28

Scenario

We must identify persons and also associate objects with them. This is for a very large cerebral palsy center for children that provides various services, some in different buildings (there are 6 of them, though all within a 4 block radius).

The kids are transported to (and from) the center by various private services, and there is a lot of confusion about where and when the therapies take place (made worse by the pandemic, as professionals are constantly canceling shifts). Depending on the day, time, and the varying degrees of severity of the children's condition, the therapies are conducted at one of 6 locations, which also causes traffic chaos in these four blocks.

Proposed solution

To avoid this, we have developed a digital identification system with a very simple app where drivers can simply scan a code and get information about the exact location and time the children need to be picked up. We think this solution has a lot of scalability for further subsets of solutions, not only for drivers, but also parents and therapists.

Since the information is not sensitive and no one is going to hack it, the format of the code is not particularly important to us. We came up with 3 possible formats: QR, barcode or a custom code that would allow us to be more "playful", like a QR, but with glyphs automatically generated from a library (see a pretty basic example below)

pixelated smiley face

The question

Are there any special considerations as to why we should prefer one method or the other? My team prefers the QR, because it is standardized, I prefer the custom solution because ... well, because it's custom and gives us esthetic and emotional design options. The health center prefers the barcode, but they do not really care as long as it works.

So is there something special to consider, or am I missing something? Or is there another method we should consider that works better or combines the best of these methods?

What are the considerations when dealing with different digital identification systems?

11
  • 1
    Is the code (in whatever format) unique to a child, or is a new one issued for each scheduled appointment? Aug 23 at 19:18
  • 57
    I cannot say this firmly enough: "Since the information is not sensitive and no one is going to hack it" - never, ever, assume this. You will be wrong sooner or later. Aug 24 at 10:01
  • 10
    Just wondering, why not NFC tags? They can have awesome designs or put in stuffed animals or whatever you can think of. Most phones have NFC anyways.
    – bibleblade
    Aug 24 at 11:34
  • 7
    One important point when going with something custom vs. standardized: will users even recognize that it's a scannable code? Or just think it's a funny smiley. So adding more "QR-codish" visuals to it might be beneficial for quick recognition.
    – Big_Chair
    Aug 24 at 11:45
  • 16
    The location at which specific care is being delivered correlates with the kind of care, and thus in turn the nature of the child's condition, it is effectively personal health information. Since it indicates the location at which a child will be located, it has safety and security implications. You should definitely consider them as sensitive as any plain-text representation of the same info, which you are presumably already dealing with.
    – CCTO
    Aug 24 at 13:15
43

You can add quite a bit of visualization to your QR codes, see for example https://github.com/x-hw/amazing-qr

Some examples of that page: whimsical qr codes

If the QR code will be shown on a screen you can even use an animated qr code

Since your developers want to use a QR code, and you want to be able to add some playfulness to it, I think in this way both parties can be happy.

11
  • 5
    The middle one didn't scan for me, but the github and imdb ones did. Aug 24 at 7:35
  • 15
    I double-checked just now to be sure, but all 3 of them work for me. I guess that's another important tip: if the QR codes will be scanned by many different phones, be sure to test with many different phones.
    – F. Pareto
    Aug 24 at 12:18
  • 8
    Totoro is a nature spirit. It does not surprise me that he fails to be scanned.
    – dlatikay
    Aug 24 at 17:36
  • 25
    Note that both the custom encoding for cuteness and the grapic-ized QR run the risk of similar images causing the user to think they recognize the glyph when it is, in fact, someone else. You'll need to make sure none of your glyphs look similar enough to cause confusion. With plain, boring glyphs everyone knows they can't tell them apart visually, so they won't even try and will be more likely to rely on the scanner.
    – Perkins
    Aug 24 at 18:06
  • 12
    These QR codes are REALLY pushing the error handling of QR codes... it's suppose to be maximum 30%, but they're at least 33% to 50% from my guess. I wouldn't be surprised if they don't scan on all scanners due to less robust error correction on older models.
    – Nelson
    Aug 25 at 2:50
27

I prefer the custom solution because ... well, because it's custom and gives us aesthetic and emotional design options

If this is your graphical solution and your collaborators prefer a practical solution, why not unify both? Good graphic designers love to find graphic obstacles as a creative starting point.

enter image description here

More examples here

My personal opinion is that a scannable code should be understood as such in the first instance, a custom scannable symbol does not offer an immediate interpretation, as it has been mentioned in one of the answers.

