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I have been falling in love with QR Codes, the little nerd in me jumps with joy at all the possibilities and even the action of interacting with physical things with my digital device is enthralling.

However, when I discussed QR codes with a small group of web designers they did not like them very much. And a few times in public when I saw them, my friends did not know what they were.

That all may be because they are new, but they may be right. I know I am too biast to make a good decision.

So here is the question: Are QR codes (and the like) good UX in advertising, business cards, and the sort. Do they break any fundamental laws of UX or do they help UX problems and engage users.

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QRs are also covered on this: ux.stackexchange.com/questions/8139/… –  PhillipW Sep 20 '11 at 20:00
    
I forgot they were called QR codes, but I like them all the same. I will put mine on my business card, in fact that will be the only thing on the card (just kidding :). –  b01 Sep 22 '11 at 15:20
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shouldiuseaqrcode.com is worth a look. –  e100 May 1 '12 at 18:06
    
@e100 Thats great, just shared it with my team. Perfectly explains why not. –  jonshariat May 1 '12 at 19:59
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9 Answers 9

up vote 31 down vote accepted

One might think of them as a progressive enhancement. As long as the QR code doesn't replace a traditional call-to-action, I don't see how it could do any harm.

Theoretically, a QR code that points to a web site should be accompanied by a printed URL. Those who know how to use the QR code would be spared the trouble of typing in the URL. Those who don't know about QR codes, or don't have a device that can read them handy, aren't missing out.

However, I suspect the main reason marketers use QR codes is because "the little nerd in me jumps with joy at all the possibilities," so making the information accessible without a QR reader would spoil the fun. As long as engaging you (and your friends) is the main purpose of the QR code, and others don't miss out on critical information, I think it's a good idea.

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I use QR codes in my advertising for tracking purposes, but honestly I'm happy enough to keep using them as shibboleth for the tech-savvy geeks among us -- even if they're never clicked on, they make a good "See? We get it" flag. –  Rachel Keslensky Dec 15 '12 at 20:27
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I agree with Patrick McElhaney on this one. As long as they don't replace the standard call to action, they can be leveraged - but the thing is, they're not really new in the US. They've been around for years and just never really caught on.

The infosec weenie in me stresses over the (eventual) abuse of QR codes (if they ever catch on enough to make it worth the bad guys leveraging for phishing and malware), but for now they're just sorta meh. My agency has looked into them many times, and have sometimes supplemented campaigns with a QR component, but the user acceptance level just isn't reliable enough (even in reasonably tech savvy demographics) for us to rely on it for a primary campaign avenue.

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Thanks for the additional info. –  jonshariat May 4 '11 at 20:35
    
Interesting point on the malware/phishing uses. With a plaintext url or even a shortened link, you can consciously decide whether you "trust" where you're being sent. –  Ray Mitchell May 5 '11 at 14:53
    
Yeah, at SXSW this year, QR codes were everywhere. People would walk through the streets with shirts that said "Scan me". I was so tempted to plant some rogue QR codes that lead to (fake) malware/phishing sites just to prove a point. Anyway, that's off-topic, but if they catch on, they'll just be another vector, IMHO. –  snipe May 5 '11 at 18:07
    
The trust issue can be resolved by the QR reader software. First display the URL and let the user decide whether they'd like to continue. –  Patrick McElhaney Sep 20 '11 at 12:40
    
But that's leaving the user to decide what's a "good" or "trustworthy" app. Ask the Android users how well that plan has worked out. In the US, people barely know what QR codes are, let alone how to pick a good reader. –  snipe Sep 21 '11 at 7:41
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In Japan it's known by people and most mobile devices there can read it. In Germany most people don't know what it is. So I guess bad UX unless you have an audience knowing (and technically able) what to do with it.

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Right now is about a cultural gap. AFAIK here in Venezuela is absolutely useless, most people got smartphone but not the technical background to use apps to do that. Providing a plain URL plus the QR would be a good approach because you can reach both sides of the coin: geek users and most people. –  Felix Guerrero Sep 20 '11 at 14:41
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I consider QR Codes bad UX in general, and a momentary fad. My main complaint with them is that they replace human-legible space with exclusively machine-legible space. The technology actually displaces human readability and makes the ability to take advantage of the information reliant on a specific interaction.

