QR codes. I hates ‘em.
The Quick Response code (QR code) popped up in our lives a few years ago, a strange square that looks like what you get when you cross Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House textiles (as seen in Blade Runner) with 8-bit graphics. They came to us by way of Japan, which is obviously their revenge for our giving them hair metal bands and, in unrelated news, making them deaf.
In a perfect world, QR codes are simple enough to use: Just align your smartphone QR reader with the corners of the code, and receive a wealth of information. Hot deals? Greater knowledge of a product or event? A bunch of other stuff I don’t care about that’s related to marketing? QR codes are there for you.
At first blush, QR codes are a thoughtful way to disseminate information. Because we have to scan them ourselves, they’re interactive. And because we can choose to either scan the code or ignore them, it’s as if we have more control of our experience.
And still, I hates ‘em. It’s not an irrational hate either. I’ve logicked this out.
Here’s a look at the five reasons why I find QR codes as annoying as EULAs…and I find EULAs deeply, darkly annoying.
1. You need them to, you know, work.
My previous smartphone—a first-generation hacked iPhone on T-Mobile—was glacially slow and had a mediocre camera. My first few scans met with failure and a sense that my phone wasn’t cool enough. It wasn’t. But I didn’t need a QR code to tell me that. Thus began an apprehension that wasn’t actually allayed when I got my brand new phone.
One week ago, I finally received my holiday present, an iPhone 4S on the zippier Verizon network. Eager to try out a QR Code, I scanned the first one I saw. It was in an elevator. And not just any elevator—an elevator deep within the bowels of a grocery store…where not even Verizon can penetrate. (Subways share this problem too.)
Would the QR code have sent me to a link for coupons or special offers? It’s all but impossible to tell. I could’ve captured the information anyway, left the grocery store, checked the scan outside the grocery store, and re-entered. But since I’d rather stick needles in my eyes, I’ll never know.
Others have told me that QR codes can bring you to a “special deal” site, only to find the deal had expired months before. And then there are QR codes that bring you to sites that are not designed for mobile users. Stop and think about that for a second. I’ll wait.
But my favorite example of a QR code fail, in my scant one week of study, belongs to a church on my block. It has a large banner with a QR code emblazoned on it. Any amazement I may have over a church’s progressive thinking was canceled out by my bemusement over the fact that the QR code can be scanned only on a windless day. (It’s a banner, remember. Made out of fabric.) And it’s mighty windy in Manhattan in winter.
2. You need to be part of the smartphone-carrying elite.
As they say, the medium is the message. But when the medium is QR codes, the message is, “You better have a smart phone.”
I guess the problem I have with them is that the information presented by QR codes is so obviously, painfully marketed toward me and my tech-wielding kind. Unless you happen to carry a barcode scanner in your pocket (prompting many to ask the question, “Is that a barcode scanner in your pocket or are you just nerdy to see me?”), QR codes can only be read on the go with a smartphone, and only after you’ve downloaded the proper app. (Stationary types can read them with a webcam and the proper software, such as the open-source zbar.)
If I sound like I’m whining, it’s not just because I was supposed to go into Toshi Station to pick up some power converters. Although I recognize that QR codes are a great demographic for marketers to target, as smart-phone users tend to be “well-off and well-educated,” I’m concerned about people without smart phones.
What if this QR code conveys genuine information, such as directions or special offers? Marketers are automatically disenfranchising anyone too poor to afford an expensive smartphone and its equally spendy data plan. (And let’s not forget people like my older relatives, who are mistrustful, if not fearful, of any technology more advanced than a hair dryer.)
When the medium is a QR code, it seems the message is more like, “If you don’t have a smartphone, you’re not worthy.”
3. QR codes mostly give you advertising.
In the last week, I’ve been scanning QR codes willy-nilly. I can honestly say that I haven’t seen this many ads since before my husband installed a MythTV system.
I’ve seen ads for clothes, for shoes, for television shows, for small businesses, for non-profits, for alcohol, for sports teams, for personal Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook pages, and now I have trouble with my attention...um…what was I saying?
The worst thing about these ads is that, by scanning the QR codes, I inflicted them upon myself.
It’s kind of outrageous, really. I’m actually putting effort into receiving advertising. I understand that ads are an irritating fact of first-world life, but the fact that I have to work to view one makes me pine for the simplicity of a hunter-gatherer society. Because Throg will bring me antelope, and he’ll never once ask me to view this ad for Smirnoff.
