A thing or two about QR codes

Suddenly QR codes are everywhere. Not all that many people use them, but if they want to, they’re there: A pile of squares put together to make a fancy bar code. “Everyone” uses QR codes these days.

Don’t get me wrong, QR codes can be a very powerful tool, if you know why or how to use them, but it is quite obvious that most people have no clue. One example:

I was waiting for a subway in Oslo, Norway, last Christmas, when I noticed a QR Code among the time tables and fare information:

Ruter's QR code
"This information"? What information?

I didn’t exactly understand what information I was being offered, but Ruter, the company that operates the subway in Oslo, is a fairly trustworthy organization, so I let my curiosity get the better of me. The result?

Ruter's QR Code's target url
Oh, this information ...

I was taken to the Breaking News section of Ruter’s website. Sigh … What’s wrong with that? you may ask. Well, quite a bit:

First: The site is not optimized for mobile devices – I had to pinch and zoom and scroll to figure out what site I’d arrived at, and decide that there was nothing there for me.

  • First rule: QR codes are almost exclusively for use on mobile devices, so make sure they deliver mobile-friendly content.

It actually doesn’t cost much, by way of time, money or resources, to make your website mobile friendly, but it will probably pay off. Some project that mobile web surfing will overtake computer surfing in 2012. And Ruter.no is exactly the kind of website people visit when they are on the move – whether to find out what has happened to the bus that never arrived, or how to complain about the conductor.

Anyway: The site I arrived at had no contact or traffic information. Instead, there were three films about the new pricing structure, links to various pdfs, a story about a Ruter employee whi had been arrested, and some other links. None of the content on the page was relevant to me, but I was struck by how optimistic it is to think that people will download movies on ticket prices on their phone while waiting for the tram.

  • Second rule: Get to the point. People don’t have a lot of time or patience when they’re surfing out in the real world.

Looking closer at the site, I could not find anything that delivered on the promise from the explanation next to the QR code. The notice told me I’d get “this information” directly to my phone. I don’t know what kind of information they were referring to, but next to the actual QR code were contact information, the url to a mobile friendly website and a plug for an app with traffic information in real-time – three things mobile users might actually want.

  • Rule three: No surprises, please. QR codes is all about trust. Unlike URLs, QR codes are impossible to read for ordinary people, so we have to trust that they point to a place we want to be. Do not break that trust.

A couple of bonus rules:

  • Rule 4: Take advantage of the opportunities. Internet on mobile phones opens up endless possibilities – you have access to all information, photos, music and people in the world from your pocket. Don’t waste it on sending people to an insignificant website.
  • Rule 5: Track it! QR codes are particularly easy to measure. Make sure each QR code you use is unique, and you can see how many people use them, when they use them and how they use them – among other things. See what you find out.