These boxy barcodes have become a common addition to many printed products, but choosing when and how to use one is tricky
September 14, 2023 By Olivia Parker
QR (quick response) codes have been trying to find their place in North American design since the early 2010s. QR codes were invented by Mashahiro Hara, an engineer at the Japanese company Denso Wave, in 1994. Hara was tasked with finding a solution for barcodes to store more information and scan faster. Standard barcodes are one dimensional (transverse), which means they can only be scanned in one direction. Consequently, they can store a small amount of information; only about 20 alphanumeric characters.
QR codes are a type of two-dimensional barcode that store information as a series of pixels in a square-shaped grid. They can store over 7000 characters. They can be scanned in either direction (transverse or longitudinal), making them more versatile and easier to use for supply chain and inventory management purposes.
While their use in Asia is near ubiquitous, as they are a popular method for payments, their acceptance in North America has been more fraught. When they were first introduced in the 2010s, these boxy barcodes were seen as a hassle because you needed a smartphone, access to the internet, and a separate app to scan them. The lack of education in their use and versatility was a misstep in their implementation.
QR codes experienced a renaissance during the pandemic. In the pandemic-induced touchless reality, these little boxes, as mobile-first technologies, became lifesavers. They appeared on menus, posters, and stored our health information. They easily integrated into our everyday lives because, as of 2017, QR code scanners had been incorporated into most smartphone cameras. Plus, according to Pew Research, 84 per cent of Canadians own a smartphone. Our desire to experience a world outside our bubbles increased their mainstream acceptance in design and communication, thereby creating a meaningful way for organizations to connect with customers.
However, three years later we still have a complex relationship with these unsexy boxes. As our society adjusts to a post-COVID-19 world, the QR code’s use continues to be polarizing. With increased familiarity, QR code scams have become more common. Some uses, such as on menus, have become less popular. For example, in the span of two years, the New York Times published several articles praising QR codes only to spell their doom in May 2023.
We have come full circle. Society knows what and how to use QR codes but cracking the right use-case scenario is still unclear. Since Denso Wave does not enforce their patent, QR codes are being developed to solve unique problems like NaviLens for the visually impaired. However, for marketing purposes, the primary thing to remember is they can store information and, therefore, do a lot of different things. Unlike their one-dimensional counterparts, they can:
- direct consumers to a website, redeem a discount, or subscribe to your marketing communications;
- post on social media;
- link directly to download an app on the Apple App Store or Google Play;
- authenticate online accounts and verify login details;
- access wi-fi by storing encryption details such as SSID, password, and encryption type;
- send and receive payment information; and
- build augmented reality experiences, etc.
Any one of these could be a great addition to marketing strategies, as QR codes can amplify every stage of the consumer journey, from initial awareness to brand advocacy. Their popularity has indeed grown. According to Statista, in 2022, approximately 89 million U.S. smartphone users scanned a QR code on their mobile devices, up by 26 per cent from 2020.
Here are some considerations if a client wants to use a QR code.
What value will the QR code be adding to the customer journey? Is it practical? QR codes on subway cars or billboards can be problematic if there is no internet access or a risk to public safety. QR code menus have fallen out of favour, as restaurants and meals have the societal expectation of non-technology zones. Choose applications that are appropriate and add value.
Put yourself in your customers’ shoes when considering placement and size. Ensure your code is easily accessible and big enough for phones to scan (and leads to a mobile-friendly landing page). As a barcode, contrast is important; inverse or low contrast colours can make it unscannable. Simplicity is also key. For long URLs, consider using a link shortener so fewer characters need to be encoded. One of the unique properties of QR codes is some generators will build in redundancy so that even if part of the code is damaged or removed (such as placing a logo in the centre) they will still scan. However, the more complex the QR code the bigger it will need to be for the pixel pattern to read.
Dynamic vs. static
There are multiple methods to create a QR code from online paid or free generators to application-based solutions like InDesign or XMPie. Consider though that many of these options create static QR codes. The problem with this form of QR code is that when a link changes, the barcode becomes obsolete. When possible, use a service providing dynamic QR codes. A dynamic QR code has an editable final destination URL, thus continuing the longevity of the media on which it is printed.
Humans cannot read QR codes, so it is easy for hackers to alter a QR code. Attackers can embed malicious URLs containing custom malware or direct a user to a phishing site. In 2020, Denso Wave improved the original design. Their new QR codes include traceability, brand protection, and anti-forgery measures. Also consider using a secure QR code platform as well as a custom domain and SSL.
QR code generating software can offer analytics. The data collected can include location, the number of times the code has been scanned and at what times, plus the device which scanned the code. More tech-savvy users can add UTM parameters to website URLs to track and perform in-depth analysis of campaign performance. Understanding which communication channels are reaching customers is invaluable in marketing campaigns.
Future of QR codes
In 2013, marketing experts Scott Stratten and Alison Kramer wrote the book, QR Codes Kill Kittens: How to Alienate Customers, Dishearten Employees, and Drive Your Business into the Ground, where they said, “we are using QR codes to show that we’re using QR codes.” Some may say we are doing the same again. However, according to a study by the Drum and YouGov, 75 per cent of consumers have said they plan to use QR codes going forward.
The widespread adoption of QR codes provides businesses with information to help grow and enhance customer satisfaction. Educating your customers on the versatility of QR codes and how they are quick and simple to implement could be just what they need to help ease their concerns and build value-added user experiences.
Olivia Parker teaches visual communication and media production. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of PrintAction.
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