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QR Codes: Ugly, Overused and Doomed

from the scan-this-banana dept

I’ve never understood the hype about QR codes. They appeared one day, and then suddenly every advertiser made them a priority, plastering them all over everything in print. It has always seemed like undue obsession with something that, ultimately, is not that useful to very many people — and that’s assuming most people even know what they are. I was pleased to discover that I’m not the only one: the Guardian has set up a Tumblr called WTF QR CODES to catalog the many bizarre and inappropriate uses of the technology:

Most people look at a QR code and see “robot barf”, but marketers seem to think they are a must-have technology for their advertising campaigns. In their minds, eager consumers wander around with their smartphones, scanning square codes wherever they appear. As a result, the codes appear just about everywhere, and often in some really absurd places.

The examples range from the fairly mundane (QR codes in the subway, where there is no data reception and where they are often located on the inaccessible side of the tracks) to the completely outlandish and even dangerous (huge QR codes towed behind airplanes, or printed on highway-side billboards).

There’s one thing the article doesn’t mention that I think is an important point: even if QR codes were popular, they would be a doomed transitional technology no matter how you slice it. Image recognition technology has been progressing rapidly and is already being used in products like Google Goggles, which means visual machine languages are going to be unnecessary. The tech isn’t perfect yet, but it’s already at the point that smartphones are capable of recognizing ads based on color, configuration and other indicators. As visual search becomes more common, consumers are going to get used to the idea that they can snap a photo of anything and find related information online—and the QR code will be officially obsolete (at least as a marketing tool).

Until then, I guess advertisers will keep slapping them on everything from bananas to condoms.

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Comments on “QR Codes: Ugly, Overused and Doomed”

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Anonymous Coward says:

The thing about QR codes is, that you know there is something there, that someone wants you to find. If you just rely on Google goggles to find out more info, there is a good chance you wont find anything useful.

The big problem with them, is that there marketers are not putting anything useful behind them yet. If they start putting coupons behind them there could be more incentive to scan them, but as it is now, you will usually just be taken to there website.

Indy says:

AOL Keywords

They remind me of when movies put “AOL KEYWORD BLAH” during their previews, which lasted a few years and now seems supplanted by QR, Faceook, and Twitter. Sorry, I don’t due private-network linking.

I will admit to scanning a few QR codes and being led to a less-than-informative advertising spot, for which I immediately regret, and have no plans on using ever again.

David (profile) says:

QR codes can contain a variety of information, not simply URLs. I use QR codes to let friends log onto my wifi at home or quickly grab my contact info.


I think we just need more creative marketers. The point that Anonymous Coward 1 makes is a good one. You need something to tell a person that they are supposed to look it up, a trigger. The QR code screams, “Here I am, use me to do something.”

A Dan (profile) says:

Advertising gimmick

2D barcodes in general make a lot of sense. They are more robust and can hold a lot more information than the standard 1D UPCs. That’s why, for example, you’ll see 2D barcodes all over your UPS packages now.

The attempt to specialize barcodes for advertising is stupid, though. They’ve just been a new-age CueCat. People don’t want to scan your ad to see more of your ads. If they want to see something about the product, they want to see what real people have to say.

Aly says:

Re: Advertising gimmick

HA, thanks for making the cuecat connection — I thought the same thing. Like any marketing message where you are asking a customer to do something such as fill in a registration page, offer an email address (and especially load a new app or maintain a new piece of hardware!), there needs to be a balance in the value exchange. Sadly, after taking the time to scan most QR codes all you get is a lame landing page full of material you already could have found at a web site. What if you could find something really different there that saves money, delivers unique content, etc? If the value prop is compelling, people will do it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Personally, I think the biggest problem with QR codes is that you don’t actually know where it’s going to send you until you’re there. The last thing I want is some seemingly innocuous QR code sending me off to 2G1C. At least with a URL you can tell where it’s going to send you and if you have even passing knowledge of how URL’s work you should be able to recognize when one has been purposefully obfuscated.

Anonymous Coward says:

Although I agree the way QRCodes are used currently often times are dumb, as with just about anything, the issue isn’t with the technology but rather how the technology is actually used. Most people don’t even understand what they actually are. QRCodes are nothing more than a graphical text encoding similar like the barcodes that appear on the packaging of every product on the planet, except they have the capability of storing more information in them nothing more. They don’t automatically link to a URL unless the text you are encoding happens to be just that… a URL.

