A huge part of being a designer is all the stuff that goes on before any actual production takes place, offering up creative ideas which may move away from the original brief, or simply providing an informed opinion. We decided to share this advice here, in case anyone else might be having similar thoughts…
During the past couple of months I have been approached by a number of our regular clients asking what QR codes are for and whether they should be using them on their printed materials. For the most part, they have been made aware of the codes by seeing them used on a competitor’s materials or attached to an aspirational brand’s advertising.
You can’t thumb through any newspaper or magazine without seeing little pixelated squares everywhere, and if Audi use them (for example) they must be right. Right?
While there’s no shortage of opinion out there they tend to fall into two camps: excited PR folks ticking boxes about “engagement” and “brand interaction”; and sniffy tech bloggers pointing out all the (many) mistakes out there and disregarding them out-of-hand. I wanted to cut through all the fighting and look at them from a client’s perspective.
What are QR Codes?
One of the problems with a QR code is that it doesn’t actually look like anything else so they divide the public into two camps right away, those who know what to do with it and those who do not. The code itself is nothing more than a barcode, made square, and able to hold some digital information. To work it needs to be scanned by a camera & processed by a dedicated piece of software, usually on a smartphone. It can hold messages, links to web pages or email address, or more complex things like vcards. A custom code must be created for each separate thing you want to communicate.
So like all methods of communicating, how the user interfaces with it dictates its usefulness and limitations. I believe that there could be uses for QR codes in business, but only in very specific circumstances and there are an awful lot of hurdles to overcome to get there.
The first thing to be wary of is that a QR code is still just a barcode, and you would never dream of hiding important information behind a barcode. If you have decided to use a QR code then I strongly recommend that you have the information it contains duplicated in a clear way elsewhere on the same page (completely removing the point) or a small piece of text explaining what to expect should they scan it (“scan this to visit…”).
Second thing to watch-for is the location of the code. Do not use one on any traditional outdoor media and expect to see people scanning it. Either they will be too far away for the camera to pick the code up accurately or the person will be driving past at 40mph. If the code will be a link to a website then think about whether the viewer have access to the internet at that location? Don’t put a QR code on an inflight magazine, for example.
Now think about the viewer who does know what to do when presented with a QR code. Chances are, they will be scanning it with their smartphone, so what will they be expecting? If the code just sends them to your homepage then it has probably been a wasted trip. If your company website is not optimised to handle mobile operating systems then the experience is much worse.
Remember that it will take a person longer to find the scanning application (especially since they do not use it often), train the camera on the code and hit “scan” than it would to open their browser and type your name into google.
It’s telling that finding good usage cases is a struggle. For me, the successful ones are codes that make finding a particular piece of content on a large 3rd party website easy. If you are selling a product through an online shop like Amazon or Tescos then you will not have a small, easy to remember URL to get to it. If you are selling music then your link to the itunes store will be unwieldy, and sending an interested buyer to the itunes main screen gives them the opportunity to see alternatives, potentially losing you the sale.
Your brand does not benefit from someone recalling the location of your product on a large 3rd party website, so a direct link would be seen as a positive thing for the viewer.
The indie videogame FEZ recently caught a lot of attention because it asked players to step outside the boundary of traditional gameplay to solve puzzles. In one instance the player could only solve a puzzle by scanning a QR code displayed on the screen before inputting the response back into the game. It felt groundbreaking and exciting to do because it broke ‘the fourth wall‘ and opened player’s minds to the possibility that the game might be throwing things at them that traditional gameplay would not help them beat.
The fact that in this case a QR code is deemed weird enough, and obtuse enough, to become a puzzle should give you an idea about whether you would want your advertisement’s main call to action entrusted to one of your own.