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What is wrong with QR codes?

Blog, March 10, 2015

We postponed writing this article for a long time. For half of a year we practiced various things that could harden up and make us insensitive to the hatred that will be poured all over after the publication of this article. We were so daring as to cut the line in the hospital or ride the streets of West Ukraine with Moscow auto number plates.

The hatred is deemed inevitable since this blog is a geek-oriented blog and QR codes are geek technologies. They have already become widely popular in internet and got a warm support of internet community. In this context, we will not be surprised to find out razor blades in our post box or silent breathing on the other end of the telephone line.

For QR fanatics this technology brings the future closer and makes them step into a brave new world of tomorrow with that augmented reality that you can see on all those futuristic videos and films with transparent displays and weird interfaces. Geeks are excited about any new way of using QR code even if it is a pajama that reads out fairy tales, gravestones or cows — and predict a universal presence of QR in our lives in the future. In our opinion, this sequence of events can be described in anti-utopias, for example in Zamyatin’s “We”.

To create appearance of legitimacy of our arguments, we could launch out a branch of wtfqrcodes.com and publish here the biggest failures (even dangerous examples) of using QR codes seasoned by angry comments, and give a very simple instruction. But this rant would not make us any closer to the ultimate goal — understand the nature of QR-code’s weak side. So let’s switch passive-aggressive mod off and try to sort this out.

History, causes, application area

As tradition has it, here is a little bit boring introduction with the well-known information. A barcode was created (the source of inspiration was Morse code) for the automatization of products labelling and further data reading by technical machines. It was precisely these functions that a EAN-13 barcode (known as an ordinary barcode) have been performing excellently for so many years. Information for automatization (in form of lines) is duplicated into a format that is easily understanded by people (in form of numbers).

Such one-dimensional (linear) codes do not contain a lot of information (up to 20—30 symbols), and the geek nation of Japan grew indignant at the approaching buffer overflow — they wanted more! This is how two-dimensional (matrix) codes were created. The most popular among them is QR-code.

barcode bold head

Differences between one- and two-dimensional barcodes:

1. Information volume increases tenfold (by several exponents);
2. Information is not duplicated into legible symbols;
3. It generates a lot of different formats;

In our opinion, a barcode that was stretched to the two-dimensional version, remained the same old barcode without any conceptual novelty, but Japanic school-girls decided that it is a principally new technology and a new digital era came. Suddenly, it was decided that QR-codes could solve the urgent issue of connection between real and virtual world. They became inextricably linked to cell phones and other gadgets – the portable representatives of the virtual world in the real world. Apart from offline (billboards, posters, signs, press, urban surfaces, cows) QR-codes also are now used for moving information from a computer to a phone – most frequently website addresses and links to applications.

Thus the technology with quite narrow professional application (logistics, production, trade) became just another way to send a link about cute kittens, in disguise, of course. Afterwards, the knowledge left Japan through the grapevine or some other unknown way of spreading crazy ideas — and now we got the world intoxicated with QR-codes, the most misused technology in the world.

What is wrong with them?

Passive and active reading

With a new status, QR-codes technology is radically different from its new one-dimensional ancestors. A principal difference is changing roles in the system «object—subject». In the traditional application field of barcodes, the reading from people’s perspective is passive. You have a pasta pack, a cashier scans a bar code on it. You have a ticket to a concert and a controller scans it at the entrance of the concert hall. You have a ticket to an air-express, and the turnstile scans a barcode. You are a passive participant of this process. You do not have to put any effort, have any knowledge, skills, or equipment. There is a piece of paper with letters and some strange barcode. To a greater extent, it does not matter what an active participant does with it — scans orcarefully reads it, checks the transparency under the light or tastes it. The quicker, the better – it is all that matters.

QR code

A user gets satisfactory interaction by passively using the barcode — he does not linger or pollutes the mind with some unnecessary information, while all the difficulties with technology and gadgets are laid on the shoulders of the specifically trained personnel — automated robots or robots under management of professionals of organic origin. Of course, from a cashier’s or a turnstile’s point of view this scanning is not passive, but we, first of all, have to take into account ordinary users; a cashier and a turnstile are professionals, using a quality industrial equipment in their work (or is that equipment) and get money for it.

