tool for keeping in touch with the people they know.

When I ask people what it is that keeps them coming back to Facebook, they often say that it’s a great way of keeping up to date with family, particularly if they live far away. As it turns out, this is a popular thing to do as the over-55s account for the largest number of users on Facebook. Why is this? It’s because grandchildren and grandparents are keeping in touch on Facebook. This is both surprising and rather lovely and makes perfect sense when you think about it: both age groups generally have access to technology and have the most time on their hands.

Being on Facebook = being sociable?

In a recent post, I wrote about the anti-social side of social media and its horizon-limiting qualities. This is the reason that I don’t find Facebook useful: its primary use is to keep you in touch with people who you already know (or, in some cases, knew).

I prefer to keep in touch with people outside of the social confines of Facebook (believe it or not, this is still possible!) and use social media to connect with people outside of my social world. This is a great way of learning new things.

The other week I posed a question to The Guardian’s style guide (@guardianstyle) through Twitter. Geeky pedant that I am, I was keen to learn the correct collective noun for a computer mouse (stay with me…). This quickly turned into a prickly debate highlighting how controversial language can be. This short but impassioned exchange provided me with the answer that I was looking for (‘mouses’ according to The Guardian) and also introduced me to work of Canadian academic, Steven Pinker. Not bad for fewer than ten minutes.

Your world versus the Twitterverse

Twitter is a powerful social media tool because it harnesses what Malcolm Gladwell calls the ‘strength of weak ties’ in his excellent book The Tipping Point. According to Gladwell, ‘weak ties’ are those that we share with acquaintances rather than friends and relatives. These weak ties are the best way of learning new things and seizing new opportunities because they allow us access to people who know things that we don’t.

The people we’re closest to tend to know the things that we know and share the same experiences and opinions. Twitter offers the opinions, knowledge, humour and humanity of over 140 million strangers from around the world. These weak ties challenge us and offer up new perspectives because they give us access to social worlds that are very different to our own.

To my mind, Twitter is a more valuable social media tool than Facebook because it allows you to socialize with strangers.  For good and for bad, social media is at its most powerful when it reminds you that there are worlds out there that are different to your own.

Twitter and the corporate self

I’ve discovered a new word: tweetophany. No, it’s not a recently discovered jazz fusion album, it’s a real word (well, real in that I just made it up and I’m starting to use it). What does it mean? I’ll give you a clue: it’s a noun. Still no? Okay, it’s what I call the virtual noise of the Twitterverse.

What’s Twitter for? I’m not sure we’ve figured that out yet. Maybe that’s why Twitter hasn’t been monetized yet?

Screaming into the void

The voices within Twitter are a curiously discordant mix of purposive corporate broadcasting, celebrity insight and Facebook-esque status updates of little interest to those who don’t know the tweeter. This said, Twitter is a fantastic way of gauging, provoking and harnessing the wisdom of humans all over the world (I use the term ‘humans’ because our Twitter selves are often uncannily human – warts and all – is it just me who enjoys the humanity of the typo within an otherwise flawless tweet?).

The humanity of Twitter

The thing about the online selves that we create is that they are, in many ways, very real. There’s a humanity to them that a computer can’t simulate and this is where social networking sites like Twitter come into their own as startlingly effective corporate communications tools.

We all know that – grammatically at least – corporations are referred to as singular entities but the advent of Twitter and its burgeoning adoption by corporations is probably the first time in digital history that corporations have truly become an ‘I’. This unique opportunity allows corporations to truly personify (in the strictest definition of this term) themselves. To my mind, this is Twitter reaching part of its full potential and it’s ultimately a good thing for corporations and consumers alike.

The price of an ‘I’…

Twitter gives corporations the chance at a singular human voice and a means of engaging its customers that was hitherto impossible. The price for this unique opportunity: accountability in a very public sense.

If corporations using Twitter behave irresponsibly then they are often questioned directly in an open and democratic way and, for the first time, consumers are able to air corporations’ dirty washing on a truly impressive scale (it’s a bit like writing an email of complaint but copying in a sizeable chunk of the world).

To me, effective use of Twitter by a corporation is a powerful step towards the kind of human-to-human conversation Doc Searls refers to in The Cluetrain Manifesto. This said, Twitter only gives companies an ‘I’, it doesn’t make them human. Having human conversations with customers in public (rather than simply broadcasting corporate-speak messages) is the hard part.