QR Codes: When Technology Trumps User Experience

You’ve seen them by now.

Those square, strange looking barcodes popping up everywhere from bus stops to the front covers of magazines.

If you still don’t know what I’m talking about maybe this will jog your memory:

QR Code pointing to this blog- Try it!

They are called QR codes and they are the latest darlings of the marketing world.

So what are they?

QR or “quick response” codes are two-dimensional barcodes created by a subgroup of Toyota in 1994 to track vehicles during the manufacturing and assembly process. Unlike the linear (1D) barcodes used at your local grocery that store information by varying the widths and spacings of parallel lines, QR codes store information horizontally and vertically which increases the amount of data contained within a given area.  With the ability to pack more data in a smaller space, QR codes can neatly store various kinds of text including phone numbers, e-mail addresses and URLs.

Smartphones propelled this technology into the 21st Century with cameras able to function as QR readers and wireless networks able to open a QR encoded URL in the phone’s browser.  Essentially, QR codes allow “static” media (billboards, packaged goods, newspapers) to be transformed into digital, interactive media that users can explore on their mobile device.

How are they being (mis)used?

Brands and marketers are sold on the idea of QR codes.  The costs associated with running a QR campaign are low and yet provide a tantalizing opportunity to engage with customers when they are away from their computers and televisions.  With proper planning, tracking the scans of QR codes can also offer robust analytics and demographic data for marketers.  The real story of QR codes, however, is not in found in the promise of the technology but in the ways these codes are actually being applied and how customers are actually using them.

The Good:

  • In-store assistance: In 2010, Best Buy introduced QR codes on all of their product-information tags.  With a simple scan customers can view comparisons, reviews and tips for any item in the store.
  • Virtual shopping: In South Korea, the supermarket chain Tesco created virtual grocery stores in subway stations that allowed users to scan and purchase virtual products that were later delivered to their homes.
  • Real Estate: Tech-savvy realtors are creating unique QR codes for each listing and incorporating these codes into their marketing materials.  Want information on the house you just passed? Scan the lawn sign and instantly receive the listing information.
  • Education: Teachers and museum directors are tagging anything and everything with QR codes to enhance learning in  classrooms and exhibits.
  • QR Advocates:  At Heineken’s Open’er music festival in Poland, visitors of the Heineken tent were able to create a QR code sticker that when scanned would reveal a greeting, mini-bio or whatever else the participant chose to say.  Participants were then encouraged to attach the stickers somewhere on their body and scan their fellow concertgoers.  The result?   The stickers were incredibly well received with over 5,000 printed through the course of the festival (200% more than expected) and served as the perfect icebreakers. The campaign also helped Heineken educate the crowd about QR codes- an important step in increasing participation in future QR-based events.

The Bad:

  • Moving Objects: Buses, trains and TV commercials have all been tagged with QR codes.  Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to take out your phone, open a QR scanning app and successfully scan a QR code in the few seconds that these codes are stationary.
  • Webpages: Major brands have fallen victim to posting redundant QR codes on their websites.  If you are already capable of browsing a webpage on your computer, what do you gain by involving your phone to scan the same easily accessed information? (You may have pondered this exact question when I invited you to scan my QR code at the beginning of this post).
  • Bad Surprises: At a very basic level, QR codes are exciting because we don’t know what they are about to show us.  However, when you go to the effort to scan a code on a promotion for ProductX only to be directed to the homepage of ProductX, you’re looking at a bad surprise and absolutely no user value.
  • No Signal: RedBull canvased subway stations across the U.S. with billboards only to discover there was no reception in these locations and all their QR codes were useless. Continental Airlines included QR codes on its in-flight magazines while simultaneously prohibiting cellphone use during flights (if you somehow managed to scan the code before take-off you were directed to webpage that was almost entirely filled by an ad pop-up).

These lists are not meant to be exhaustive but rather to demonstrate the wildly inconsistent quality of today’s QR marketing campaigns.  For further reading on these inconsistencies I recommend, “Why the QR code is failing” by Sean Cummings.  Mr. Cumming’s article correctly identifies marketing practitioners, not the QR technology, as the root problem in these marketing failures.

A Lesson Learned 

QR codes have had some pretty awful applications  in campaigns because marketers either forgot or discounted the importance of user experience.  Regrettably, the term ”user experience” makes most peoples’ eyes glaze over and conjures up images of one too many wireframes.  What I mean by “user experience” is all of the factors (design, ease of use, user value)  involved in a person’s interaction with a product/service.  In the case of QR codes it is very apparent that marketers are feeling the pressure to conform to an industry trend and are not taking a close look at how QR codes should be used for their specific product.  If I was about to launch a QR code campaign here are some user experience questions I would ask myself:

  • What action am I trying to drive with this QR code: awareness, engagement, sales?
  • Does my target customer even know how to use a QR code or will I also need to educate them?
  • Where will my QR codes be displayed? (cough*Redbull*cough)
  • Will a user’s investment of time be rewarded with adequate value?
  • If my QR code leads to a webpage, is the page optimized for mobile devices?
  • Does my QR code require a proprietary reader/app to be decoded?
  • Will a user be inclined to scan another one of my QR codes
These are not mind blowing insights but sometimes simple concepts need to be repeated when everyone is under the spell of the latest fad.  Moving forward it also might make sense to leverage other services and technologies  to help increase the value of QR campaigns for both users and businesses.  For example, Brooks Brothers uses QR codes in their magazine advertisements to send users to the Brooks Brothers website where customers can instantly view and purchase all items pictured in the advertisement:


Now even if you really liked the coat this man is wearing, would you be inclined to make a $500+ purchase and fill out all the shipping information on your phone as you’re waiting in a dentist’s office? I wouldn’t. But if Brooks Brothers conveniently integrated the capabilities of Evernote so that I could pick-up right where I left off once I got back home to my laptop, I would be much more inclined to buy the coat.  Alternatively, maybe Brooks Brothers could add a Pinterest sharing button on the QR landing page to increase brand exposure amongst the fashion savvy.  The point being that incorporating other technologies and services can  likely simplify or improve a user’s experience with a particular QR code and marketers should be experimenting and perfecting these combinations.

Where do QR codes go from here? Researchers reported that in June 2011, 14 million Americans scanned QR codes and experts predict that 2012 will see continued growth in QR use.  Other experts are jumping ship in favor of new technologies like near field communication (used in Visa’s pay-by-tap credit cards) . If QR codes are to have any chance at staying relevant, marketers and brands need to stop slapping QR codes on everything they produce and begin to design thoughtful QR campaigns built around a quality user experience.


Have you ever scanned a QR code? What was the result?  Share your story in the comments section!

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Alex Palantoni

Alex Palantoni: Graduate of Dartmouth College with a B.A. in Government and Psychology. I work for a Digital Marketing firm in New York City. I blog about things that matter to me: digital media, marketing and decision making.