So, in those fields where ordinary barcodes (that do not have that image of innovation, the «future knocks at the door» feeling to it) are used, using QR-codes is quite reasonable.

Everything changes radically when reading becomes active for a user. All responsibility is shifted to a user: here is a pattern, do something with it, you’re a man after all. A common user takes the place of a professional — one has to have some basic understanding of the technology and get the means to read this pattern. Should we mention the gigantic gap in quality and speed of reading by a professional (passive scanning) or user (active scanning) scanners? Compare an instantaneous work of a cashier and a long pause that follows (especially if it is about code scanning, for example, from a stranger’s T-shirt), when a smart phone camera tries to get the focus and the app is in the middle of finding the focal squares.

QR good examples

Tickets to an air express and a concert are the right examples of one- and two-dimensional codes.

Technologies on the building facades

In the case of passive reading, a user may not ever think about the existence of a code on the pasta’s package, because it is not relevant technical information. However, in the case of active reading, a secondary element takes the key place, and a person faces QR-code one-to-one.

Gradually, thanks to the rise of the computational performance level, the growth of user interfaces development and the creation of new models (fuzzy logic, neural networks, genetic algorithms, etc.) a computer is learning to interact with people using a human language. It tries to predict your behavior, remember your habits and preferences. It corrects your mistakes, when you accidentally delete the wrong email, automatically recognizes the drunken whispered commands and forgives you for your memory like a sieve. A monster is finally tamed!

fish bible QR

There is the feeling that the recruited robot-saboteurs are among us. They must be Japanese, because the creators of QR-code returned us to the moment in the history where we were several decades ago and once again put human beings on their knees. Within the active reading mode, people become a scanning turnstile. As if a published QR-code says: «Here is a two-dimensional matrix of bits, it is a very simple format for a machine, try to decipher it. I do not care how you are going to do it: you can write it down on a piece of paper or you can find the right software for it». Instead of making a computer understand us, we once again have to understand the computer language. Here is a fiber-optic cable, catch impulses and write them down; here is a website, you can read it when you decipher it.

QR-code is the inverted Turing test. Prove that you are not a human. Because if you have read QR code, either you used a robotized extension of yourself (a smart phone or other gadget), or applied everything you learned in the article in practice (after which you are officially not a human being).

It was a century ago, when there was a necessity to catch the Morse code and decode it using nothing, but a human brain. There is no such need now (although there are still military services in some countries that listen to different — — — • signals and sing it aloud). A format of information representation in a computer should not bother users or somehow touch them. It is a professionals’ work or geek’s entertainment.

QR-code and geeks

Geeks love QR-codes, because they enjoy interacting with computers in the same language. They try to learn the working principle behind the things that surround them, strive to control the world around them and adapt it to their needs (one word Linux is enough). Geeks like to see Guts from the Inside-Out, when it is clearly to see how all the components work.

computer case mods
In this article we refer to geeks in the third person, although we are themselves users of Miranda, foobar2000 and owners of this transparent card reader.

Computer’s visual imitation (high tech style) enjoys great popularity — this beauty is the second most popular style on the website of Linux customizers .

Geeks take pleasure in learning about the complexity of a system; the complexity itself has a strong appeal for them. It is enough to recall the article about manual deciphering of a QR-code. They enjoy tough challenges just like rocks climbers enjoy a tough spot that can be overcome only when they are teetering on the edge of their capabilities. They like working in the field where special abilities make them different from all others. It happens in every professional community – geeks comes in all shapes and forms. Assembler Software developers patronizingly treat their high-level counterparts; photographers with a film camera disdainfully look at digital camera professionals («It is easy to push a button and move some sliders on Lightroom, try to use reagents!»), not to mention, the traditional humiliation rite of passage of newbies by oldtimers on the majority of forums. «Bro, try reading 300 pages of the tech documentation before asking such silly questions. It is very well explained on the page 178».

To show the difference between geeks and average people (and help to learn what group you belong to), let’s use Alan Cooper’s The Jetway Test from a fantastic book “The Inmates are Running the Asylum”.

