Not such a Quick Response for QR codes

QR code example

Speaking with people at the various museum and heritage shows over the summer I was surprised how many expressed very positive views about using QR codes both within museums and in outside environments. It prompted me to take a closer look to see if they really are an effective method to engage people and whether they really can facilitate learning and participation in the heritage sector.

The general motivation for including QR codes into a project is to enable visitors to access more information relating to the subject. After all, there is only a finite amount of space available within a museum so it becomes an attractive proposition to allow the visitor to ‘dig deeper’ using their own devices. Add to this the fact that QR codes are cheap (free in fact, create your own here) and you can understand why so many organisations are installing them. However, looking through the latest research and statistics I worry that QR codes are being used more to tick the ‘using the latest technology’ box rather than really offering an extended experience to the visitor.

What’s a QR code?
The first major barrier is that the majority of people have no idea what a QR code is or what they are for (if you are one of these then click here to read up). This is especially true for the average demographic of a museum visitor but maybe they can be an effective way to engage the hard-to-reach but tech-savvy younger audiences? Maybe not, a Ypulse survey found that 64% of school and college students didn’t know what a QR code was, and of the remaining 36% less than one in five had ever bothered to scan one.

How do I scan a QR code?
The next barrier is that people can’t simply use their phone’s camera to scan a code, they need to first download a special QR code scanner app to their smartphone. Making this even more complicated is that there are more than one type of QR code and also many types of scanning apps meaning that people need to right app for the right QR code. A recent study by comScore showed that only 6.2% of smartphone owners ever have scanned a QR code. When you add the fact that smartphones only account for 40% of the overall phone market (Neilsen, 2011) then you realise that 6.2% of 40% is quite a small figure.

What’s my motivation?
It doesn’t end there though, the figure can be made even smaller when you add the fact that 49% of codes were scanned from magazines and 64% from within retail or grocery stores (comScore, 2011). You can understand people sat back reading a magazine being time rich enough to scan a code and that people in a shop wanting to get a discount would have the motivation, but would someone stood in a museum or walking through a nature reserve have the same incentive? Lab42 showed that 46% of all QR codes scanned were linked with people wanting to get a discount.

Technical gremlins
QR codes are basically just physical triggers to open up a webpage, you could get to the same content by typing a website URL into your phone’s browser but QR codes are seen as an easier way for people to open content. However, in dark light conditions phones often struggle to read the codes and if the flash goes off when scanning it will give off too much glare. In an experiment by Lab42 only 13% of people were able to scan a code given to them due to various technical or environmental difficulties.

It’s all about the data
If a visitor has smartphone with a QR code reader and manages to scan the code successfully then they will be able to access the content on offer. I have seen examples of museums offering videos to accompany an exhibit, audio files as well as written content. All are stored on web pages and require the visitor to have a data connection on their phone. Many organisations are struggling to offer visitors free Wi-Fi and for many outside attractions this is impossible so people would need to rely on their mobile data connection (e.g. 3G). When chatting at a conference to one visitor from Australia it highlighted the huge cost of data charges for international visitors. Watching a three minute video on her mobile without Wi-Fi would have cost her in excess of £50 in data charges!

So far if we follow the statistics then it looks gloomy for the QR code. If we imagine one thousand visitors attended an exhibit that used QR codes, only 400 would have smartphones (40%) of which only 25 would have knowledge of the technology to read the codes (6.2%) and only 3 people would successfully scan the code due to technical difficulties (13%). Oh dear.

Woodland QR codeSo should you forget about QR codes altogether? Well no, I suggest just using them more carefully and try and account for each of the barriers. As more organisations use the codes the amount of people who know about them will grow and many phones may come with QR code readers pre-installed in the future. What you should be spending time considering is making sure you are giving your visitors the incentive to scan them in. Just putting a QR code next to an exhibit or on a post in a woodland is not motivation enough. Nina Simon has written a short blog post on making sure that visitors know what they are going to get when they scan a code. Simple labels such as “Scan the QR code to watch the reenactment of the Battle of Rowton Moor (1 min video)” lets visitors know what they get for the effort of scanning the code.

One area not many people have taken advantage of yet is to include a QR code reader into your own smartphone app. By doing this you remove the need for people to have a separate app and keep your own brand prevalent. You can then use QR codes to facilitate treasure hunts, woodland walks or deeper learning in a way that is structured around a more engaging experience using a mobile phone.

Overall, I believe QR codes do have a use in the heritage sector but presently they are being used more as a technological gimmick than as a true way to engage visitors. However, I have a feeling that as soon as we get a grip on them they will soon be usurped by more sophisticated technology such as NFC and augmented reality recognition software such as Blippar™ and Google Goggles. Watch this space.

One Response to “Not such a Quick Response for QR codes”

  1. Rik Barwick says:

    Hi Paul, nice post!

    I have to agree that incorrect use of QR Codes is a pretty poor attempt at trying to be in with the trend however clever use of these codes are proving to be successful and the uptake on users scanning codes is increasing rapidly.

    I think as NFC becomes more widely adopted we’ll see both codes and NFC working together so more devices are supported.

    Major Blue-chip companies are investing a hell of a lot of their budget into this technology. Only time will tell.

    Personally I think that early adopters will phase out and more marketing experts will start writing strategies based on this tech as they did with the Social Network boom.

    What you think?

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