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Many people see QR codes, but many people don't know how to use them since an additional app is required. Sometimes TWO apps are required such as Zxing.

[2018 update: As of iOS 11, the iPhone's default camera app supports QR codes, and many new Android phones support QR codes through the built in Google Lens.]

Some newbie people open up a camera, and take a picture of the QR code, thinking it will do something.. and it doesn't.

Furthermore, some QR codes require specialized apps such as Bitcoin vs GoogleAuthenticator vs navigating to a website.

Lastly, if Google Goggles is installed, and a photo is taken, the user might get a notification of a "match" when it is uploaded to the cloud, deciphered, and sent back down.

Since some QR codes require apps, others have sensitive information (Bitcoin/Authenticator), and other QR codes are accessible through a variety of hacks, there are simply too many isolated uses of QR codes and I'm afraid that QR codes are too inconsistent to even consider.

Question

What, if anything can be done to unify this fragmented, confusing, risky, error prone experience?

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I'm a big fan of QR codes, but like many raw technologies when they emerged (the web, pagers, email) there is a process of socialization, awareness and productization that is still underway before they can be properly used.

Unfortunately by nature this isn't something that can be fixed with an app (or purely with a UX approach). But, it IS something that better UX can make big contributions to.

Problems with QR codes today

  • Awareness is still low - This study and others show that although awareness of QR codes is reasonably high, many users have not used QR codes before, and a significant minority still exists who don't know what a QR code is.

  • Intent is unclear - QR codes are most often poorly labeled. They often appear at the bottom of an ad, on a business card, or on a webpage with little or no labeling. QR codes are polymorphic so the user has no reasonable way of guessing what's contained in a QR code before opening it.

  • Clients are not ready - Unlike phone numbers, QR codes cannot be manually entered and are not easy to cut and paste (many clients/devices are poor at graphical cut/paste). Therefore, user abandonment is high even when intent to use is there.

UX improvements

  • We need clients, not apps - Today most users read QR codes via smartphone or desktop apps. This presents a hurdle to users who have to find and fire up the app, then figure out how to enter the QR code. It's better to remove this layer and have QR codes become readable at the point of reading.

    • e.g. Being able to see a QR code on a browser and right-clicking on the image to bring up a contextual menu to decode the image.
    • e.g. having a QR reader built into camera software for a mobile phone and webcam clients instead of having users go hunt for a separate reading app.
  • QR codes need to be properly labeled - This can happen through standards (e.g. color or framing conventions) or informally through good design. The square form factor is not easy to work with for labeling (high visual mass, awkward aspect ratio for labeling), so creativity is important here.

  • Authoring tools need to be improved - Again, it's better to provide operating system or similar horizontal approaches to authoring rather than dedicated QR apps. For example, users should be able to compose a QR code when drafting a report in Google Docs, creating an an advertisement in Illustrator, building a slide show in PowerPoint, etc.

There are additional approaches, but this may provide a decent start for thinking through the integrative and different ways where UX can improve the QR code user experience.

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