Making a QR code useful isn’t rocket science

Scan this QR code for more information...A technology that’s often subject to much criticism is QR codes, those square symbols that enable a barcode scanning app on your smartphone to interpret the data they contain and deliver information to you when you scan them

Much of the criticism is about how QR codes are presented by those who create them, often in ways that are simply lame or even mind boggling.

But when you see a great example of how a QR code is being used to convey useful information on a practical level, that’s when you see how genuinely useful they can be in terms of the information they enable you to access or the experiences they enable you to enjoy, or both.

I’ve written about QR codes quite a bit in this blog, highlighting the good and the not so good. Here’s another example, definitely for the ‘good’ list.

I spotted this QR code one evening recently as a key element of a sign on a bus stop in Wokingham, the town in southeast England where I live.

Next bus

Quite simple – scan the QR code to get information on when buses are due to arrive at that particular bus stop.

So you scan the code with your phone, and get a result like this:


It tells me quite clearly when I can expect the next bus. If I were waiting for a bus at that stop, perhaps just arriving there, I’d find that useful. As the sign shows, I have other options to get information. There’s also the real-time display on the bus stop itself, bringing in bus timetable information by wifi to display.

Plenty of choices.

While this is a simple example, it does demonstrate how to add a method of access to information that will appeal to some people, some bus travellers in this case. Not everyone will be interested or even have a smartphone with them. But if you are and you do, then this is a good example of offering something useful to your audience that will appeal to some of them, and that requires little effort (or real cost) to implement.

Crucially, it is available to the consumer at no cost other than any charges related to data use via their carrier’s cellular or wifi network.

It reminds me in a small way of the Monmouthpedia experiment a few years ago – access via QR codes to useful information in a town where you could get a great network connection (and, so, access to the content) that will appeal to some people, not necessarily all of them.


The biggest barrier that stands in the way of wider acceptance and use of QR codes is the simple fact that every mobile phone with a camera needs a barcode scanning app in order to make use of QR codes. Currently, no phone from any UK carrier comes with such an app already installed – you have to find one in an app store, download it and install it.

As soon as such apps come with a phone – perhaps as part of the core apps, or the extra software mobile operators typically install – we’ll all be ready. Then it’s up to the advertisers, marketers and communicators to attract our attention, interest, desire and action with the application of something imaginative and compelling.

Something that will make me scan your code. Because I can.

Imagine what the Bank of England could have done with its QR code ad

A quarter-page ad by the Bank of England in yesterday’s Telegraph caught my eye primarily because it contained a QR code.

The print ad informs you that the £50 note featuring an engraved portrait of Sir John Houblon on the reverse side will be withdrawn from circulation at the end of April.

The ad also includes a phone number, email and website addresses, plus a QR code that you’d typically scan with a barcode scanning app on your smartphone to bring you something – further information, for instance.

Ad: withdrawal of £50 'Houblon' banknote

So I scanned the QR code with a sense of anticipation, wondering what useful and interesting information I’d get.

More details about the withdrawal, certainly. Why it was happening, perhaps, and what to do if I have any such £50 notes in my wallet. Could I still use them on the High Street? If so, for how long?

When you scan a QR code, you’ll usually get a screen asking you for permission to proceed and take the action suggested, eg, load up the browser on your device and retrieve the information linked to from the QR code.

Barcode scan result

I tapped ‘Open browser’ and the result was indeed further information presented in a web page.

The trouble is, that web page is a page designed for use on a large screen such as you have when using  a desktop computer or a laptop, or even the ten inches or so on a full-size tablet.

Certainly not what you’d find useful (usable, even) on a five-inch smartphone like my Galaxy S4 when the browser tries to render the complete page on the comparatively tiny screen.

Web page: Withdrawal of the Houblon £50 Note

Even if you have perfect vision, that’s nigh-on impossible to read.

With a bit of pinch-zooming in and out, though, I could see some very useful information on this page:

  • Details about the why and when of the note’s withdrawal from circulation: amplified information of the concise text in the print ad
  • A link to “What to do with old ‘Houblon’ £50 notes,” an informative video published last January where Victoria Cleland, head of the Bank’s Notes Division, tells you the basics of what you need to know and what to do.
  • Links to two PDF posters, one in English the other in Welsh.

There’s reference to an FAQ list but no link to it that I could see.

Given the clear trend to increasing use of mobile devices, what I wish the Bank had done was something like this:

  1. Present everything anyone would need to know about the note’s withdrawal from circulation in a manner designed for use on a mobile device.
  2. Engage the visitor on a mobile device with content that brings that person into the story you tell – far more than simply dry information about the withdrawal of a £50 banknote.
  3. Tell me about Sir John Houblon. I’d not heard of him (I don’t see many £50 notes). I didn’t know he was the first governor of the Bank of England, for instance, from 1694 to 1697 according to the Wikipedia entry. Or the story about the engraved image of him on the £50 note.
  4. Use this as an opportunity to educate people and raise awareness about currency, reinforcing key messages about legitimacy, counterfeiting, etc.
  5. And an opportunity to restate key facts about the Bank, it’s role in the economy and in society in general.