4. It increases the opportunity to be hacked.
Some people scan QR codes for the same reason they put beer in a baby bottle: because it’s there. But curiosity can do more than kill this cat. It can infect your phone with some vicious malware.
Say you’re a snap-happy QR coder, and you manage to capture a QR code on a flyer for a club. But instead of learning about Happy Hour, you’re just plain bricked. Bricking is sadly the least of your concerns, especially when there’s phishing to be done. Innocently scan a QR code for your bank—one that’s been pasted on top of your bank’s real QR code—and get sent to the fake bank’s site. Now type in your bank account number. Sorry. You’ve just been pwned.
Then there’s keylogging. And GPS tracking. It’s enough to make you avoid using your QR code reader, ever.
But if you must, according to DarkReading, make sure you use a QR code reader that lets you confirm the URL before you visit the website. You may want to avoid loading any pages from websites such as www.IDoItForTheLulz.com.
After all, if we’ve learned anything from Windows’ AutoRun feature, it’s healthy paranoia.
5. They will be outdated soon anyway.
The good news is, I don’t have to wait long before QR codes fade from sight. They’re being replaced by High Capacity Color Barcodes (HCCBs), a Microsoft product that Redmond is all too happy to share. (If it’s any consolation to fans of QR codes, I’m sure I’ll find them annoying too.)
But then there’s the problem with permanence. Once QR codes fade from usage, so will the code readers, but the more permanent square boxes will stand, unused and useless.
I’m thinking specifically of headstones. Right now, QR codes on a headstone can bring you to a link that commemorates the dead person’s life. It’s actually a rather nice way to learn more about the lives of the people buried six feet under. But when QR code readers are shunted aside, and the information they contain will be unobtainable, these codes will look even more forlorn than a standard headstone.
But that’s nothing compared to the people who get QR code tattoos. Headstones can be replaced at some expense, but tattoos can only be replaced at some expense…and a great deal of pain.
6. Why oh why can’t advertisers entice us with shortened URLs instead?
Just sayin’. Especially since today’s smartphones are easily powerful enough to do optical character recognition on an actual URL.
Okay, QR codes aren’t completely awful…
After playing with QR codes, I admit that they can make our lives easier, and isn’t that why we love tech, besides the happy beeping noises? Three reasons spring to mind:
1. They offer sales and deals.
So let’s say you do have a QR code reader, and it works just fine. These offers and specials that non-smartphone users don’t have access to can be yours, all yours.
Although sales can be found in traditional ways, such as newspaper inserts, some of these deals are like pop-up stores…there one minute and gone the next. And it appeals to my brand-new sense of smartphone elitism to scan a QR code and know that I’m getting an of-the-moment discount that only a few other people know about.
2. They really can make our lives easier.
Continental Airlines uses QR codes to speed up boarding: Instead of a ticket that you feed through a reader that invariably crumples the paper, you’re given a QR code. The flight attendant scans it, cheerfully thanks you for flying Continental, and you’re well on your way to stowing your overhead luggage.
And although simple URLs are my favorite solution, QR codes do work for unwieldy websites. I’m thinking of real estate agencies with a large, ever-shifting inventory. In Manhattan, realtors place ads for apartments in their storefront windows, along with the appropriate QR code. Instead of typing in a complicated, multi-digit URL, I just scan the QR code, and I’m sent to the apartment’s home page. And I don’t even have to talk to an aggressive, overly chummy real estate agent for more details.
3. There’s been an effort to make QR codes look more attractive.
Advertisers are becoming aware that QR codes are not just aesthetically unappealing, but also as a solid square, there’s almost no way to ascertain what you’re looking at.
Enter embedded images. Now a QR code for Ralph Lauren contains the iconic polo player, and we’re saved from actually reading any text above the image.
Adding color and image to the QR codes have made them look more eye-catching and less like static from an old black-and-white television. People who want their own QR codes to promote their bands or their sites would do well to follow these design tips and perhaps hire a professional to create one.
To sum it up:
I see QR codes as a marketing curiosity and a passing fad. They and their ilk will soon be replaced by other amped-up barcode substitutes. I also see those being replaced by location-aware services that automatically detect exactly where you are. As a result, you’ll be getting pop-ups and notifications, whether you want them or not, without having to lift an iPhone or an Android phone.
Come to think of it, maybe QR codes aren’t so bad after all…