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Why QR (2D) codes never took the world by storm

Posted on Thursday, August 9, 2012 in User

I believed in Harvey Dent QR codes. I was fascinated by 2D codes and how much more  information they could store compared to regular old bar codes. With the coming of good smartphones with cameras built in, it seemed inevitable that QR codes would take over the world.

The idea that you could just take out your smartphone and make a picture and have a wealth of information on your hands was too good to pass up. You see, traditional barcodes in your local supermarket which store information in one (horizontal) direction only. There is vertical redundancy, which means no matter how tall your barcode is, it still contains only the same information. 2-dimensional optical codes like QR codes store information both vertically and horizontally. An increase in size in either direction means more information can be stored.


Google was a believer and integrated QR codes with Google Local/Places and even started distributing free QR codes to businesses. Microsoft was a believer and created their own (of course). Advertisement agencies of all kinds through QR codes on their posters and with the advent of smartphones, a number of apps were released to allow you easily scan these codes. Users could be scanning links, coupons, promotion codes and much more on-the-go.

What went wrong? Let me rephrase. Have you ever scanned a QR code on a poster for information? You quickly realize that it turns out to be much less fun in practice. Here are the steps:

  1. Pull out your phone from your pocket/purse
  2. Unlock the phone
  3. Find and start the QR scanning app
  4. Take a picture of the QR code. Try to get sharp focus, the right white balance and eliminate shadows.
  5. Picture is unusable, code cannot be found. Maybe your hand shook. Go back to 4.
  6. Read text/open link/save contact or do whatever in the information you got

By the time you think through these steps, you are asking yourself “how badly do I need this information?”. There are use-cases where QR codes work well, like scanning from a monitor. This can spare you having to enter a lot of text on your smartphone manually. An example of this is Google’s two-factor authentication app which uses QR codes for setup (and you should enable it on your Google account pronto).

It seems even Google eventually gave up on QR codes for on-the-go information. So what is the alternative? I usually like to think NFC could provide an answer here (although NFC also has its issues). Basically to collect an NFC tag, you do the following:

  1. Pull out your phone
  2. Unlock the phone
  3. Hold it near the tag for a second
  4. Read text/open link/save contact or do whatever in the information you got

That is 2 steps less (or less than half depending on your phone camera or QR app) than the steps required for getting information from a 2D barcode. Also less fumbling with the camera which can be really annoying. I don’t know about you, but the NFC option sounds more appealing to me. Unfortunately, NFC phones are not yet as pervasive as phone cameras and business adoption is low. However, this could change over time.

The next time you are thinking of doing something with 2D codes, look at the steps above and ask yourself if your target audience would even bother.

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Bring on the comments

  1. Phuah Yee Keat says:

    For NFC to work, you still need to Unlock your phone first.

  2. Ploum says:

    Besides AirDroid/Google auth, I’ve used Qrcode once in a real life situation:

    I went to my bank and saw an advertizement saying that they were developing a mobile application to handle your account, which is handy. There was a QR code so I scanned it to install the application.

    To bad, the application was iOS only and my phone is Android. But it could have worked.

  3. David Gerard says:

    Wikipedia is still working on papering the world with QR codes, particularly the QRpedia initiative in the UK.

  4. As to steps 4-5 for QR codes, I don’t know of any not-very-old barcode scanner app/library that doesn’t decode live from the camera feed. They try to decode at the same time that the camera is focusing/brightness adjusting and since QR codes tolerate a lot of blur and (depending on the error correction used) errors, this can be pretty damn fast.

    • Ngewi Fet says:

      In my experience, the live decoding usually works best and easily in front of a bright screen where the contrast between the code and background is high due to screen brightness. On the iPhone for example, if lighting is not optimal you have to be tapping the screen to adjust focus.
      Granted, as you say, when it works, it works well. It’s still just a lot of hassle.

  5. Larry G. says:

    This post is silly and a waste of time. Six steps vs. four! Give it a rest. How about eight steps, or twice as many. When raising your phone to scan the code (which the app does automatically without anyone taking a picture,) someone’s face is in the way. Rather than raise the phone and risk hitting the person in their chin, and getting slapped, you have to move two steps to the left. There’s an extra time-consuming phase. And of course you’d have to move back to where you were. Another step. Whew! What a chore!

    Then there’s the risk that while you’re in a crowded space, you pull your phone out of your pocket and accidentally jab the woman standing behind you in the tummy. Her 6’2″ stocky male-friend gets a bit overcharged, and tries to grab your phone. Then tries to grab you! You run, but your keys fell out of your pocket when you tried getting your phone out. Should you go back?

    Those kinds of questions, which add extra possible steps to using QR codes, make it a potential loser, IMO.

    • Ngewi Fet says:

      You raise situations which are hypothetical and not relevant.
      There are some basic things you must deal with anytime you scan a barcode with a phone; the quality of camera on the phone they are using, the right focus (even in good lighting conditions, the wrong focus can still cause an image to be poor, just ask iPhone users).
      There is a reason why supermarkets use laser scanners and not cameras.

      It’s not necessarily about the literal number of steps but about the time and cognitive effort it takes for one versus the other.

  6. Larry G. says:

    Autofocus and auto aperture adjustment for all lighting situations means no cognitive effort is required. Unless you forgot where you put your phone. You press the app button, hold up the phone, and that’s it. That’s about 1/60th the time of watching an average TV commercial.

    • Ngewi Fet says:

      If you hold your phone too close to any picture, auto focus will be useless (assuming your phone has it). This means you are actively thinking about taking the picture, not too close, not too far, finding the right balance. I don’t know what phone you have, but for a good number of phones out there, taking a decent picture is not always straight forward. This cannot be compared with just bringing a tag close to your phone.

      This is the same kind of cognitive load which is referred to by OS vendors in “hot corners” features in operating systems (OSX, Win8, Linux). Of course you can move your mouse to the any corner of the screen. But it is FAR easier to move it to one of the four edges.

  7. daniel says:

    Last time I was in Tokyo the city was flooded with QR-codes. Maybe you’re just in the wrong neighborhood?

  8. Danilo says:

    As for enabling two factor auth on one’s google account: do you really need Google to know your phone number as well? 😉

    • Ngewi Fet says:

      They do not need to know your number. If you have a smartphone, you can use the Google Authenticator app. If you do not have a smartphone, you can print the codes and carry along with you.

  9. baz says:

    I always felt QR codes were aiming at a transitional technology – you need people who have good enough tech to read a QR code, but *not* good enough tech to do OCR. Outside of the captive audiences that 1d barcodes are aimed at (shop assistants, UPS, etc), you can’t guarantee what tech the customer has in their hand. And if they can’t do QR codes, you print a text fallback. But if OCR is available (eg Google Goggles) then why print the QR code at all?

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