Anonymous Coward says:

QR codes are wonderful things, a great idea that is really becoming popular. Done properly, they can be scanned from a good distance away, they provide a positive link to something, and don’t rely on a third party (like Google) to interpret meaning.

What you are suggesting Marcus is that you want more Google middleman activity in your life. How odd for someone who spouts off about privacy and personal freedoms.

MikeVx (profile) says:

I've gotten into QR Code graffiti

Though I’m careful about it. I’ll put some comment I find amusing in a QR Code and either print it on a sticky note or on a plain bit of paper and leave it somewhere. Using various bits of paper means that they can be tossed or recycled when someone decides to get rid of them, no permanent marking like regular graffiti leaves.

On the issue of automatic adding of information to your phone, I disabled all automatic actions in my scanner, it presents me with the results of the scan, and I decide what, if anything, gets done with it.

weneedhelp (profile) says:


From the mouths of an ad agency:

“QR codes are wonderful things, a great idea that is really becoming popular. Done properly, they can be scanned from a good distance away, they provide a positive link to something, and don’t rely on a third party (like Google) to interpret meaning. “

Clap clap clap nicely done. Stop trying to convince us how great they are, they are not. I don’t even notice them anymore.

Stephen says:

Any Hard Data or Even Anecdotal Data?

For all of our opinions and speculation, I’m wondering: Do QR codes work for marketing? Surely advertisers are able to use analytics to track website visitors via QR code.

I personally don’t scan QR codes partly because I would feel embarrassed looking like a nerd scanning them in public, but not everyone is like me.

Any insider perspectives?

Anonymous Coward says:


A bigger problem than that is that many of the popular apps out there (like ScanLife) send the information to the developer’s remote servers to be stored without the user being aware of this. I used to use ScanLife until I scanned an a code one day that I had generated that wasn’t a URL and was taken automatically to there website to see the decoded text. Along with it was the entire history of every code I had ever scanned with the app. I had the option to clear the history but, you can bet developer’s like ScanBuy are data mining the use of their app as soon as they decode it. Needless to say I really don’t use ScanLife anymore.

Anonymous Coward says:


He names Google googles are an example – and I am just using the example. Essentially, he wants a third party to get between him and the action, interpreting his “view” to try to figure out what he wants.

What Marcus really misses is that QR codes are not really anything more than putting a URL on a billboard or a product. It’s just another tool to get people where you want them to go (and very accurately, I might add). It doesn’t have a third party playing “gee, let’s give them some ads first” or anything like that – it’s you, your smart phone, and the destination website.

QR codes aren’t perfect for everything – but they certainly aren’t as obtrusive as having a third party company tracking your activity (and knowing where you are).

ipgrunt (profile) says:

QR Codes and URLs

The widespread use of QR codes appear to this writer, to be a backlash against corporate “branders” to jump on the WWW bandwagon to register and use WWW domains when they were first available in the mid-1990s.

In the name of “we’re not going to make that mistake again,” we now see these inane blots in inappropriate places, etc.

When malware distributors and crackers begin using QR codes to plant rootkits, worms, bots, keyloggers, and other little nasties in smart phones, which will likely spread to the networks in which they operate, perhaps the “me too” attitude regarding QRs will change to a more reasonable policy that balances risk against benefit.

Loading the content from any anonymous link into your browser, no matter what the platform, is always a bad idea.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:


The point of the example is nothing to do with third parties. It’s to do with the advancing technology of image recognition. That tech is going to get bigger and more widespread, and it’s going to make visual machine languages obsolete for the general public (I am sure they will still have applications in high-volume factory processing, like package sorting at a shipping company)

Your focus on Google, or the presence of any third party, is missing the point.

Jeffrey Nonken (profile) says:

Anybody remember the CueCat?

Guess so. ๐Ÿ™‚

I have an original PS/2 CUE:Cat at home, in a box. I even know which box. What I don’t know is… what the heck I want to do with it.

I’ve seen projects that used them for bar code scanning, such as ISBN. I considered using mine as part of an integrated inventory system for my video tape collection, a project which you may guess got about as far as thinking about it. ๐Ÿ™‚

Cowardly Anon says:

I think that QR bar codes have two major flaws. First, most people don’t know what they are. They sort of showed up one day and I guess it was just assumed that everyone would know what they were and what to do with them. People don’t.