Imagine that you are walking down the corridor of a Jetway of an airplane. As you step onto the aircraft,
you have a choice of going left into the cockpit or right into the cabin.

jet test human

“To the left, the cockpit is a kaleidoscope of complex controls and gauges, with every surface covered with instruments, knobs, and levers. To the right, in stark contrast, lies the cabin, where everything is gently rounded, smooth, and a calm-inducing shade of beige.

To turn left into the cockpit means that you must learn and master all the complicated technical stuff. You must know what every one of those instruments means. In exchange for understanding all that complexity is the certain knowledge that you are in control and that you are responsible for landing the aircraft at the right place. To turn right into the cabin means that you relinquish all authority over the flight. In exchange for abdication of control, you get to relax, knowing that you will arrive at the proper destination without dealing with anything more complex than turning the reading light on and off.

The Jetway Test neatly divides the human race into two categories: Those who turn left strongly desire to be in control and to understand how the technology works, and those who turn right strongly desire to simplify their thinking and to have confidence in the success of the flight. Programmers—Homo logicus—always want to turn left. Users—Homo sapiens—always want to turn right.”

People like new technologies. But, ordinary people do not like when technologies are left in the foreground. They prefer technologies to be hidden under the cockbox hood. People love magic and illusion, when technologies are not seen, but work. Everything is done for them so that they hardly notice anything and do not bother about unnecessary questions and requirements of understanding the working principles. «Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic», says Arthur C. Clarke. As a consequence, any technology that can be distinguished from magic is not developed enough.

2013 Tesla Model S Door Handles is magic (or, «Scan this QR-code and the door opens»). When Google Now scans your email and finds an electronic airplane ticket and reminds you about your upcoming trip, it is magic. A phone that unlocks automatically by identifying the owner is also magical. Even a good old airplane is magic, because all passengers are separated from the cockbox by a thick armored door (and from the basic principles of aerodynamics by years of liberal arts degree).

Average people do not like zip codes, because they always confuse and forget them. Ordinary people do not share ISBN books numbers instead of a title and an author’s name. Ordinary people change the name of their social networking page from id12345678 to lenusik1985. And yes, ordinary people choose a password password123 instead of +N]L2.MK`Gle~P.0SY?p9eA;@y|, because they understand and remember only what has some meaning for them and do not dig into something that is made for a robot, not a person. And QR-code is an epitome of things that are designed for a robot.

mondrian composition in line QR code

QR reminds Mondrian composition in line and Magic Eye pictures

QR-code is not intuitive or understandable. It is a puzzle in a bits stucture! It is obvious that a person that does not know anything about QR-code, could not even grasp what this is all about. Solved Japanese crossword? Labyrinth? Riddle? Modern art? Is something out of order? Some technical information for water department workers? Optical illusion? Secret military code? Korean alphabet? Aerial street map of San Francisco? (these all are real suggestions of people). It can be anything. It is impossible to guess. It causes the creation of such long instructions. «Or just type apps.yell.com directly into your phone’s browser» becomes a gift from heavens in the context. Even the marking of the distance from drainage manholes has more meaning for a common citizen, at least, numbers are familiar. What is next – showing browser session ids to ordianary people and let them keep cookies in a notepad!?? This information is intended for an ordinary user.

Just like everyone else, geeks tend to hang out among their own kind. When a critical mass of geeks is gathered, they begin to think that the whole mankind is like them: smart and savvy. Things that they can grasp are obvious for others. They forget about the existence of common people. It is Silicon Valley syndrome. The cry of the public can not come through the thick layer of smart guys that surround the developer. People with no technical training and education instead of a source of inspiration become a source for jokes on IT happens (when reading yet another system administrator’s “hilarious” anecdote about an accountant that said his internet was out of order, because he accidentally deleted the shortcut browser icon on the desktop. Now, let’s try to imagine the same system admin in a pharmacy.  Trying to make a purchase he accidentally mixed up Furazidinum and Furazolidone. The apothecary comes home after a working day and shares the funny story with his colleagues on a pharmacy forum in a sarcastic style typical to such forums with a conclusion «ordinary people are idiots»). As a result, ordinary people become victims of apartheid created by tech savvy individuals. QR-code is a great illustration of this. When it comes to Japan where QR-codes are extremely popular, common signs of obsession with fancy technologies  (just remember their flush toilets with a dashboard that could put human wastes into the Fourier inversion) indicate that it is indeed a geeky nation.