4
  • 20
    Make sure the decorations do not deteriorate the code's readability. My Samsung Internet's QR scanner was unable to read the above one (although iPhone's succeeded) - test the popular devices before deploying the chosen design.
    – Trang Oul
    Aug 24 at 8:09
  • 1
    It might be that the image uses round, not square dots, that it confusing some QR readers. However the point that the QR should be checked in multiple readers still stands
    – CSM
    Aug 24 at 13:35
  • What I've found is that you really should use big square finder patterns on the 3 corners, but the interior dots can be circles and be just fine.
    – Nayuki
    Aug 24 at 17:03
  • My scanner fails to recognize that as a QR code, much less read it. For comparison, it recognizes all three of F. Pareto's examples as QR codes, although it's only able to reliably read the third.
    – Mark
    Aug 24 at 20:27
27

Let's look at each of your options in-depth.

Barcode

Pros
✓ Well-established technology. Can be used with many types of hardware.
✓ Familiar; recognizable.
✓ Requires minimal image processing.

Cons
× Could possibly feel slightly "cold" or "dehumanizing" to be assigned a barcode (barcodes are mostly found on products being bought and sold).
× Not easy to visually distinguish one barcode from the next.

QR Code

Pros
✓ Well-established technology. Accessible; reader is commonly built-in to mobile device's operating systems.
✓ Not as familiar as barcodes, but becoming more common in recent years.
✓ Could give off a "flashy high tech" impression (even though they're an old technology also, consumer adoption and mobile device integration is still relatively new).
✓ QR codes have less of a metallic, factory feel than barcodes, and are used more often as a simple shortcut to get further data.
✓ Can hold much more data than a barcode.
✓ Has mechanisms for error correction, to help damaged or obscured codes still read correctly (thanks anjama)

Cons
× Not easy to visually distinguish one QR code from the next.

Custom glyphs

Pros
✓ Very easy to visually distinguish one glyph from the next.
✓ Provides a warmer, more unique and sincere feel for the user.

Cons
× Not an established or standardized format.
× Not immediately recognizable as a code to be scanned.
× Would require a completely custom implementation, which may not be as reliable as devices' standard, inbuilt scanning tech.
× May distract from the purpose of the code.
× Users may want to change their glyph which could require additional customer support, or further features to support user customizations (e.g. My glyph is a banana, but I'm allergic to bananas...).

Conclusion

Surely I may have missed a few points worth mentioning (which I'd be happy to edit in as appropriate), but I'd strongly recommend the QR code for your purposes. I think the barcode evokes a much too cold and sterile image, especially when dealing with a vulnerable population in a setting where emotions may already be particularly sensitive. The custom glyph could turn out to be a nice feature, but it would take much more effort to fully develop. A QR code is a widely-adopted format, can hold more data if your feature requirements grow or change, and has fairly good support built into mobile device's operating systems.

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  • 8
    @Devin Another thing to consider: I'm not sure what workflow you're envisioning when interacting with these codes, but many users now have learned how to scan a QR code. The QR code can be designed to open a specific page in your app/site, thus your users wouldn't have to start with the app open. A custom glyph, however, means nothing outside of your application, so meaningful interaction with these glyphs would have to start from the app/site using your app's scanner. That change in behavior would have to be learned. Aug 23 at 21:05
  • 5
    QR codes can be customized to some degree if you need some more visual distinction. In particular, the center is often used for a logo or icon. You can easily put an emoji in there or even add in your custom coding if you want 2 layers of encoding. Aug 23 at 21:06
  • 8
    You're missing the two downsides to a custom glyph. None of your workers or customers will ever, ever use them. Just getting people onboard with QR codes, an international standard, has taken over 20 years. The chances of adoption are zero. And... It will cost a fortune to develop. Seriously, the OP should just make a pile of $10m of banknotes and set fire to them. It'll save time in the long run, and be just as effective.
    – Graham
    Aug 24 at 12:59
  • 3
    An additional advantage of a barcode (or very simple QR code) is that it can be paired with a human-readable form of the data which can be manually keyed if the scanner/camera is not working. This is standard practise on grocery barcodes, and I've often seen it used at the checkout when the barcode is damaged or crumpled.
    – thelem
    Aug 24 at 21:14
  • 3
    A barcode has one more major advantage: barcode scanners (hardware ones, which are cheap) read barcodes instantly. On the other hand, QR readers need to focus the image, and the whole process is much slower, and often frustrating to users. Real life case: QR codes on museum tickets - I spent several minutes trying to scan it and required staff to assist me.
    – Trang Oul
    Aug 25 at 4:51
14

As your team (and other commentators here) concluded, I would go for the QR code.

Most Pros and Cons regarding QR codes have been already mentioned here, but one relevant detail hasn't been shared here yet.

You can actually use the error correction feature of QR codes to put custom graphics inside of your code - the highest setting of QR code error correction can allow for up to 30% of the code data areas to be unrecognizeable, e.g. with a custom image overlayed in the center.