I just watched a new report on how teenagers and young adults are mostly being targeted by marketing firms with this technology, and a staggering percent of the teenagers interviewed had no idea what they were.

The second major flaw is that to read a QR code, you need to have an extra app. It is not something that comes out of the box for smart phones. You have to know what you need to download to get it.

There should be an preloaded app on phones that is easily recognizable to say “Hey! Use me to read QR codes!” Then people might be more inclined to actually scan the codes.

Jeffrey Nonken (profile) says:

My company recently moved, and the new business cards have this huge-ass QR code on the back. Right in the middle of the back.

I take notes on the backs of business cards, but the code takes up half the space (and takes it out of the middle). I think it just gives you our website address. Since the URL is printed on the front of the card, it seems… less than useful.

Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t mind QR Codes, they are there to tell people that there is something of value to be scanned and are typically there to help people bookmark important links, advertise important components and features of products, and distribute deals and services. It’s much easier to place a tiny QR code on something than it is to write a URL, and it’s easier to put a QR on a product that you don’t have space to make a full advertisement for. The banana example is a good one, that banana would typically only have a tiny sticker of a logo, with the QR code it can give me everything from company URLs to where the banana was processed (maybe even THAT PARTICULAR BANANA).

visual-searching methods are in their infancy, but even as they mature, I doubt it will come to replace QR codes wholesale. If I google the logo for a company, what I’m going to get is the company, not information on the product they sell or any specifics about deals or merchandising.

If anything what will end up happening is another type of QR code will end up taking the place of the QR code. Something that looks like aesthetically appealing like one made out of colorful shapes or one that blends into specific types of logos. I doubt having machine-specific references everywhere is something that’s going to go away anytime soon.

Maybe I’m biased, the only really bad thing I see with QR codes is that they rarely tell you what they lead you to or what they offer. Instead opting to be a big square that require people to scan until they find out what important function they serve. This will be fixed eventually, but until then, I say ‘why complain’?

Anonymous Coward says:

While I'm at it...

The problem there is that

1. There really isn’t much advantage to switching old barcode technology for new technology when the old technology works just fine for it’s particularly designed purpose.


2. The cost of replacing all of replacing everything designed to use the old technology so that it will work with the newer technology would be enormous.

So basically the squeeze just wouldn’t be worth the juice.

Anonymous Coward says:


Often times QRCodes are used to link to apps for the phone from the developer’s website so that you don’t have to look up the site again on your phone to download and install the app. Just scan the code and go.

Also if I’m reading an article on my computer and want to share the link with a friend scanning the code allows me to transfer the URL to my phone where I can then send it via a variety of methods (including SMS) to the people in my Contact List.

So there are other reasons to include the code on the page other than simply getting to the page that you already are on.

Pangolin (profile) says:


We were eating breakfast and we had a little box of raisins. You know, the ones not marked for resale. So they didn’t have any nutritional information on them. But they did have one of these QR Codes (Never knew they were QR before today). I used my phone to see if I could get the nutritional info – would have been nice if I could – but got an advertising site for sunmaid instead.

Anyway – they COULD be useful. But they usually aren’t.

Aaron Toponce (profile) says:

They must be predictable

You have to know what the code will do for you, before you use it. Think of UPC. They are on your groceries. The store uses them to lookup and manage prices for individual products, and to manage inventory. So, as a consumer, when you see a UPC, you know what the code is doing for you.

QR Codes are no different. It has to actually work for me if I am to get any satisfaction out of it. Things like virtual grocery stores in subway stations or bus stops. If I know that scanning a QR Code means ordering some cereal online, and having it delivered to my doorstep, then I’ll scan the code.

Putting the code on an advertisement doesn’t tell me anything. What is the code going to do for me? Take me to another advertisement? Take me to a page to purchase the product they are advertising? Give me more information about the ad? What? If it’s not 100% clear how the code will actually work for you, then yeah, you’re not going to scan it.

Just like email coming from unknown sources, I don’t scan randomly generated QR codes. I need to be sure about the content it’s going to deliver, and it needs to work to my benefit, or I’m not going to use it.

MissingFrame says:

Missed the point

Many of you are missing the point of QR codes completely, but overall you are correct, if you don’t understand the technology, don’t use it.

It’s a temporary thing, makes for bad tattoo (rolls eyes), whatever. Some day your banana will have RFID and your phone will read that instead, or eventually every picture of a banana will happily send you to chiquita.com upon your request.