QR cute

There are listed 5 Genius Examples of QR Codes in Marketing.

No make-up can change the major QR flaws. This kind of beauty is appreciated exclusively by fans of amateur manual assembly of Android and Windows XP. Even this QR-code remains an ugly baby of binary system, no matter how much it tries to imitate familiar things by gluing a fake mustache and a wig on the bits matrix.

elegant downgrading

Elegant downgrading

All webmasters know what Graceful Degradation means. It is the technique used to replace a big banner «IE6 must die! Download a real browser or kill yourself» for outdated browsers with a simplified version, which is less user-friendly and elegant due to its inability to use the most advanced technologies, but still functional. A User gets the level of service that is proportional to their level of suaveness: if you have the latest Chrome, you will get a great level of service with auto-complete, ajax-loading and fashionable Parallax “bows and frills”. The essence of this approach is to do something (even it is a little bit ugly and rugged) for all users, and not declare the category of users «not savvy enough to use it».

If you apply the above-mentioned approach to our story, then a one-dimensional barcode could be enough. Even professional equipment makes mistakes, which you all witnessed at the checkout of a supermarket. It was ruled out thanks to the standard numeric information duplication: a product’s number is typed using the keyboard. Moreover, we can extract useful information from an EAN-13 barcode even without a scanner (for example, the first digits indicate the products’ country of origin).

write down QR

QR-codes divide people into two numerically unequal groups: either you have a smartphone with a camera and preinstalled code scanning app or you do not. Grandmas, people with ordinary phones, a low battery or without a preinstalled app — get the pencils ready and start drawing the code’s pattern, if you want to understand what it is all about.

Alternative, technologies of today and tomorrow

What is an alternative to QR-codes? Let’s first recall what kind of information is encoded there. The QR-code specification does not define a specific data format, for this reason, in reality a lot of different things can be crammed into QR-codes, as long as they weigh 4K. In general, these are numbers and letters (text, links, browser bookmark, Email (with a title), SMS to a number (with a title), MeCard, vCard, geographical coordinates);

In “Theory of Inventive Problem Solving” there is a concept of a perfect object: «An object is perfect when there is no object at all, but its function is performed». Idealization of the system can be achieved by getting rid of some parts of the system and avoiding redundancy. For example, a login checkbox «do not remember me» is redundant, because it duplicates a universal option «incognito tab» that is supported by all modern browsers (including mobile ones). Therefore, if we apply the same approach to QR, we have to make it invisible for a user, but leave the functions. Thus, there are two possible solutions which combination can solve the underlying problem once and for all: recognition system and invisible tags.


The set of tools is pretty simple: an URL shortener, a gadget’s photo camera and an image recognition app. The working principle is even simpler: publish information itself and not the encoded version. Text? Link? Contacts? Image? Just post them in their original user-friendly forms without using any gadgets. The rest will be taken over by the technology of image recognition. The industry has already reached the highly convenient level of daily usage.

We think that the leader in this field is Google Goggles. As we understood, it is an intermediate product that will become a part of Google Now and Google Glass project. Mobile Google technologies + search by image + OCR provide recognition of anything that can be put under the focus of the smart phone camera:

— book and DVD covers ;
— barcodes and QR-codes;
— logos;
— buildings and landmarks;
— contact information;
— pictures;
— branding;
— products;
— text (with a translation if necessary);
— road signs, vegetables, animals, autos, etc.;

coggle google commercial

A great example of how the technology can be used for marketing purposes: Goggles scans an advertising strip of an auto company from a magazine and offers a user to open the page of the auto model, copy the ad’s text or open a HD version of the background photo with the auto interior.

