Once upon a time, QR codes were a nerdy tool with poor usability.
The QR code (which stands for “quick response”) was invented in 1994 by a Japanese named Masahiro Hara. It has always been popular for payments and other services in Asia, but the rest of the world hadn’t quite accepted them until recently. When the Apple ecosystem introduced the QR code scanner built into the camera app, the trend of using QR codes finally kicked off. They became fascinating to some but remained incredibly ugly to others. Perhaps the ugliness stems from the fact that the existing use cases are under-leveraged or misuse the tech and design intention of QR codes even today.
This misuse comes down to spatial design and resolution.
The distance from the user required to scan, the level of redundancy encoded, the number of pixels, the quality needed for printing, the contrast ratio are only some of the accessibility factors that need to be considered when utilising a QR code. But, more often than not, these are ignored. For example, someone might make a highly redundant code: meaning that the number of pixels is increased and the chance it scans despite being slightly obscured is higher. However, if this highly redundant QR code is printed out extremely small, it decreases the chances of scanning correctly and undermines the need for redundancy in the first place.
Then there’s the argument of under-leveraging the power of QR codes.
In Germany these days, there is a rare chance that you’ll go a whole day without interacting with or using a QR code in some way. The pandemic has made QR codes a currency for health and safety, from vaccination passes to restaurant menus. However, most use-cases involve using a code to redirect you to a plain URL. How often do you come across a QR that encodes (semantic) information that is personalised? Again, let’s take a concrete example: you could create a QR code that, once scanned, automatically connects you to a Wifi network. No password shared! Another example is V-cards. You can create an individualised QR code with your contact information and, once scanned, will automatically input your phone number, name, address, etc., into someone’s contact book.
There are organisations out there beginning to harness the true power of QR codes.
For example, it’s interesting to see Spotify and Snapchat’s take on unique profile cards - allowing users to share their profile information without searching each other’s names. These QR codes are also branded in unique ways. This type of encoding has a clear upside for data privacy and security concerns. In the example of the wifi code, no network request is transferred, and hence less information is captured and stored.
QR codes (and NFCs) are here to stay, and their value is only increasing.
They can augment the physical world by giving us the ability to attach digital experiences to physical objects. In fashion, we see examples of individualised experiences where QR codes are printed on products so users can track the specific lifecycle of a garment. However, these possibilities only scratch the surface.