However, in the real world, typing in a real web address on your phone is a major pain in the **, and going through any search engine, visual or textual, only gets you what they want to target you with. QR code gets you the exact text, which you CAN preview before you click, and it’s whatever you want it to be.

And as AC post #1 says, it’s a way to let you know there’s something to go see. There’s nothing wrong with ignoring them in that context, who actually goes to these websites anyway?

Anonymous Coward says:


The thing is, image recognition will for the forseeable future require a third party to make it happen, at least until our smart phones can store the entire universe in images in a hand held fashion. Those people will become middlemen, and they will profit from it.

QR codes are a non-middleman technology, very different from image recognition. It’s also a marketing tool with a different application from “what is this…” image processing.

william (profile) says:

Dear Leigh,

When you start complaining about something, you really shouldn’t start with “I have never understand…” If you wish to criticize the subject at hand, at least pay the respect to understand it first. A simple act of showing your understanding (or pretend to show understanding) of a subject makes your points much more valid. Just reading an article from the net doesn’t make you expert enough to make valid arguments. At best it shows you are showing your “valued opinion” that most people on the Internet has already learned to ignore, at worst it shows you are just rehashing what you read.

Now I get that over with… It seems a lot of people over here in North America doesn’t recognize or understand QRCode. This code was first developed in Japan in the 90’s (don’t remember what exact time). At first it was used as a way to pact a lot of information for car manufactures to track components. I am not sure what happened after that, but in Japan they started to use this for non-manufacturing purpose. While the rest of the world is still using a cell phone that can only call, QRCode was already a standard feature in Japanese feature phones.

While the rest of the world is still struggling to input info into their phone using the damn number pad, Japanese people are trading contact information, getting product discount and info, visiting websites, getting through Japan Customs and Immigrations, reading bus schedules, getting produce details (producing date, location, grade)…etc, all by just a simple scan on the code. You read some magazine articles/ads and if you want additional information, well, there’s the QRCode to scan.

That sounded all really abstract so let me get you an example. My friend recently visited Hong Kong and came back with a book roughly translated as “100 useful free Android apps” with each app devoted one page on what it does. Guess what? On each of the page is a QRCode. If he wishes to download this app, he just scans it. Doesn’t have to access android market and do a search and match the app name etc.

Let’s summarize, QRCode is widely used in Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong and slowly spreading to China and North America. You and some of the commentators above viewed it as an outdated technology. However, it’s a proven and useful technology in Asian countries. Please get your head out of “North America is the center of the technology world and if it doesn’t work here then it’s a poor technology” mentality. You know what, the fact that QRCode is used successfully in other countries but not in NA just shows how some people are stupid enough to ruin a good technology.

Now let’s get to this “Imagine recognition is the future and QRCode is a transitional technology”.

First of all, every technology is a transitional technology. 8-tracke tape was a transitional technology to cassette tape. Cassette tape was transitional technology to Digital Audio Tape (it died) and Compact Disk. Compact Disc was transitional technology to MP3. MP3 is transitional technology to … You get my drift. Yourself even mentioned that “the tech isn’t perfect yet” and that it only “capable of recognizing ads based on color, configuration and other indicators”. Hold on, how come that some like some kind of “code” to scan? Hmmmm?

Secondly, it’s nice for people to dream about future technology, but in reality, you can’t use a “tech” that isn’t close to perfect yet. So you are suggesting we use this “isn’t perfect yet” imagine recognition technology and dump a working QRCode technology. That’s like saying, “Hey one day we will make a jetliner that’s perfect, although the current plane can only fly 10KM because it isn’t ‘perfect’ yet. But we should totally dump these working propeller planes because they are old ‘transitional’ technology. Let’s all just jump on the jetliner now.” That doesn’t sound too smart isn’t it?

Anyways, I’ve already said too much. Please do consider to investigate an issue before posting an article on Techdirt so you don’t harm the reputation of this blog. Something you and other don’t understand or don’t use doesn’t make it “Ugly, Overused and Doomed”. Thanks for again reminding everyone else in the world how the American though process works, “If it’s not useful for us, it’s not useful for the rest of the world.”


A Guy from Asia

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:


As you can see, I am not the only one who has a problem with QR codes. Look at the comments on this post, or on the Guardian article. When I say “I have never understood the hype” it is not me saying I don’t understand the technology or its purpose or its potential applications – I fear you have misunderstood my phrasing (and misquoted me, as it happens)

Now, I’ll grant you that I’m writing from a North American perspective – when it comes to marketing, local perspectives are sometimes very important. But I’m interested by your assertion that QR codes are much more popular in Asia, so thanks for bringing that up.