The system’s potential is enormous. It does not involve any barcodes, mosaics and other similar absurdities. You focus a camera on the Golden Gate Bridge — you get info about it, a picture in the gallery — the creation details (with which you can impress a friend), a text — readable and editable text. Nowadays, scanning and text recognition technologies (links, photos) are as real as barcode scanning. The latter is just superfluous. An analogy with autos comes to mind. It is like today’s abandonment of the manual transmission in favor of the automated transmission. Some savvy auto fanatics may argue that the experience is not as good as with a gear box, which is true to some extent – you can not do without it in some professional areas. But from the perspective of an average person it is just reduction of the function that can be done by a robot.

Links. The main reason why links are encoded into QR-code is laziness to type in the long link with the fingers. It can be shortened with the help of various services. The biggest disadvantage of the approach (loss of information embodied in the link or difficulty to remember the generated short link) can be compensated by the link customization or registration of short domains by media giants for the purpose (New York Times — nyti.ms, Wall Street Journal — wsj.com, Time Magazine — ti.me).

link QR short

Text. Really? Why not just publish the text? No, seriously. That is similar to Twitter hashtags.

A video for those who believe that it is a great idea to place a QR code on business cards:

The following recipes are consistent with the Graceful Degradation approach:

— Scan a text or a link using a camera and Goggles or some analogue;

— If there is no app for visual recognition, you can make a photo and read it from the phone any time you want;

— If you do not have any camera or gadget at hand, you can memorize or write it down.

QRcode on websites. It is also redundant. Google and Apple (probably Microsoft as well) faced the problem of building multi-platform ecosystems and they solved it brilliantly which became a universal solution to a lot of problems: clouds. They created systems with such deep synchronization that you do not even need getting a smart phone out of the bag to set up an app for IOS or android. Cloud data storage, synchronization of browser tabs and services like instapaper, readability and pocket provide a ready solution.

Invisible marks

Marks can be invisible for a user, but visible for a device. For example, marathon number badges contain a special beacon that helps to track the position of a sportsman. According to “Theory of Inventive Problem Solving”, it is perfect: the element is completely invisible, it does not exist for a person, but all the functions remain — cheater tracking, results fixation, running speed analysis, and a lot of other interesting data that can turn into high-quality infographics in the right hands.

There are several well-known technologies for invisible marks that can be scanned by a gadget.

It is worth mentioning NFC tags (for example, they are used in the tickets of Moscow public transport). The tags are recognized only at close range (about 10 cm), which limits the application area. For example, it can be of great use for small information boards (a normal plate with the building name and the brief summary could be inserted instead of this ugliness, while an integrated NFC tag could provide the way to get the detailed information), however, it will not be useful for billboards. But, the limited set of smartphones with NFC-modules and the Apple disdain of the technologies will probably nip NFC in the bud.

QR code NFC Apple beacon


What do Cupertinians themselves recommend here? (Another name for Apple) Of course, it is iBeacons — transmitters that recognize the close proximity of the gadgets. According to Apple, it represents a new step in Indoor positioning system that creates completely a new experience of location perception. Low energy consumption (the technology is based on Bluetooth low energy) and long battery life (up to two years) allow using beacons on the street, for example, as park pathways markers. However, the biggest application area of iBeacon (in particular, this is due to the reluctance to bury the tag worth of $30 into the park earth) are buildings: retail shops, educational institutions, libraries, cafes, restaurants, museums, office space and other versions that Apple fans made up.

Where QR codes are appropriate?

  1. On business cards of Denso Wave Inc. CEO. As well as on his auto, clothes, wall papers, pets, children’s pajamas, children themselves, wife’s photos, his wife herself that has took all her QR marked possessions and children and moved back to parents’ house. He can do it, that is his job.
  2. In some marketing campaigns when an intrigue is intentionally maintained. QR-codes’ minuses can be turned into pluses. Their merciless incomprehensibility and unintelligibility without prior deciphering generates insatiable curiosity in geeks. Smart viral marketing specialists grasped it and started publishing gigantic QR-codes without any details as a bait.
  3. For geeks identification: “insider” and “outsider”, some kind of coming-out. A code on a T-shirt or on an avatar.

A liitle Quiz for you. How many QR codes in the article you tried to scan?

  •          Zero
  •          I tried one, then I realized it is not my thing, and stopped
  •          Before I found a fake one, felt cheated and stopped
  •          Several, at random
  •          All of them, plus the ordinary barcodes

Original in Russian.