Monday, March 14, 2011

QR codes: practical design considerations

There has been so much written and talked about lately regarding QR codes, but most of what I've read has focused on the basics of what they are, trends in their use, or their pros and cons. For anyone who is interested in QR codes, I've collected a few links and references that should help you get a crash course on what QR codes are, and catch you up on the basic opinions being bandied about on their usage (or not):

My LinkedIn QR Code
Where I'd like to focus my energy are on the actual design considerations for whether or not QR codes will help you solve a problem...or if they are an "ooooh shiny" technology innovation.

Let's start with what QR codes do: they are images that you can scan from a QR reader on your phone that launch a webpage that either provides you with information or prompts you to do something. For example, someone could use a QR code on their business card to launch their LinkedIn profile where  you could choose to add them as a contact. Cool, right?

But lets look at the bigger picture. Are the use of QR codes good design?

Audience analysis: you need to have a smartphone for QR codes to be useful. There is all sorts of data available on demographics of who owns smartphones, but let's make some sweeping generalizations that less represented populations of smartphone owners are the young, the old, people with low incomes, and several minority populations. Of those people using smartphones, your audience is further narrowed by those who would actually download a QR code reader app, or have purchased a phone with one already built in. And then finally, your audience would need to know what QR codes are and see the need for using them.

The audience analysis portion of QR codes is important, because many of the potential uses (that are NOT product marketing) I see for QR codes are actually most beneficial to the young, the old, and underserved populations.

Needs analysis: So, in what situations do we need to automatically launch a website?

Yeah, um...not many.

I like the LinkedIn example I mentioned above, because I think it would be more convenient to share contact info digitally than through paper business cards. I also like some healthcare related examples, like having a QR code on prescription bottles that provides all the prescribing information. It would be helpful for food labeling to start including QR codes for nutritional information. I'd love if things that required instructions (IKEA furniture, programming a universal remote, changing the fluids on my car) could launch from my phone whenever I needed them. A lot of this is "just in time" type of information and instruction that would be really beneficial to have at the ready and using a QR code to launch that type of content could be extremely useful. In essence, I'm thinking of QR codes as "job aid launchers" and I think looking at them in that capacity could be a viable and appropriate use.

I also see the opportunity to use QR codes for game design, specifically in the design of alternate reality games (ARGs) and scavenger hunt games. Again, though, the audience analysis is key...people can't play the game if they don't have the technology they need to play.

Unfortunately, what I've been seeing is mostly QR codes being used as promotional content launch points. There's two reasons why I don't think this makes sense...

1. when you scan a QR code and it launches a website, especially for promotion, the likelihood that you are in a position to actually review the content on the website is pretty small. Let's say I'm at a conference...let's say SXSW. And there are QR codes everywhere. Am I going to be walking around with my phone, scanning QR codes and standing there reading about your site? Is that information being saved anywhere for me to review later?(answer = probably not) Wouldn't my time be better spent actually talking to people and looking at the technology? And if I'm passing out QR codes, why not just pass out marketing materials that have the website address on it so that I can take it with me and review it on my computer instead of my phone?

And 2. most QR codes aren't reinforcing your brand. I've seen some customized QR codes, but for the most part, QR codes are black and white 8-bit looking boxes that do nothing to promote your brand or your messaging. If anything, they strip the messaging away, or add an additional step for your potential customers to learn more about you. Why make your customers work harder to learn about what you can do for them?

From a designer's perspective, you want to minimize the work you make people do to get to the content that is most important to them. When you're thinking about QR codes, think about your audience, think about what you're trying to accomplish, think about the actual logistics of how they are used,  and then ask yourself...are QR codes the best solution for the need I'm trying to address or the problem I'm trying to solve?


  1. Hello,

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  2. Nice post Koreen. I see the potential for QR Code use and agree with the strengths and weaknesses you presented. I'd add to that when using these a critical design consideration is to "throw the mobile user a bone"; Something that indicates/informs them as to what they are about to get themselves into.

  3. "Where I'd like to focus my energy are on the actual design considerations for whether or not QR codes will help you solve a problem."

    That is exactly the right place to start, and indeed where the work is. Many ignore, skip or don't even see this stage, which always results in campaigns that disappoint. I enjoyed your post, it contains well presented arguments for and against.