Nevertheless, I stand by my assertion that QR codes are ugly (they are), overused (go look at some of the stupid uses on the tumblr page if you don’t agree) and doomed (yes, all technologies are transitional, but QR codes have missed their window of opportunity in North America)

Anonymous Coward says:

One nifty feature i use with QR codes, is a QR add on extension for opera desktop browser, that translates at the click of a button, the current internet address into a qr code that i can scan on to my phone, which opens the exact site on your phone that was on your desktop browser

-takes 3-5sec
-dont have to type long ass name website address
-nice to have on the go or a visit to the iron throne

Anonymous Coward says:


Nope. QR-codes require a small piece of reader software on your smart phone, that DOES NOT need any outside database to operate, doesn’t transmit anything back to the mothership, doesn’t give a change for ad substitution or whatever… just a reader that invokes a browser window and takes you where you want to go.

Image recognition? Unless a true miracle occurs, we will be bound to a large networked database system operated by a third party pretty much for our lifetime and maybe longer.

Anonymous Coward says:


I wouldn’t say that they are overused so much as they are overly used ineffectively. So the problem is an implementation problem not a design problem. I wouldn’t say the window has been missed. I would say that it’s quite possible that designers will learn to implement them in clearer more effective means. And their use in for those means will increase.

The fact that people don’t know what to do with them is also an implementation problem. UI designers will better implement the ability to use them into the ROMS on the the phones such that the “you mean I have to download an app to use that” scenario will cease to exist.

As for your assertion that they are ugly… people have already started to work on that too…


davebarnes (profile) says:

I use QR codes

As a consumer, I use QR codes.
When I am walking by a house with a For Sale sign and there is a QR code, I can, typically, scan the code and find out some more info about the house.

As a marketeer, I am using (well, my customers are using) QR codes.
1. A realtor who sells rural property. The For Sale sign does not tell you price and features. A box with flyers is nonsense. The QR code is perfect. You scan and are shown a single webpage that fits on a phone screen and it shows: price, major features and contains a call to action.
2. An energy-saving company. They put QR codes on their trucks. (The URL is also on the truck.) Scanning the code takes you to a webpage with a discount offer and a call to action.

hegemon13 says:

Not pointless or doomed...just overused

Yes, QR codes for advertising purposes are often pointless. However, there are times when they can be useful, such as when they point directly to a mobile market app.

They are very useful for certain things. My friend has a QR code on his business card that contains his contact information. Scan the QR code, all his info is in your phone and ready to be saved as a contact. While OCR could do something similar, QR codes eliminate errors associated with even the best text recognition.

To me, the use of QR codes for many companies is similar to the way many businesses have felt the “need” to create Facebook or Twitter accounts, but have no idea how to use them to their benefit. QR codes are convenient, portable, standardized, and not power dependent. There are plenty of good uses, but like any technology, there are also plenty of pointless ones.

Anonymous Coward says:


You be wrong Marcus.

Bidimensional barcodes are data storage devices, you can use them to:

– Transfer data to other places(e.g.: like an encryption key that will grant you access to your hyper secure station if you so desire to do so and allow you to change your password just by generating another one, it will be as secure as any physical key)
– Create throw away passwords.
– Create passworded barcodes that only let somebody access the content if they have the password to get in.
– Store data like sound, video and text, and before somebody says it is impossible go look how sound is implemented in film rolls.

Wikipedia:Dolby Digital

Will image recognition play sounds and video for ya?

hegemon13 says:

QR Codes and URLs

“When malware distributors and crackers begin using QR codes to plant rootkits, worms, bots, keyloggers, and other little nasties in smart phones, which will likely spread to the networks in which they operate, perhaps the “me too” attitude regarding QRs will change to a more reasonable policy that balances risk against benefit.”

WTH are you talking about? That can’t happen unless you are stupid enough to use a QR scanner that automatically installs any linked software. A QR code contains encoded text, nothing more.

kisom (profile) says:

“The big problem with them, is that there marketers are not putting anything useful behind them yet. If they start putting coupons behind them there could be more incentive to scan them, but as it is now, you will usually just be taken to there website.”

I have a perfect example to illustrate your comment. I was in a big box store looking at appliances. I had a couple of questions and after searching in vain for an employee to help, I thought I would try out the QR on the product tag.

