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.

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.