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 Bellroy.com

 

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'.

 

 

It’s good but it’s not quite right: let’s make wine apps even better

As I’ve said before, wine’s kind of my thing. I’m a oenophile and I’m not afraid to admit it. Because of this, I’ve downloaded a whole bunch of wine apps. Heck, I even gave the producer of one some tips on usability.

The problem with the wine apps that I’ve downloaded is that none of them quite hit the mark. Some do a few things rather well and some do a lot of things rather badly.

Being the insufferably opinionated type of chap that I am, I thought I’d write a blog post about them. My naive hope is that someone will weave all of my recommendations together and produce the one wine app to rule them all. Fingers crossed.

App under a hot tin roof

Picture the scene: it’s a Friday (or possibly a Wednesday) evening. You’re having something special for dinner and you want a wine of above-average decadence to go with it. You stop off at your local supermarket on your way home and stride confidently to the wine section. Just at the point that the dizzying selection of bottles makes you slightly hysterical, you whip out your phone. You open your trusty wine app only to discover that your pocket sommelier has abandoned you. The supermarket’s metal roof stands between you and the greatest sensory pleasure that £9.99 can provide. You’re close to tears. You reach for the Wolf Blass and shuffle off home.

One of the biggest frustrations with wine apps is that they rarely work when you need them most. I learned recently that supermarkets often have mobile signal-nullifying metal roofs. What’s the use of a wine app that doesn’t work when you’re in a supermarket? I’ve almost stopped using Olly Smith’s wine app because of this flaw.

Thirty fifty’Find a Vino tackles this problem rather well because it downloads its wine database and lets you use it offline. A nice touch and probably the only example of this that I’ve seen. Why aren’t more people doing this?

I didn’t realise I’d entered a spelling bee…

Most good wines are hard to spell. Reckon you can spell ‘Nicolas Feuillatte champagne’ right first and every time? I can’t. I’ve just pasted it in from a Google search. 

Fuzzy searching has long been considered best practice for a good online search experience. You know the kind of thing: you type ‘mississipi’ into search and it says ‘Did you mean ‘Mississippi’?’.

Not providing fuzzy search makes people feel stupid and like they want to give up. That’s not a good thing. Wine apps and wine websites in general don’t yet seem to have embraced fuzzy search as a convention. If all wine websites and apps adopted fuzzy search tomorrow, sales would go through the roof. I promise you. Phonetic and voice-based searching (how many times has someone recommended a wine verbally and you’ve no idea how to spell it?) would also be cool but, ahem, I digress.

Judging a bottle by its label

6 bottles of Faustino 1 Rioja
Faustino 1 – if looks could repel.

We all do it. How may times have you bought a wine because it looked cool? This is a truly crap way of choosing wine. Some of the best wines look rubbish. Take Faustino 1, for  example. The 2001 vintage is Decanter magazine’s wine of the year for 2013 but it looks silly. It looks like it should have a candle stuck in it and be used as a table decoration in some dodgy tapas bar in Newport.

All wine apps should let you take a picture of a bottle’s label and let you know whether it’s worth buying (based on your individual preferences, of course). Vivino lets you do this but only after you’ve signed up to its online community. What if you’re looking for an expert review? A mixture of expert and amateur reviews would seem the most helpful way of doing this.

Oh, yeah, that’s a really good one. Sorry, we don’t have it…

Do you remember video shops? I do. I remember that you’d wander in on a Saturday night, full of hopes of renting a copy of Back to the Future 3 only to find that it was out. For a month. You’d add your name to a waiting list and head home with something you didn’t want to watch. It probably hadn’t been rewound either.

Wine apps do a similar thing. You search for a wine based on the supermarkets and wine shops that you go to. When you get there, you find out that your local branch doesn’t have it. Why can’t apps tell you what’s available at your local branch? All of that data is published online. Grrr.

Tonight, Matthew, I shall be eating…

Matching food with wine is a tricky business. It’s all too easy to go with what you know. Cabernet Sauvignon with red meat; Sauvignon Blanc with chicken or fish, that sort of thing.

The really amazing matches between food and wine require three things: bravery; chance; and a little bit of information. Buy enough wine and you’ll probably get some good matches through the first two alone. It’s the third that lets you dial up the first two. That’s to say, with a little bit of information about which flavours and which grapes are likely to go with something, you can start experimenting and be braver with your budget.