Searched for an app. Check. Download app. Ok done. Scan code.. and voil?! Took me straight to the company generic marketing site. Nothing specific about the product I wanted to learn about.

Delete useless app and curse all parties involved for wasting my time. Double check.

Anonymous Coward says:

While I'm at it...

Depend on what you are talking about, because companies have moved beyond simple barcodes since bidimensional barcodes can be scanned at a distance in high velocity which means increased productivity and expensive equipment.

Now for people, well, I don’t type passwords anymore and I can change them everyday and it won’t be a problem.

Also you can store sound and video on it. Now how cool is that?

CJ (profile) says:

I never scan them

Yes I see them. Yes I know that many are trying to make these things out to be better than peanut butter and jelly. But look at them for a minute. Do they tell you what is in that thing? Most don’t. Can you tell what is in those things? Nope you have no idea until you so call scan them. So while many think they are the next best thing I can’t help but think they also could be the next best security breach fixing to happen. Contain something nasty that could turn your phone into a paperweight. I will pass.

mark ferrari (user link) says:

Qrcodes arn't ugly

ImagIne saying Barcodes on supermarket shelves and products are ugly! They are just barcodes and the focus on design misses the point of barcodes, they are not designed to win design awards . They are designed to connect to more relevant information in a mobile optimized format – there lies the problem, corner cutters with no understanding of the purpose of a qrcode and the power to connect instantly.

william (profile) says:


I apologize if I have misquoted or misunderstand the concept.

However, I stand by my assertion that

1. They are not ugly. Things that people are not used to are usually assumed “ugly”. ie. Asians used to refer to Caucasians as “ugly” because of different hair color, body shape and face and body features. On this point we can only agree to disagree because that’s pure opinion. In addition I do agree with AC that perhaps it’s poorly used in NA situations which might make them obtrusive and ugly. However, that’s not a QRCode issue but rather a commercial ad design issue. A proposed “image recognition” tech that’s in the works could also be ruined if I used a bunch of mismatching colors/shape and then slap it willy-nilly everywhere.

2. The over usage again brings up the fact that people in NA are not using it smartly. And this could also be factored in as people view it as ugly thus feel they are over used. Remember QRCode is not part of standard toolset people use here. You do have to go out of your way to get a read, which makes it inconvenient and obtrusive and feel like it’s being “overused and useless” piece of technology

3. They may be doomed in American, but not else where, at least not yet or until the next better technology comes along. The fact of the matter is, they work now and they work great (in Asian area). The technology you proposed to replace it is still imperfect or in lab. You have to use what’s working now.

If you do want to see how QRCode is used, I would check Japan. After all, they ARE the one who came up with it and has been using it for many many years before the public here even remotely aware this exists.

TtfnJohn (profile) says:


One of the biggest problems with QR codes is, as has already been noted, that no one knows what the hell the blob is. It’s something meant to be scanned but what it does, how to scan it and all that stuff is a mystery to most people. Eventually a lot of people just give up.

As for the uses they can be put to so far it seems mostly a mixed bag from useful to downright annoying and people remember the latter, for the most part, not the former.

I’m not sure they’ll ever get their chance to prove their utility, at least the utility you feel is in them between the people that have no idea what they are and the people annoyed by what they find too often once they scan them.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Nothing Much Wrong with QR Codes.

Well, you understand that I “dissed” the Cue-Cat back in 2000, in Dr. Dobbs’ Journal. It was a botched implementation, in a whole series of ways, including not providing multiple and alternative electrical connectors, being a “walled garden,” and having driver software which had to be installed in a privileged manner. However, there was a certain core logic to the thing, to create links from print media to the internet and from television to the internet (via coded “squawks” over the audio channel, routed to the computer’s sound card). Those conditions don’t really exist anymore. So many paper magazines have ceased publication, and so many of the survivors have mirrored their contents to websites; so many bricks-and-mortar bookstores and newsstands have gone out of business; direct mail advertising has nearly vanished; video is being taken over by the internet; etc. There simply isn’t that much “wild” print media out there to be captured. I still have the Cue-Cat, neatly filed away in a drawer, and I eventually found a use for one of the cables.

