Cracking The Code

Designing smart mobile devices is a ceaseless battle between size, performance and usability. Anything that helps with the input of data is good for users, and potentially for marketers too. QR codes are one such approach, and are now turning up seemingly everywhere. But are they just a marketing fad, soon to be superseded, or here to stay?

Sharing the online world has never been easier – in fact it’s almost too easy. Pick a form of digital data, however big or small, and there’ll be a way to share it. The URL is the most common way to share web content, online or off. But a URL can be much more complicated than just its domain name (forward-slash something forward-slash wait slow down a minute) and be hard to articulate either vocally or in print. The issue is compounded on mobile devices such as smartphones, where usability must always be balanced with size. In marketing terms, all this is putting technological hurdles in the way of the user… and technology is supposed to be making things simpler.

Enter QR codes. Originally conceived at a Toyota subsidiary to track vehicular components along assembly lines, these two-dimensional barcodes make it possible in the offline world to present a useful amount of alphanumeric data in machine-readable form. Their popularity in advertising is principally because this data can be a URL that can be read and interpreted by mobile smart devices directly, without the user having to input it. Also, it’s hard to make a commercial argument for not including them in a print-based advertisement: they’re hardly any more expensive than the written word.

What’s the problem, then?
A prominent argument against QR codes is that they place specific requirements upon their users. First, the user needs to be presented with the QR code, be able to recognise it and also know what it can do for them. Next, they need to be reasonably close to the QR code and facing it head-on for a good few seconds. Finally, they have to have a mobile smart device, with an appropriate QR scanning app installed. Then, if the QR code is intended to guide the user to an online resource, they’ll need network connectivity (plus that resource must work acceptably on their device). And that’s assuming that the user wanted to use the thing in the first place.
So, all together now: presentation; recognition; desire; know-how; proximity; duration; hardware; software; connectivity; compatibility. So much for making things easier.

For a QR code to work, the onus is on the user jumping through all these hoops. On the marketing side there’s also the issue of trust: QR codes aren’t readable by us humans, so the user gets little reassurance about what the act of scanning a QR code is going to do. To further compound the issue, QR codes have become something of a fashion accessory in advertising; there are increasing numbers of head-slappingly laughable examples where these conditions can’t possibly be met. As these examples show, advertisers (in particular) must realise that the inclusion of a QR code by itself, without attention paid to its environment, is likely to have little use besides looking stupid.

But while ill-conceived applications of QR codes can damage credibility, it would not be fair to write them off altogether. Used well, QR codes allow the offline world to become more machine-readable, and their apparently low production cost means they’ll be around for a while yet.

Smart devices

That said, it is fair to say that QR codes’ days are numbered in the context of advertising, for just one simple reason: smart devices are about to live up to their name. Two notable emerging technologies could bring about a step-change in the way the online and offline worlds overlap. Near-Field Communication (NFC) is a means of allowing wireless connectivity between mobile devices in close proximity. It’s the evolution of the contactless communication that occurs in contexts such as some payment cards (like MasterCard’s PayPass); mass transit ticketing systems (like London Transport’s Oyster card); and access control systems used in the workplace.

NFC will bring with it the crucial benefit of offering two-way communication, and is already turning up in mobile handsets. Not only could the use of an NFC-enabled smartphone prove much easier than a QR code in many contexts, but also, the potential uses for NFC extend far beyond the capabilities of QR codes.

Visual search, the ability to search the web using images, is also already available for smartphones, and again shows massive potential. Google Goggles allows the user to submit a picture as a search term, which is then analysed by the search engine to determine the subject and offer results. Another loosely similar example is Blippar, an app that tries to recognise certain offline advertisements or physical objects visually, and offer up digital content when in view of the smartphone’s camera. Although in its infancy, it is visual search that will ultimately render the QR code obsolete: mobile smart devices will eventually be able to “see” something, just as we do, and then present digital content accordingly.

But it won’t stop there. Smartphones and Tablets are already crammed with numerous input devices, of which the camera is but one. They are already capable of determining their location using multiple sources of data: global positioning satellites, the location of mobile phone mast you’re using, and the wi-fi networks in range.

As connectivity continues to improve in terms of both speed and coverage, the device will be able to feed what it gathers from its “senses” up to the cloud, where unfathomably capable systems will be able to determine all sorts of things about what’s happening where you are. Also, smart devices will become more and more aware of their human accomplices: about what we’re doing, who we’re with, what we’re paying attention to, and what we care about. The smart device of the near future will know something’s there before you do, whether or not you notice it, and whether or not you care.

So, while QR codes do indeed make the physical world a little more machine-readable, those same machines are getting better and better at reading the world.


Mo Morgan is technical director at integrated agency, Kitcatt Nohr Digitas