Capture people’s imaginations, in other words.

Instead, an opportunity gone missing.

Buy a real pint with a virtual currency


A British pub lets you pay for your pint with Bitcoins:

[…] The system is quick and effective. The bar staff press two buttons on the till and the screen displays a QR code. The customer opens their digital Bitcoin wallet, takes a snap of the screen and confirms the payment. The staff press one more button and the transaction is complete. Snapping the QR code in a crowded bar could be a challenge but in a quiet pub it is faster than paying by card.

It’s an imaginative use of a QR code. Imagine the challenge, though, trying to focus the camera of your smartphone after quite a few pints have been consumed…

A contact-less payment option would be good. Wonder when some bank or financial entrepreneur will enable that on a card for Bitcoin payment.

Snap up a Pint in Britain’s First Bitcoin Pub
Bitcoin has its first British boozer. The Pembury Tavern in Hackney, east London – as well as its sister pubs in Cambridge, Norwich and Peterborough – are now accepting the virtual currency.
It was pub group founder Stephen Early, a former computer scientist, who decided to give the currency a go. “I bought some in 2011 but there wasn’t really anything to do with them,” he explains. “So I did the equivalent of putting them in a drawer and for…

Post imported by Google+Blog for WordPress.

(Bitcoins image at top via Salon.)

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McDonald’s new packaging, a QR code and telling brand stories

McDonald's new global packaging

The next time you visit a McDonald’s restaurant, especially in the US, check the packaging for information about the nutritional value of the food you’re about to eat.

While you can read concise info on the packaging itself, more interesting perhaps is a link to that information in the form of a QR code that you scan with your smartphone’s camera; that action then brings information from a McDonald’s website to your screen that you can read and also share with your social networks. As many McDonald’s restaurants have free wifi these days, getting a connection to do this shouldn’t be an issue.

The company said the launch of its new packaging began last week in the US and will roll out worldwide during 2013, with the text being translated into 18 different languages. McDonald’s says a key objective with the new packaging is to communicate brand stories in an engaging and modern way:

[…] A blend of text, illustrations and a QR code will deliver interesting facts about the brand and make nutrition information easily accessible from mobile devices.

“Our new packaging is designed to engage with customers in relevant ways and celebrate our brand,” said Kevin Newell, McDonald’s Chief Brand Officer. “Customers tell us they want to know more about the food they are eating and we want to make that as easy as possible by putting this information right at their fingertips.”

It’s a good example of how a device like a QR code can add value to your PR or marketing communication, not only in the imagination you bring to bear in what happens when your customer scans the code, but also thinking about the framework, as it were, to enable that action to happen: in this case, a restaurant with a high likelihood that customers will be there with mobile devices, so provide the wifi network to let them get online easily and freely.

One note to mention, though. I think McDonald’s missed a good trick with their news release about this story. A page of text, that’s it. Imagine if they had included images and links, and the QR code with that announcement so readers like me could check it out, maybe do a screenshot of the result, add some commentary about it, bring it directly to the attention of my network and increase the opportunities for sharing McDonald’s story.

Sounds like I’m almost talking about a social media news release!

In any case, the result of what you see in the photo above looks like it fits with the key objective McDonald’s talks about. I’ll look out for the packaging when I next visit a UK McDonald’s.

(Via Digiday)

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What if Brancott had got it right with their QR code?


QR codes attract a great deal of commentary in marketing and communication circles, and pretty critical more often than not.

I have a strong interest in QR codes, not so much about the technology of them: it’s far more about how marketers and others use them in their efforts to engage with consumers and others.

When I’m out and about, I keep an eye out for examples of how businesses use QR codes, looking for examples good and bad (hopefully, more of the former).

I encountered one today in my local Waitrose supermarket. Unfortunately, it’s one of the latter use examples, ie, a bad one.

New Zealand winery Brancott Estate has a QR code on their boxed Sauvignon blanc wine as the photo above illustrates.

Positioned next to a QR code at the top-right corner of the box, the words “What if you scanned this code?” caught my eye.

What if indeed, I thought, and duly took out my Samsung Galaxy SII smartphone, fired up the Barcode Scanner app for Android  devices and scanned the code.

So far, so good:


I chose ‘Open browser’ which does precisely that – opens the browser on the phone and loads the web page at the address the app found embedded in the QR code.

And what a disappointment:


What I got was Brancott Estate’s desktop website trying to show itself on my smartphone screen. That’s the point where my journey of discovery to find the answer to “What if…?” hit the buffers, smacked into the brick wall, got derailed by poor execution of potentially a good idea.

