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QR Codes: A bit of what we’ve discovered in practice

We’ve spent some time exploring two-dimensional bar codes and specifically, Quick Response (QR) codes and I wanted to share some details:

As background, QR codes were developed in Japan for manufacturing by a Toyota subsidiary, Denso Wave, to track cars/components during production.  They can reliably contain (in the 40-L variant) 4,296 Alphanumeric characters (with 5.5 bits/character).  They can also hold a bunch of different formats of information in a variety of sizes:

  • Screen Shot 2013-10-02 at 12.13.41Calendar Events






  • Screen Shot 2013-10-02 at 12.00.48 Contact Information (vCard or MECARD)



  • Screen Shot 2013-10-02 at 12.08.42
  •    WiFi Network



  • Screen Shot 2013-10-02 at 12.23.08 URL




  • Screen Shot 2013-10-02 at 12.20.17 And more







So let’s start off by what sucks about a QR Code and get that out of the way: It’s an image of something that presents no useful information to a human.  Where an icon would/should convey more information than text in the same space, the image of a QR code is worthless for providing visual information about the contents of its payload.  Therefore to a human reading a QR code, it’s just noise.

It’s important to point out that there can be quite a bit of error correction in a QR code making it easier to read for the camera/scanner.  Some components that carry information can rearranged and colorized to present more meaningful information to humans.   Some companies have been working on transforming QR codes into something a bit easier on the eyes.  Based on some constraints, you can superimpose images, and color it so that the image can be recognized in the pattern.   

Enough negatives about QR codes though.  In practice they work well and the great thing about a QR code is that you don’t need a specialized barcode-scanner to read the code.  Most phone cameras work pretty well, especially those with cameras that auto-focus.  There are a bunch of good: Freely downloadable apps. from the AppStore (sorry I can’t really comment on Android-based phones as I use an iPhone).

I have tried most of the scanners downloadable from the AppStore and have settled into the following three:

  • Scan
  • Bakodo
  • QRReader

I tend to use either Bakodo or Scan as my go to scanner.  Bakodo is nice as it seems a bit faster from launch to providing information and I like the interface on Scan.  They all work pretty well though it’s my biased preference for speed and user interface design in choosing first two.

When working through the pro’s of using a QR code here are some of the points I believe are important:

  1. QR Codes can hold quite a bit a information (we store our business contact information in it) and is scannable by most mobile phone cameras.
  2. Good error correction so that they can be scaled down around 20% (your mileage may vary) before not being scannable anymore.
  3. While patented by Denso Wave, they have not exercised their Patent rights and the codes are considered Freely useable.  The key word is “Freely” or Free.
  4. There is a good free tool, and associated library of code, for creating QR codes (The ZXing or Zebra Crossing Open Source library).
  5. If embedding a URL/link to your website in a QR code, make sure the destination site is mobile ready (i.e. responsive design or specifically built for smaller screens)

In conclusion, QR codes are a good transit point from print to a mobile phone.  While it is clearly a technology in transition, as more human readable information is put into the QR code it will help prime the users expectation of what happens after they “click” on the QR code.  The free tools, new companies, and dynamic community supporting the code mean they’re not going away and will continue to grow.

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