This isn't to say they haven't been useful, so long as you have an audience that is into them, but in the end I'd rather have a URL that everyone can read and know what to expect instead of a jack-in-the-box that only some people can operate. And if your audience isn't in Japan, it doesn't matter how many phones there can read them natively.

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Thats a good point. I hope in the future we can just have smart posters and such with this stuff hidden away. –  jonshariat Sep 20 '11 at 23:37
    
I think recognition of human-readable images is an imperative to overcoming the problems with QR Codes. I still think there will need to be a kind of universal indicator that the image is scannable (like an icon in the corner of a poster, or signalling via NFC). At that point QR Codes are going to look pretty primitive. –  Todd Sieling Sep 20 '11 at 23:39
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I think that the QR codes should be considered as a hidden feature or the little extra something that makes the difference. One need to know the target audience well, of course, and some user groups will know how to deal whith this very well and other groups will have no clue at all. One should never rely on QR codes alone, and additional information should be provided.

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I agree with Erikrojo's point:

 bad UX unless you have an audience knowing (and technically able) what to do with it.

It's comes down to knowing your audience, and if they're technically savvy enough and aware of what a QR code is then it's a suitable call to action.

I agree that's its something that's taken a while to catch on in America and Europe but apparently there's plenty of evidence to suggest that it's on the rise. Comscore reported in August that 14 million Americans scanned QR codes in June 2011, which accounted for 6.2% of the total mobile market. At the same time 4.6% of mobile users (and 9.8% of smartphone users) in EU5 (France, Germany, Italy, Spain and UK) performed the same task. According to Mobio they saw an increase of 4,549% in Q1 2011 compared to Q1 2010. More conservative growth of 810% was reported by ScanLife for the same time period.

Personally I'm not particularly keen on QR codes and struggle to see them as anything more than a fad or marketing gimmick but if these statistics are to be believed it's an interaction paradigm we'll struggle to avoid in the future. It's for us as UX professionals to understand the interaction and define best practice so that they're used responsibly and effectively.

Sources:

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The item about half of QR Codes being scanned at home is kind of surprising. –  Todd Sieling Sep 20 '11 at 23:40
    
Yeah I agree. I think the report of where people scan QR codes is more representative of how marketeers are using them rather than were people are naturally inclined to use them, if that makes sense. –  paulseys Sep 21 '11 at 12:46
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I use QR codes in my advertising because whether they work or not, I don't have a choice. If I want to include any kind of link tracking in a print ad, I have to use a QR code to do it. (The alternative used by TV ads, where they send you to URLS like TryFreeCollege69.com, look tacky as hell.)

Of course, that answer could be extended to any of the Print-to-Phone solutions like SnapTags, Microsoft Tag, or even Audio-to-Phone solutions like Shazam. Frankly, they all suck from a "Users have to give a crap first to even want to do it" scenario, but the question isn't so much "Is this good UX" as it is "Why use them if nobody gets it?"

I think QR codes are at least better UX than the alternative options, because QR codes are the easiest to recognize as a 2D barcode that is made to be scanned, especially in comparison to:

  • A logo that happens to be in a circle (SnapTag)
  • A mishmash of triangles (Microsoft Tag)
  • A blink-and-you-miss-it logo that pops up in the corner to remind you to record the audio (Shazam)

Being able to tell that it is in fact a code that is meant to be scanned with a smartphone is all that a QR code really needs to do - the phone does the rest.

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One barrier to using QR codes is that generally you need to download and use a bar code reader app to use them.

Neither iPhones or Androids come with one or support QR codes in their standard camera apps as far as I am aware. I had a Nokia that did come with one though.

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I believe the new Android OS has it built in. –  jonshariat Sep 21 '11 at 17:39
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@jonshariat: No. Android doesn't have a default reader. Google Goggles though is capable of reading QR codes & interpreting most types of the encoded data. –  dnbrv Mar 28 '12 at 22:03
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There was a really great presentation by Bob Burns (then of Best Buy, now of Target) at UX Australia 2011 all about the UX implications of their roll-out of QR codes in stores.

You can listen to the audio and see the slides on the UX Australia website.

He goes into a lot of detail about the pitfalls they experienced, especially teaching people who hadn't used them before.

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