Why QR Codes are the new CueCats

From left: a QR code, a Microsoft Tag and a Data Matrix. What do they say? I don't expect anyone to want to find out.

I’ve got no urge to snap a QR code.

And neither do most Americans: Comscore reported 14 million Americans scanned QR codes in June 2011. Code-scanners are mostly male and have a household income of more than $100,000. Comscore says 84 million Americans over age 13 have a smartphone., so less than 20% of smartphone users are actually interacting with QR codes.

The whole concept reminds me a lot of a millennial tech relic called the CueCat.

Yes, Grace bought a CueCat on eBay solely with the intent of photographing it for this article.

The CueCat was a clunky, cat-shaped plastic piece of hardware used for only one purpose: scanning barcodes, or “cues,” which would send you to a website. At the time, the CueCat was a hit (this was before the tech bubble burst, obviously), even though the device had to be physically hooked up to your computer and may have allowed marketers to track your personal information.

How are QR codes any different from the “cues” used by the CueCat? The codes are hardware-agnostic—QR codes can be accessed with any smartphone—but you have to download a free app to scan them. (And if you want to interact with proprietary QR codes, you have to download more apps, such as AT&T Mobile BarcodeMicrosoft Tag or Mobile Tag.)

Like the CueCat, QR codes serve businesses more than they do consumers—and without the consumers on board, there’s really no point. In a recent NPR story on QR codes, one quote from McKee Floyd, brand development director for a restaurant, really resonated with me:

“The issue I have with QR codes is that marketing is a little bit like telling a joke, and the longer the joke, the better the punch line has to be — and [using] QR code is a really long joke.”

The “quick response” requires a lot of work on the part of the user: Find your smartphone phone, unlock it, open up your QR code app, take a picture of the code, and then see what happens. And my question remains: What kind of punch line makes it worth it? Considering that the bulk of people using QR codes have incomes of more than $100,000 a year, it doesn’t seem like coupons are a real incentive.

Austin's bus-stop QR code. Image by Brenda Huettner.

I’ve seeen some great practical uses for QR codes:

But also some not-so-great ones:

  • Putting a QR code image on a website. Where is it going to take you that you couldn’t just click to?
  • Using a QR code in a place where people don’t have cell phone service (think subway tunnels)
  • Or where people can’t easily stop to take a picture of it (think roadside billboards or TV commercials)
  • Setting up a QR code to automatically call a phone number without notice. Not a fun surprise.

If you still believe QR codes could serve your business or project goals well, Terence Eden has 8 commandments of using QR codes correctly:

  1. Your QR code shall be large enough and clear enough to scan easily.
  2. Your QR code shall contain the minimum amount of data necessary.
  3. Your QR code shall resolve to a mobile friendly resource.
  4. Your QR code shall work for an international audience.
  5. Your QR code shall work on all platforms.
  6. Your QR code shall generate statistics and thou shalt analyse them.
  7. Your QR code shall have a sufficient call to action.
  8. Your QR code shall be tested.

When it comes to mobile interaction, I think near field communication is a much more flexible and user-friendly option. NFC lets two devices interact with each other and exchange data wirelessly. So instead of firing up the old CueCat code reader app to take a picture of a tag, you could simply tap your phone to a NFC spot and get the information you want, whether it’s a coupon, product specs, a video demo or anything else.

NFC is already used in many countries for making payments with mobiles, and Google Wallet‘s recent introduction is sure to help speed up the trend in the United States. So in the future, after you pay for your venti Pike Place by tapping your phone to the payment pad at Starbucks you could be able to get back into your office by waving your phone by the door. And instead of doing all the work to be marketed to, you can let your phone do the work for you.