Even though the page in question is the legally-required one that purveyors of alcoholic beverages have to show you before you’re able to enter a website – and on which you have to declare your age before you can enter – does the legal requirement say anything about presenting the page in a way that’s totally unusable on mobile devices: usually the required device to take advantage of a QR code? I bet it doesn’t.

Setting aside any legal points, I’m also pretty sure that the last thing you would want to have happen is a shopper standing in the middle of a busy supermarket next to your attractive product display, wielding a smartphone and swiping the screen hither and thither to work out where on the web page the fields are you’ve got to type into and then find a submit button.

Good grief!

You have to do much better than this, Brancott marketers. You had an eye-catching and compelling call to action with your “What if…?” text – far better than the usual “Scan this QR code and…” that you tend to see – but your call to action failed on the execution.

You can’t blame the technology. So all I can say in answer to the question “What if you scanned this code?” is “I have no idea other than #FAIL.”

Imagine if you had got it right. What would I have discovered? What experiences might you have offered me? Could I then imagine wanting to sample your product – I love trying out new wines – and, so, actually buy one of these boxes?

We’ll never know, more’s the pity.

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Could NFC make the business card really useful?


I have a thing about business cards. These little rectangular pieces of stiff paper or card seem to me to have outlived their analogue usefulness in today’s digital world.

What are you supposed to do with one when someone gives you theirs? You somehow have to get their contact info from the card and into your contacts list in Outlook or Evernote or whatever tool you use. That usually means typing it in unless you’re an fan of OCR software (and who regularly uses that for something like this?), or take a photo of it, post it somewhere and hope an app will be able to accurately extract the useful data from your image.

There was the fad recently of touching smartphones together so an app like Bump would transfer contact info that way. I don’t know anyone who does that today.

In 2009, I got excited about the potential of QR codes on business cards as one way of making the paper card useful in that it would be easy to get someone’s contact info from the card and into your digital domain relatively easily. And no typing!

I still think the QR code is a useful technology for this purpose, and continue to use one on my business cards.

Yet they still require you to go through some hurdles just to make the information on that bit of paper come to life digitally. So you have to load up a barcode scanner on your smartphone or other suitable mobile device (you did install one, right?). You have to hold the card in one hand or put it down somewhere, get the barcode app to scan it, open up the result in your browser, and then what?

Much depends on what the QR code creator has done with the code. Maybe it gives you something useful, eg, contact info in a format your contact software can directly use. Perhaps a page on a website that has that plus useful links, other content, etc.

But here’s something new that could be a better solution (with a huge caveat, though: more on that in a minute) – business cards embedded with an NFC chip where you wave your NFC -enabled card close to a suitable mobile device  – you don’t have the touch the device – to transfer information.

According to its Wikipedia entry, ‘NFC’ stands for near-field communication:

[NFC] is a set of standards for smartphones and similar devices to establish radio communication with each other by touching them together or bringing them into close proximity, usually no more than a few centimetres. Present and anticipated applications include contactless transactions, data exchange, and simplified setup of more complex communications such as Wi-Fi. […]

So a lot of potential to come. When? Well, according to Gartner in their latest hype cycle for emerging technologies, NFC is presently on the downslope from the peak of inflated expectations towards the trough of disillusionment. Gartner thinks it will be 2-5 years before NFC reaches its plateau of productivity.

Still plenty of time to experiment, then, and see what’s possible with things like the business card – something the innovative card-printing firm MOO is doing with their experimental NFC Business Card:

When you say your first hello and present your business card, you’re offering up a little piece of yourself – but with an NFC card it can be a great big piece.

Embedded in the card is a tiny microchip. When it’s touched to a smartphone, the chip asks the phone to do something. Something you’ve told it to. Perhaps download your portfolio, play music or video, load web pages, maps or apps, save your contact details – the possibilities are endless.

See what MOO have in mind in this brief video:

NFC Business Cards from MOO from MOO.COM on Vimeo.

So the technology is present and the ability and intent to use it for a purpose such as a business card is clear. What’s not here yet is device ubiquity, ie, devices that have NFC chips built in. There are not enough devices yet.

But that’s the picture today. It will change as newer devices come to market with all the required bells and whistles and more people get such devices, and those devices enable you to do interesting, useful and productive things better, more securely and/or more easily than you can now.

I think big drivers behind the introduction of such technologies into the marketplace will be things like contactless payment systems and mobile payment.

QR codes face similar hurdles, ie, it needs to be easier and simpler for smartphone users to make use of them (and for code creators to create imaginative experiences when someone scans a code). That could be resolved by having the required barcode scanning software built-in to smartphones, where scanning a QR code means simply pointing your device’s camera at one and hey presto!

Lots of innovation coming. In the meantime, think of how to make your analogue business cards deliver more use to those you give them to.

(Via GigaOm.)

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