QR Codes: (When) Do They Work?

I recently had an interesting conversation (actually, a couple of them) about QR Codes -Are they the next big thing? Will they save paper advertising?


As Nelu Lazar of Nehloo Interactive rightfully points out, QRCs are not so “next” – they’ve been around for more than 15 years. But, with the increasing popularity of smartphones, QRCs are crossing over from industrial uses into the consumer market.

So, are they the next big thing? I personally don’t think so. Based on what we know about human behavior, it seems to me that for the individual the cost of using QRCs exceeds the benefits. Let me explain.

Theories of human behavior, decision making, models of how humans navigate the Web and search for information – such as Information Foraging Theory (IFT) all agree that humans are inherently programmed to conserve energy – aka, to be lazy. There’s a quick cost/benefit analysis that goes on in our minds before we decide to engage in a behavior. And most often, we take the short, easy route. That’s why they tell you not to put important information on you website 2 clicks away. That extra click is effort (a cost), and many people will not expend it. So, the golden rule of Web usability, marketing, persuasion: MAKE IT EASY.

The reason why I do not believe in QRCs is because there are too many costs associated with them. In most situations where I see QRCs used, the cost/benefit analysis suggests that audience members will not use them. Let’s count the costs:


  1. You need to download an application on your phone.
  2. When you see a QRC, you need to pull out your phone, then:
  3. Turn it
  4. Navigate to the application
  5. Launch the application
  6. Take a photo
  7. Wait for the photo to be uploaded/processed
  8. Wait for the information to download
  9. Look at the site, video, etc. that the QRC links to

Some of these steps are based on assumptions that may not hold true:


  • The assumption that you have a smartphone
  • The assumption that your network speed is high enough that the waiting time is very short
  • The assumption that the photo produces a good enough image for the code to work
  • The assumption that people want to get more information on their smartphones. I think some research is needed into the “get more information” behavior. It may be that when people are in “get more information” mode they want to be able to access it conveniently on a larger screen, where they have faster connection speeds, anyway. How many more steps would it take to get that information to your computer?

Given the many steps involved in using QRCs, the user needs to be highly motivated, either intrinsically, or by the benefits you offer at the other end. So, before you decide to use QRCs, I’d advise you to think about:


  • User motivation – what are some situations in which users are highly motivated to get to the next action, or to get more information? These are situations when users need something, rather than you needing to sell them something.
  • Benefits – if users are not motivated by some sufficiently powerful need, what benefits are you offering at the other end, that make it worth the cost of clicking through? Not only do you have to make sure that those benefits are large enough, but you also need to think about:
  • Communicating those benefits – I see many QRC codes that are mysteries. I have no idea what’s at the other end. In IFT terms, they have low to none information scent. You need to communicate clearly and convincingly what’s waiting on the other side, so the user can make an informed cost/benefit analysis.

I usually am an early adopter. I love new and shiny things. But I am very skeptical about QRC. Nelu pointed me to this blog post with ideas about using QRCs in education. They all sound need, but what problem do QRCs solve that cannot be solved more easily by using email or other form of digital communication? I rarely give any paper materials to students, if ever. So I do not need a link from physical to virtual space, because all of my written communication with students is digital, anyway.

To provide the other side of the story, I leave you with some readings that argue for QRCs:


But, I want to hear from you about evidence: When have QRCs worked for you? What numbers do you have that show the percentage of users who click through? I am interested in evidence that would prove me wrong – if you know of any, please post it in the comments below.

[Update, March 29, 2011] RWW covers a survey study on QR code usage.