The Brilliance and Confusion of QR Code Instructions

I am a strong believer in simple and clear instructions. I think they are key to adoption and action as far as most all technology goes, particular emerging technology (like QR codes) that the general public is not familiar with. There’s no better place to observe the “general public” than the ‘burbs.

QR codes are infiltrating my ‘burbs. And when they infiltrate my ‘burbs, I know they’ve infiltrated just about every ‘burb in the U.S. At the mall today, this sign caught my eye:

QR code at mall

When I looked closer, I found brilliance, but it was quickly followed by confusion:

QR Code sign at mall

First, on the brilliance:

1. If there ever was a QR code headline that spoke to the general consumer, I don’t think it can get any better than this – “Puzzled by this image? Here’s what you can do:” Right off the bat, the copy acknowledges that this is probably something consumers are seeing for the first time and/or just don’t know what it is and/or what to do with it. It makes no assumption that anyone knows what this is and in 4 easy words, does everything it can to take the intimidation factor out of the equation.

2. Then, it’s followed with step-by-step instructions. Anything like this that needs more than 3 steps to actually engage in is too much and will not be engaged in. Convenience is key, and even though consumers will go through the steps to engage, their patience is limited.

3. It’s in the instructions where brilliance and confusion collide. I think the copywriters are on to something with alleviating “QR Code Reader” from the instructions. Making it simple – “Barcode Reader” – so that anyone can understand sure is nice. “Barcode” is not scary. “QR Code” might be. Especially when you have to pick from many different QR Code readers from your app store. Yes, you are presented with many options for “Barcode Reader,” but the wording – “Download a barcode reader…” – generalizes it to the point where it’s not confusing. It makes you think that you can choose any barcode reader for this experience to work. And while I think this is a smart generalization, I also think it can create confusion beginning from the application SEARCH.

And here’s the confusion:

1. When I search for “Barcode Reader” in the Android app store, 4 out of the first 7 results are apps that can read QR codes. 2 out of the 7 read barcodes, but not QR codes. And the last 1 out of the 7 is not a reader at all. (BTW – all of the first 7 are free.) Then, when I search “Barcode Reader” from the Apple app store, I pretty much get the same results. 4 out of the first 7 can read QR codes. The remaining 3 read barcodes, but not QR codes. So, the simple question is, “will the average consumer know which “barcode reader” to download to make this work? It certainly helps that the apps’ icons show QR codes so the searcher can make the connection between what they’re seeing on the sign and what they’re seeing in their app store.

2. The instructions, overall, are not as clear as they can be. This is a crazy case of copywriting. In my opinion, they nail a few things and completely miss a few others. Especially since they’re going for dumbed-down simplicity. If I were to be going through this the first time, I’m left a little confused by the 2nd instruction, “Now open it and use your phone’s camera and read the QR code.” How do I read the QR code? I know by experience that some reader applications automatically read the code when it’s in the target area, but some require the user to actually press the “take a picture” button. If I didn’t know that, I’d probably assume this is how I read it, but I’m left wondering. This is such a small detail, but for copywriting that does so many things right, I’m surprised that it’s leaving any room for assumption. And that’s really the test here – does the consumer have to assume anything?

3. The payoff (the destination that the code takes you to) is underwhelming to say the least. The last instruction, “Sign up for Strut Your Mutt today,” sets the expectation that signing up will be easy. Just as easy as scanning this code was. But, when you get directed to the HOME page of a non-mobile-optimized site instead of the REGISTRATION page, you might not know exactly what to do. And even if you did, how maddening is going through a lengthy registration form on your mobile phone?

QR Code at the mall

The beauty about code-based technology is that it can take the user directly to the piece of content they need to consume. In this case, the code could have taken then directly to the registration page. For that matter, the URL under the code could display that direct link, too, but both miss this opportunity.

Mobile is wonderful for conveniently connecting people to each other and brands/organizations that they love. It’s also wonderful to make taking action easy and convenient. Action like signing up for a 3K Fun Run.

4. The biggest confusion of all is timliness and relevance. As in a) the offer is not timely and as a result, b) it’s not relevant anymore. The Fun Run took place on April 16. That’s over 10 days ago. While the HOME page of the site gives me information about how much money was raised, I don’t get to take the action I wanted to take from the poster. If I even made it this far now. The poster also gives the date of April 16, which begs the question – other than me, someone who notices QR codes anywhere, how much am I incented to scan this code and get to experience what it has to offer when the race is already over? I’d say it’s about time to take the poster down.

In fairness, an organization like the SPCA has a limited marketing budget. I commend them for even experimenting with an emerging technology like QR codes. And as far as their copywriting goes, it seems like they took the approach of asking someone who knows little about QR codes to write the actual copy. I think this is generally a solid approach. But again, as long as you’re answering 1 simple question when you’re writing instructions – does the consumer have to assume anything? – it doesn’t matter what approach you take and/or who writes the copy.

2 thoughts on “The Brilliance and Confusion of QR Code Instructions

  1. Emily Binder

    Agreed: The text “Puzzled by this image? Here’s what you can do” is pretty smart. What instructions would you recommend that are simpler and less wordy? If not “download a QR code reader” or “download a barcode reader,” then what? Thanks for the insight.

  2. Mike Cearley Post author

    Hi Emily – thanks for the question. I think that by now everyone knows what these codes are, so you could have a little bit of fun with it. Things like – “You know what to do.” “Visit your app store and get busy.” “Yes, people use these so why don’t you.” This sort of thing. Hope this helps.

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