10 thoughts about QR codes

This post has been a long time coming…

I first got interested in QR codes back in 2008, when I was researching an academic paper I presented at the International Walking Conference Walk21 in Barcelona. The paper (Cyber Space, Meat Space and a Sense of Place: Lessons from the interplay of the online and offline worlds) was probably too broad in scope but it outlined my core thought about QR codes. Used properly I believe they can be highly targeted marketing and information tools – in particular they can be used for geographical targeting without all the messy privacy implications of using GPS.

I’ve started this blog post about three times, but decided to actually finish it last week when @corrinnedouglas was asking about them on Twitter. Then I spotted them on the voting slips at my local polling station…

It seems 2011 might be the year the QR code goes mainstream (though I read similar predictions for 2008, 2009 and 2010..) so here are my top 10 tips on using them (in no particular order).

1.) what is a QR Code? How do you read it?

QR (Quick Response) Codes use a 2-dimensional grid of contrasting squares to encode some text – usually (but not always) a web address.

When coding a link, a good metaphor is that QR Codes are like physical hyperlinks. They are a great way to link printed literature to extra online content.

You decode them by taking a photo of the code with your smartphone. If it runs Android, the software is included as standard. If you have an iPhone, or another type of SmartPhone, you may need to download an extra app (I like QuickMark, but I have an ancient Windows Mobile 5 phone so I don’t have much choice!). You can also decode them online using the “Zebra Crossing Decoder” from google.

Find out more on wikipedia.

2.) QR codes don’t have to code a link to a web URL

I then started writing this post when I saw a very clever tweet from PC Ed Rogerson (@HotelAlpha9). It included this image:If you don't understand this picture don't worry. I... on Twitpic

It decodes as:

Nice phone! Make sure you register it (free) on www.immobilise.com. If it gets lost or stolen the police will be able to find out you are the true owner. Thanks for following, please RT! Ed

I did have a problem getting my phone to deode it from the computer screen. I eventually translated it with the online decoder, but it also worked when I printed it out.

The great point this makes is that QR codes will encode any text. While that is usually a URL, it doesn’t have to be! That said, the shorter the text, the easier it is to scan.

3.) They are dead easy to deploy, so you might as well use them!

QR codes are free to use. Don’t get taken in by marketing types telling you there is a cost to set them up – you can very easily do it yourself:

  1. Use Bit.ly. The well known URL shortener Bit.ly will now generate a QR Code for every bit.ly link produced. You need to look at the info page for the link when you shorten it, or just add “.qrcode” to the end of any link to see the relevant code. For instance http://bit.ly/kbvYeC.qrcode decodes to http://bit.ly/kbvYeC, which links to the paper I presented at Walk 21.
  2. Use ZXing. ZXing (Zebra Crossing) is the google hosted project for pretty much anything QR code related. The QR code generator is more flexible than bit.ly as it allows you to code all sorts of different types of information (text, contact information, appointments, URLs etc). It also give you flexibility over the error handling and size of the code.

The codes are now getting close to the point where they are recognised by consumers and don’t need any extra copy to explain how to use them. If you are targetting a tech savvy audience, at the very least including a QR code might help you get some metrics for your paper based document. Which brings me on to…

4.) Measure their impact.

Particularly if you code directs the user to a URL. The simplest metric how many people scanned the code. If you shorten the URL before encoding it using bit.ly, you can find the number of clicks by adding a plus sign (+) to the end of the link. For instance http://bit.ly/kbvYeC+ shows you the stats for the link to my Walk21 paper. Be aware that anyone can look at the stats for any bit.ly link – so it might not be appropriate if you want to be highly secretive about things like that!

If the URL you are pointing the QR Code at is one of your own, and you use google analytics, you might want to have a look at this article on crafting a tagged URL. You can then follow the tag into your analysis and measure its impact (there is nothing to stop you putting a tagged url through bit.ly as well!).

