QR Codes: Is The US At A Tipping Point?

One of my favorite movie lines is from Contact, where Jodie Foster’s character tells the derisive government suit played by James Woods why the aliens who’ve made contact don’t just say “hi!” like normal people, rather than send a message through the first television transmission of any power that went into space – that of Hitler at a Nazi rally. “Math is the only true international language,” Foster says. Snaps back, actually. “Seventy percent of the planet speaks other languages.” 

And so it is with QR codes. QR what? Exactly. That was one of many points made at a really fun presentation by Nam-Ho Park at the recent mobileUXCamp in DC.

The opener of the presentation – that the U.S. lags behind several other countries in QR code usage – wasn’t exactly news. Well, not to anyone in the room. Based on my highly unscientific poll (aka, Facebook status update question to friends and family) I think the answer is that QR codes are the universal language we don’t recognize yet, much less speak. I say this because I live two miles away from Tysons Corner, where Apple had good reason to open its first retail store. While none of my peeps are about to stand in line at 3 a.m. for the latest anything, they’re not a bunch of people behind the eight-ball on technology either. Still, the “Oh yeah, I use them!” answers were far outweighed by “Wuh?”

Park and I diverge on how we came to our conclusions – more about that later – but we agree that the US is at a tipping point with QR codes. I see them everywhere –  in magazines, on posters, on products. My question, apart from whether the technology will remain a product of choice (like Opera/Konquerer/Safari, which are great browsers but still lose out to Firefox/IE/etc), is how it’ll serve the clients I currently work with the most – small businesses, entrepreneurs, and non-profits.

QR codes are already used for marketing in the US, and a whole lot more elsewhere. They can easily be used for calls to action, advocacy, online marketing campaigns. And I wonder if QR codes can be especially useful for first response or in crises. Think of first responders using them for geo-location, a sort of “You are here” marker. Better yet, think of all the emergency information that gets truncated into an image or a phone number – and then gets promptly defaced, sometimes hilariously, and sometimes unhelpfully. A QR code could serve the same function, and because there’s a lot of redundancy built into a code, it would still work if someone scrawled over half of it.

Uh, okay. That helps, thanks.

Uh, okay. That helps, thanks. (image courtesy Infrastructurist)

Um, what?

Um, what? (Image courtesy mmoabc)

Really, there are all kinds of possibilities. I just don’t know what they are yet. Because I don’t speak the language much, yet. Or perhaps, it’s precisely because I do speak the language. English, that is. Consider it the outcome of living at the big show. We who live in the US already speak the language of the Internet, and enjoy the things – relatively reliable wired service, wifi, or power supply – that forces much of the world to go wireless and adopt smart phone technology that much faster. Which means we’re never far from a functioning computer or laptop, and even if we own a smart phone, we don’t think twice to just type in a URL in English to get the information we want. That’s not the case in other parts of the world where neither the mechanism or the language is a given. If you’re South Korean, and the Internet is in English, the QR code makes a ton of sense.

And then there’s the visual aspect. A couple of audience members asked key questions during Park’s presentation about how QR codes look – this, after all, being a User Experience barcamp: Why are QR codes still so black and white and square and unattractive? Better yet, why can’t they be brandable? And then someone asked why they couldn’t just be invisible, so they’re a layer of information over/under something attractive.

Indeed, QR codes are still, primarily, a visual experience. One looks pretty much like the rest. Okay so that’s not true, but if you’re at the mall and you see a bunch of them, you can’t really tell them apart like you could logos. And it’s not how we use the logos we do see consistently.

QR code before and after

QR Code Before And After – A bit of color and image makes all the difference (image courtesy contentdeveloper)

QR code for food

No idea what it’s for, but – hey! – I know there’s food involved. Now tell me more. (image courtesy Seattle Met/Nosh Pit)

You can’t tell one Facebook logo from another on a store’s banner either, but you know what to do with that F. Do you know, instantly, what to do with that white and black grid? Do you know what’s on the other end of it, and what’s in it for you? No, not quite. Because most of us don’t even know there’s something on the other end of the swipe. Or perhaps what we know is that there will be another blast of information that we didn’t ask for and that we’ve done just fine without so far. All of which makes an invisible overlay entirely premature, but does make a good case for branding, which may help with the “What is that thing?” response that still seems to be the norm.

As for the tipping point? Park saw a movie goer taking a photo of a poster at the Tysons infiniplex – no name, no standard studio info, just a huge QR code that forces you to interact with it in order to get more information. But as I was quick to point out, that’s not a tipping point, that’s Tysons Corner (see earlier note about first Apple store) and not _____________ (fill in the blank with the more laid back, not quite as shiny and gleaming mall of your choice). However, a week later, I take it back. We may well be at a tipping point in the US after all. My evidence? An ad in Better Homes And Gardens.

Now that’s pretty mainstream.