I don’t think a QR code is especially ugly, any more than, say, a railroad coupler is especially ugly. Unlike the Cue-Cat, it is economically practical, since the infrastructure was already there, in the form of cellphones. As for the QR exploits, those are a new riff on a very old exploit. To my knowledge, it was first perpetrated against the DEC-300 series of video terminals, back in the 1980’s or thereabouts. The vulnerability is readily fixed, of course. It doesn’t invalidate QR codes, any more than the DEC-300 exploit invalidated e-mail. It simply indicates the necessity of keeping a clear distinction between (a) data; and (b) program or command.

There is an old aphorism, to the effect that “Natural Language Processing is AI Complete.” The present limits on character recognition are not going to magically go away. Machines work best with specially coded symbols. In the same way, robot arms work best with special couplers, rather than by trying to simulate the human hand.

Incidentally, the traditional way to distribute contact information in public places was to give away cards, which people could take, and put in their pockets. You could make a little envelope, designed to be taped to a wall, which held, say, fifty coupons. Alternatively, you could use an adhesive-edged pad for the same purpose. Magazines traditionally had postal reply cards. You detached the card, went through the magazine circling the numbers corresponding to the advertisements which interested you, stamped the card a couple of times with your rubber address stamp, and dropped the card in the mailbox. You eventually got pamphlets, catalogs, etc.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Nothing Much Wrong with QR Codes.


The terminal in question would be either the DEC VT-300 series or the DEC VT-200 series (memory fails). At any rate, at a time when computer terminals were rapidly falling out of use, there were certain nifty new features in the latest new models, which meant that someone could send a user an e-mail, so crafted that part of the e-mail would get transmitted back to the mainframe computer, and the mainframe computer would interpret this material as commands.


Michael B. says:

QR Codes Real Use

QR codes should not be used simply to drive you to a company’s or brand’s normal URL but rather to a unique URL. There should be specific call to action – e.g. contest, game, petition, special discount, et. Ironically, as I type this, Macy’s just ran a TV spot urging consumers to find and scan their (star) logo (with QR) code built in for its “Backstage Pass” promo – providing special offers, discounts, prizes and chance to go backstage with Macy’s fashion designers. That’s how innovative technology should work.

Anonymous Coward says:

QR Codes Real Use

I would have to say that this depends on WHERE and HOW the code is placed. For example, if the code is placed directly next to the URL of a company’s website (so that the obvious implication is that the code contains the URL) in a generic print ad for the company’s products, since the website most likely will have more detailed information about the company and their products, this would be a perfectly acceptable use. However if the placement is all alone on the packaging for a product where the most logical conclusion is that it is a URL with more information about that product and does not contain this information. This would be a poor use of them.

dean.collins (profile) says:


Leigh as much as you and some other misguided people think image recognition (read any technology placebo…) will save the world.

Unfortunately…you’re still wrong.

Want to know why….doorknobs….yep you read me right….. doorknobs

Technical “gurus” such as yourself fail when it comes to UX and you dont “get” why QR codes and Doorknobs rule.

More details here – http://blog.collins.net.pr/2011/04/aurasmas-image-recognition.html

Jason (user link) says:

You apparently don't research your information

QR codes are up 6400% since last year and over 100 million have be scanned in 2011 alone. QR Codes will NOT end or go away, nor will NFC be a replacement. They are one of the best tools in marketing for measuring ROI. Something you apparently know nothing about. Check your facts before trying to press your own ideas upon a knowledgeable public. The only thing that fails using a QR Code are those that don’t implement them correctly. IE, mobile versions of their website, etc. Japan alone has them on nearly 95% of every product and ad. Don’t believe, visit Tokyo and tell me differently.

To rebuttal,

QR Codes regardless of reception can be saved and opened at a later time.
It’s extremely cost effect when running a campaign and will always be cheaper compared to some visual recognition software and trying to implement into your marketing. As for NFC…it will NEVER be placed on a magazine page to several million copies…As for any other technologies…there will be no replacement for QR Codes. Japan has used them for over 10 years and we’re just getting started in the past two years. Get your facts straight…

Just FYI, I see at least 4 people a day scanning the codes out in public and many codes used in print everywhere. They aren’t dead, nor dying, nor will die.

Sign up for the beta:


Lindsay - 3seven9 (user link) says:

The death of QR codes

Thanks for your post Leigh – I agree with you – there has been such a hype about using them and putting them any/everywhere that it appears as though people are using them for the sake of it rather than thinking about a call-to-action or actually having a direction for it!