Once you start measurement, you can even use QR Codes to compare different instances. For instance: imagine you are advertising at three different bus stops. By using the same advert, but a different QR Code ( by using a tagged url) you can compare the view rates at each location.

5.) Optimise any URL for mobile devices, and make the content valuable.

It shocks me how often I scan a QR Code that takes me to a site that then takes HOURS to load, because it has not been designed for the smaller screen of a smartphone. There are packages and plug-ins available for creating mobile optimised sites – so use them (and test them)!!

Make sure there is something valuable there for the user too – QR codes shouldn’t just link to the front page of your website, but should try and provide some content (and ideally some interactivity) that is relevant to the physical object the code is attached to. For instance, QR Codes on the side of Pepsi bottles take you to a mobile site where you can download pictures, videos or ringtones. Each bottle has a different “free gift”.

6.) Don’t expect the user to be able to scan first time

Waitrose have trialled QR Codes in some of their TV advertising – but the code is on the screen for such a short time that, unless you have Skyplus box to pause the TV, there is not enough time to use it.

Likewise, QR Codes probably aren’t suited to outdoor adverts that are meant to be seen from a long distance (I am thinking of the large format poster hoarding) or are meant to move (so not on bus backs either!). Try to think of where and how the user will be scanning it, and make it as easy as possible for them.

7.) Try to understand how they are coded, and the Error Correction Level settings

Little bit geeky…but here goes. QR Codes are based on grids of squares. They range from a 21×21 square grid (encoding up to 25 characters) up to a 177×177 square grid (encoding up to 4296 characters). If these grids are the same size, the 177×177 grid will be made up of much smaller squares. The camera will find it harder to resolve these smaller squares, so the code won’t scan as easily (the squares are more likely to blur into one with the camera shaking!).

What this means in practice is keep your text as short as possible – that way you can use a grid with less squares, which will be easier to decode. If you are encoding a URL, you should at least consider further shortening your URL using a service like bit.ly (a standard bit.ly will easily be encoded in a 21×21 square).

QR Codes also have a built in Error Correction Level. This means the code can still be decoded even if it is incomplete or illegible in places. There is a balance here, because a high level of error correction (more readable code) takes up more character space (resulting in a bigger code).

It is worth pushing the error correction level as high as you can to make it more readable, but also to allow you to personalise the code a bit more:

8.) Try to break them to personalise them!

If you visit 2d-code.co.uk (and I would strongly recommend it for QR Code inspiration) you will often see QR codes with images embedded in them. In these cases the code is taking advantage of the built in error correction level – the image covers some of the squares, but the image is still readable.

There doesn’t seem to be a magic formula for knowing which squares you can remove and which ones you can’t – most websites recommend trial and error. The wikipedia page gives some useful hints about what the areas are used for (in particular, note the importance of the white space)!

Taking it to extremes leads to QR Artwork like this (which apparently scans, though I haven’t been able to get it to work):

Space Invaders QR Code by Melissa Louie (via 2d-code.co.uk)

9.) Visit 2d-code.co.uk

It is not the most beautiful site to look at, but there is no better website on QR Codes that I have found – hundreds of ideas about how they are being used, and loads of inspiration.

10.) Learn how to print prepare them!

One of the (ahem) untruths that certain marketing companies might tell you about producing QR Codes is that the ones on the internet (from bit.ly or zxing) are not good enough quality to be put in a print publication. While most pictures on the internet won’t easily scale to print quality (it’s all to do with resolution) QR Codes are an exception – if you know what you are doing.

  1. Create your QR Code in your internet product of choice, and save a copy to your computer.
  2. Open the image in Adobe Photoshop.
  3. For printing, you want to resize the image to the size it will be printed, and have a resolution of at least 300dpi. Do this using the Image Size tool. The key here is to set the Resample Image dropdown to nearest neighbour. This will retain the crisp lines of the QR Code (the other settings blur the image) and rescale it to an appropriate size.
Resizing a QR Code. Note the "nearest neighbour" setting

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