The Synapse of QR Codes

Photo by jetheriot

Happy to have a guest post from Sohini Baliga. Sohini is a writer and communications consultant who has produced and written extensively for clients in both for and non-profit sectors. You can visit her blog at:

Synapse: a minute gap across which impulses pass from one neuron to another.

I’ve watched QR codes for a while now. About a year ago you looked for it if you knew to do so. Today they’re seemingly everywhere—ads, magazines, the newspaper, a flyer from the volunteer fire department at my local non-chain coffee shop. It’s no longer a curiosity in that the public actually knows about them. Which is an improvement from last fall when I posted that the general response to them was “Wuh?”

But the American public still doesn’t seem to know what to actually do with a QR code. In fact, this is how the conversation usually goes if I’m talking to someone who isn’t super wired or living entirely online—and that’s still a large chunk of the population, across all sectors:

Q: Do you know what a QR code is?

A: QR what?

Q: You know, those things that look like a square pixilated bar code. (I usually show and tell at this point.)

A: Oh yeah, I’ve seen those!

Q: Do you know what they’re for?

A: Hmm…web stuff. I think.

Basically, QR codes still seem to fall into the synapse between the marketer and the recipient.

Marketers Love QR Codes

Marketers have grasped the ease, potential, and possibilities of the QR code—black and white matrix codes that can point you towards information or point to a website. Certainly, the U.S. government and DARPA get that QR codes could be enormously useful and helpful in national emergencies. No more wondering what the second half of that vandalized or faded URL or phone number is! Because even a partially torn off QR code gives you all the info you need.

And you know that a technology is no longer arcane when designers have already been tasked with elevating the QR from basic utilitarian value to branding opportunity. But the public? It still seems to be at the other end of the synapse.

But the Public’s Not There Yet

Speaking, once again from personal experience and my highly unscientific straw poll of friends and colleagues, QR codes aren’t yet a go-to for the public. And apart from the fact that there are still plenty of people who haven’t yet graduated to a smart phone (I know, but it’s the reality), I think there are several reasons why.

  • — Power-down time: QR codes are now readily available in the newspaper and magazines. That’s lovely. But for me, if I’m finally cracking open dead tree, it’s probably during my non-digital time when I’m trying to hit the pause button. Now multiply that by many more who are probably lead much healthier digital and offline lives. See how that might not work?
  • Repeat pause: QR codes are really convenient on the go. I can see scanning them at Dulles airport where I’m trying to keep the luggage down to a minimum. And I just learned about a fun event in my neighborhood because that aforementioned flyer’s QR code took me to more, updated, and evolving information than could be crowded into a piece of paper. But on the metro? Or my daily commute? Not so much. Certainly unwise if I’m driving, and inconvenient if it requires me to negotiate the human sardine can in the morning on metro, or be somewhere in public transportation where connectivity and the ability to stop must converge.
  • You require a QR code reader: This one trips people up. It takes about 30 seconds to install a QR code reader app. But if your customer isn’t set up for it, not only is your code a wasted opportunity, it’s an extra step that doesn’t feel like much of a shortcut. Which means that if you haven’t actually been told that you need to download a QR code reader, you have no idea why the iphone-ice-cream-sandwich-droid-thingy that can seeming do everything but kiss you good night* just dumbly sits there, and possibly makes you feel foolish. No one likes being made to feel foolish by an expensive toy they’ve paid for. (*Note: that phrase shamelessly paraphrased from the fabulous Nora Roberts and her newest book.)

  • QR codes work best for mobile-friendly sites: Most nonprofits, small companies, and really, the majority of websites across the board are still trying to budget for a mobile-friendly site, much less have one good to go to for a QR campaign. Big speed bump right there.
  • It looks cryptic, and complicated, like work: It’s not actually hard to generate a QR code. Marketers know this. The public however, has no idea what’s involved. People know that it takes about a minute to sign your name to a call-to-action campaign, start a Facebook page, set up a Google account, or a blog. But they’re still largely unaware that it takes 30 seconds to generate a QR code. It looks complicated. It looks like something that involves code and tech skills that we’re usually all too happy to outsource. It looks like work. Inexplicable work. Combined with the required convergence of connectivity and a stopping point, a QR reader, and the mobile-friendly website issue, the QR code currently seems to break cardinal rules of outreach: never make your audience work, never require more than one click.
  • Language barriers, or lack thereof: QR codes are perfect for transcending a language barrier, if that’s an issue. The fact is, the Internet still largely defaults to English, and so we in the U.S. aren’t hampered by a language barrier. Yes, there’s a large Spanish-speaking market, but like English speakers, they’re also using the Germanic script. Which means it’s quicker for them, as well as English speakers, to simply Google something or type in a quick URL. Perhaps this explains why QR codes are so useful and widespread in other parts of the world where English isn’t the main language. It reminds me a bit of the reasons why the U.S. still has a relatively large number of landlines, DSL users, and aging desktops while the rest of the world has largely gone mobile. If you can rely on the existing infrastructure, a stable electrical grid, reliable phone, and underground lines, why would you go all mobile? Especially if it’s going to cost you more in the near term?

Interestingly enough, I wrote this post up in a coffee shop. And couldn’t help but overhear the conversation between the couple at the next table. One was a small business owner, the other a journalist. Out came the business cards, one with a QR code on it. And the conversation began with, “Yeah I see those, but what do they do exactly?”

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4 thoughts on “The Synapse of QR Codes”

  1. The free web application offered byu00a0www.learniply.comu00a0uses QR Codes placed in public locations such as art galleries, museums, zoos and nature parks, to allow anyone with a smartphone to locate information related to their current location. This information is created through your free learniply account, and can include anything from information about a nearby exhibit to interpretive or way finding information.

  2. Requiring the reader:u00a0 considering myself not a power user but at least a user, I finally walked into the Verizon store where a young man concealed his smirk but did explain.u00a0 This is one of those things nobody explicitly tells you–you’re just supposed to know.nnHowever, at a gallery, the artist used a code as part of the work, but the guard stopped me from scanning.u00a0 The artist, whom I know, said he kept trying to explain to the guards, but they refused to undersatnd.

  3. Hi “guest” – Thanks very much for your comment. I wrote the article, and I think it’s precisely because you’re not a power user that your point is so interesting and noteworthy. We shouldn’t have to be power users to make use of something. Because if that’s a requirement then the idea is failing more than expected!u00a0

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