Please note, that you might be compromising a little bit on compatibility with some readers, if they don't support that error correction setting. Additionally, this will increase the amount of data, the QR code carries - you might have to reserve more space for the QR code, if you are printing them (e.g. onto some sort of ID cards).

Below I attached an example QR code, generated on https://www.qrcode-monkey.com/ (not affiliated with them in any way), that points to ux.stackexchange.com and has a custom graphic (in this case: a "share" icon) in it's center.

This way, you are able to combine the standardized QR code (and eliminate the need for custom scanning solutions) with playful graphics.


Example QR code with a "share" icon in the center, pointing to ux.stackexchange.com

2
  • This error correction exists to make sure that it can still be scanned even when damaged. Obscuring part of the code with custom graphics compromises this, making it harder to scan and become unreadable faster. The error correction is not intended to allow custom graphics, the fact that you can doesn't mean you should.
    – Martyn
    Aug 26 at 19:03
  • @Martyn Yes, just because it's possible shouldn't mean, we should do it. But since the error correction is already abused in quite common situations, I personally see no problem with that. Over here in Germany, we usually have to leave contact information e.g. in restaurants due to the covid pandemic. The most used app for that uses such QR codes with a graphic in the error correction area. Paypal uses them. And several QR code generators on the internet. But yes, you are right - in the end, it's abusing something, it wasn't made for - with all pros and cons. Oct 4 at 6:37
5

This might not give you an answer directly but some more to think about.

Where are the codes being placed? Is it a sticker? Is it shown digitally on a screen? How big will it be? Can it easily be damaged? How do you replace it?

I've designed a warehousing system where we also had to identify objects. We ended up using barcodes as they are the most robust to damage. However from our research we found QR codes can be scanned from further away.

Another thing to consider is that you probably don't want to put the actual data into the code, once printed you can't change it or you will have to replace the physical code. It's easier to just put a unique URL into the code so an appointment can be amended without replacing the code itself.

1
  • 1
    It's a sticker that will be printed by personnel and placed mostly on wheelchairs and tablets
    – Devin
    Aug 23 at 22:56
4

It is a good idea to look at history and see what was done then to learn lessons from the past.

I strongly urge you to NOT use barcodes or bland QR codes for identification or categorization of disabled children or other minorities. There is some unfortunate history behind both of these.

Barcodes are essentially just a number and often come with a number, and there have been some REALLY unfortunate cases in history of minorities being literally numbered as a form of control and dehumanization by oppressive regimes, like Nazi Germany.

QR codes are currently being used by China to identify and mark houses where minorities live as part of their campaign to oppress the Uygur population.

Both of these situations really are something you don't really want to be associated with as a provider of care for disabled children.

3

What about barcode plus custom image? This way you have both standards compilance and visual appeal.

Example:

enter image description here

0
2

You should use the system that works best in the specific environment in which it will be used, and each option you've presented have different strengths and weaknesses.

You mention:

To avoid this, we have developed a digital identification system with a very simple app where drivers can simply scan a code and get information about the exact location and time the children need to be picked up.

My reading of this implies that users will need to scan the code using your proprietary app, that users will already have installed.

In that case, your custom approach (or a conventional barcode) is somewhat sensible, because there's really no way for users to be confused about how to interact with the code when they see it. The conventional barcode has the benefit of checksumming and is very, very easy to design integrations for, but it looks somewhat unsightly in practice (and resolution can pose a problem when it comes to scanning with an optical device like a phone).

A QR code has the benefit of being able to encode much more data and having dramatically higher tolerance to damage, low resolution or low light. Instead of encoding just the ID as you mention, you could encode something like my-app:location/1234, which would allow scanning from the device's camera app (launching your app seamlessly if it's installed), but the experience is relatively broken for people who attempt to scan it but don't have the app installed.

If your app is designed for a single platform, you might consider each platform's native approach for this. Apple's is called App Clips, which have their own custom scannable codes designed for this kind of purpose (triggering a little native app experience from the real world). Android's equivalent is called Google Play Instant (although it doesn't have its own dedicated code format, so this ends up being more or less the same as the QR code with custom protocol solution described above).

Alternatively, you might prefer to use an off-the-shelf 2D barcode format (to benefit from ease of implementation and robustness improvements) but one that isn't generally associated with other purposes/apps (e.g. Data Matrix or DotCode). There are even colour barcodes that are very high density but won't be commonly confused with conventional QR codes, like (the now defunct) Microsoft Tag or the more modern JAB Code.

1
  • 1
    wow, such an amazing answer, thank you Kit!
    – Devin
    Aug 30 at 18:07
-1

On https://www.qrcodesgenerators.com you can create fancy QR codes that stands out. Best regards, Jarvis

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1
  • While this link may answer the question, it is better to include the essential parts of the answer here and provide the link for reference. Link-only answers can become invalid if the linked page changes. - From Review
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    yesterday

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