This approach has led me to one of the finest (and bravest) matches to date: battered cod and chips and Champagne. Try it, it’s an absolute revelation. The drier the Champagne (look for the word ‘Brut’ or ‘extra Brut’ on the label) the better. If Champers is beyond your budget then go for Cava. You won’t be disappointed.

The point of the previous digression was really to say that a really good wine app should let you type (or speak) what you’re eating and give you some wine matches. Ideally, you’d want these refined by your selected supermarkets in your selected location. Olly Smith’s app tries to do this but in a clumsy way. What you get is a list of grape varieties to try with a pretty broad range of dishes. You can then drill down into what’s recommended in the supermarket or wine shop that you’re stood in. That’s all fine as long as you’ve a decent web connection and your local branch stocks the wine you’re after.

It’s not rocket surgery

OK, so that’s probably about enough wine whinging (wineing?!) from me. In short, the people who make wine apps need to up their game. All of my recommendations are based on me having used each of the apps mentioned and so some user testing would have uncovered them. That’s where the problem lies. I don’t think the makers of wine apps are testing them being used in anger.

Do you or would you use wine apps? What do you think is missing?

Things of 2013 – another pointless list…

Just when you thought people had stopped publishing their pointless lists, another one rears its obsessive-compulsive head. Mine’s a little different though, I promise. Here’s why:

  1. it’s hopelessly, almost inappropriately, late; and
  2. it’s not a top ten or anything so logical. It’s a random assortment of things that floated my boat in 2013.

Film: The Great Gatsby (in 3D). Baz Luhrmann’s masterpiece distils the essence of Fitzgerald’s novel and catapults it into a stratosphere suitable for 21st-century audiences.

Wine: Chateau Figeac ’88. This experience was, to me, what being a wine aficionado is all about. The bottle looked like it’d been rescued from a sunken pirate ship, the label rendered the exact vintage a mystery but what was inside was one of the finest sensory pleasures I’ve experienced. It was like opening a wine-filled oak barrel and curling up inside. Cheers!

Technology: Amazon Kindle. Yes, I said it. Buying a Kindle has transformed the way that I read. Not least because its percentage-read status indicator gamifies reading. If, like me, the modern world has turned you into a distraction magpie (ooh! shiny…) then anything that helps you commit to a book is a fabulous thing.

Place: Saint Emilion, Bordeaux, France. This medieval city is majestic, charming, pretentious and workaday. It’s also a melting pot of some of the best wines in the world. Not many places can claim that.

Music: The Next Day, David Bowie. The fact is, this chart-botherering sexagenarian could probably have banged out a glorified best-of album and we’d have bought it. The Next Day is exciting, relevant, tender and raw. There are moments of shuddering electricity even when Bowie’s not singing. Check out 00:20 – 00:33 on If You Can See Me if you’re not sure of what I mean.

Book: Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn. Hang on, hang on! Before you say anything, I will say that this isn’t one of the best books I’ve read. What I will say is that it contains one of the finest sentences (‘He was a man of jagged risings’) I’ve read and is unputdownable. I’d also say that its narrative chicanery would put Dickens to shame. You’re right though: it is a bit baggy towards the end.

Event: Glastonbury Festival – because I was a thirty-something Glasto virgin.

TheatreBorges and I, Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bedminster, Bristol. This came as a true surprise. The tale of one of the greatest storytellers of modern literature and his heart-wrenching love for literature and tigers was tender and exquisite. The realisation of the near-blind Borges that he’ll never see his beloved animal again was devastating and beautiful. I’m not a crier but this moment tipped the emotional equilibrium within me until I sobbed uncontrollably.

Person: Mrs. H. 2013 was, at times, an incredibly tough year for us both. Despite all this, my wife’s optimism, charm, support and loveliness have held things together. Thank you, you’re wonderful x.  

Meal: Home-cooked (by Mrs H) Chateaubriand (bought from: http://www.donaldrussell.com/)  served with goose-fat chips, stilton sauce and a rocket and parmesan salad. Eaten at home and thoroughly complemented by a bottle of Chateau Haut-Brion, 1998. Perfection.

So, that’s my list. I told you it’d be different. Are any of those things on your lists? Not the last two, obviously, that’d be a bit weird.

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?