It just means companies misuse them, and put them in inaccessible places, or don’t give people a reason to use them. It’s a shame because though yes there will increasingly bebetter technologies, I think they could have a place in certain situations.

As for them being ugly, not enough businesses customize them.

I’ve actually written a bit more about why I think they’re on their way out (despite some examples of innovative uses), which may be of interest to you http://379.at/zBKn

Jacob says:

QR Codes save money

I work at a firm that gets a lot of people through the door asking for information. We give each person who walks in a nice folder filled with information, forms we ask them to fill out, etc. Because all this information comes in a nice glossy folder, it costs us roughly $5 for each packet that goes out the door.

And nearly all of it will end up in the recycling bin.

We are looking at a simple QR code printed on a small card, that also has a URL that will link them to the documentation online, as well as instructions as to what it will send you to. The chances of someone scanning the QR code or going to the link is remote, but so are the odds of someone saving our nice, expensive paper.

Plus, those links and QR codes will tell us if people are actually looking at the documents they are asking for in the first place.

If I had information *that you wanted* and only gave it to you in the form of a QR code, you’d use it, right?

Learniply (user link) says:

Public qr codes

The free web application offered by?www.learniply.com?uses QR Codes placed in public locations such as art galleries, museums, zoos and nature parks, to allow anyone with a smartphone to locate information related to their current location. This information is created through your free learniply account, and can include anything from information about a nearby exhibit to interpretive or way finding information.

ellen says:

QR Codes

I get emails from business people with a QR code next to their name and contact information. While this may be useful for scanning in contact information if you are someone who tolerate the lack of security offered by scanner apps, the QR code is really ugly! It makes for a horrible last impression at the bottom of the message.

Pete (profile) says:

early days yet

Just come across this, interesting read. I think there’s more to come from them though, I just made one with a logo in the middle of it, still readable – if that’s a sign of more intricate details being easily dropped in, it can become a scannable ‘logo’ in itself, and who knows, may change somewhat more to be nearer to a recognizable image, though of course the readable data needs to be unique enough to work as a code. If it can be incorporated with a logo on a business card, it’s there for those who wish to use it, and not for those who don’t – it’s a quick way to add a contact to your phone, that’s for sure, I think it will catch on for certain interested parties, whilst still understand scepticism.

Trevor (user link) says:

QR code oil paintings

The problem with QR codes is that they’re normally not that interesting to look at and the information that is accessed through them is usually not that interesting. I’m an artist and I’ve tried to address both these issues with my latest work. Here’s a link to see the art and the information. Hope you like. http://www.scottishabstract.com/

Dean (user link) says:

A Swing and a Miss

Great site. Visit often! But you really whiffed on this article.
I tell all my clients; it doesn’t matter what you like – it matters what your customers like. 97% of America has cell phones. 50% has smartphones and they are scanning QRs by the billions.
Obsolete? The image maybe. Not scanning. So why not be on board and evolve with the concept?
I mean, if your reason is its going to be obsolete than why did you buy vinyl records? Or cassettes? Or cd’s? When you knew they were bound for the grave? Because you wanted music now and were willing to ride the wave of change.
Merchants who don’t use QR codes (creatively and effectively) are missing the boat.
And no I don’t own a QR code company but I highly encourage it as part of an overall marketing strategy. It’s awesome for capturing customer data and pushing offers back to them.

Yep, you took a swing. But man – you missed on this one.

Do your homework and just delete the “I don’t like” part from your articles. Cuz you know what? The people that use scan apps daily probably can’t stand email – and people who love email hate direct mail. The key is a strategy to market based on only what you think is cool – will only really capture your attention. Not really a profitable decision.

Keep scanning America!

Ari (user link) says:

I think I can help change your mind

No I am not a random guy looking to help you see the light. I am the community manager at Visualead where we are making QR Codes relevant to people like yourself.

See, I agree with most of your post except for the part where you say they are a doomed technology.
Technology is always moving and we use what we have and then update it when it’s time. You didn’t use a regular phone because the iPhone or Android were coming in the future?

In terms of the “Robo-Barf” (loved it and I am going to use it with your permission) this is where Visualead steps in.
People do not like to engage with Robo Barf! So what we did was allow any design or logo itself to receive the power of QR Codes. We called them Visual QR Codes.

We allow people to itneract with the design they love using QR Code technology they know, just without the barf. (Laugh every time)

You can see some examples and try it out yourself.
Of course we would love to hear what you think.

Ari Fuld

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