A CIO’s skeptical look at the QR code phenomenon

by Peter Kretzman

I had the good fortune last month to be invited to participate as a guest CIO on ITSM Weekly, a great IT-related podcast with the amusing ongoing tagline, “What happens when a CIO, a Service Desk Manager and an industry junkie chat weekly?!”

Amidst the discussion and banter, Chris Dancy of ITSM Weekly gave me a bit of a ribbing about what he perceived as my all-too-common anti-QR-code rants on Twitter. And yes, I have tweeted more than once with outright skepticism about the usefulness and likely impact of QR codes.  Chris’ good-natured needling made me step back and think about why: what exactly makes me so resistant to the notion of QR codes?

And the answer runs deeper than just QR codes per se.  It turns out, as I thought about it, that the story surrounding QR codes represents, for the modern CIO or CTO, kind of a horrible blend: the worst aspects of technology advocacy, combined with the worst aspects of marketing.  This post is an attempt to explain those broader implications.

For those (probably many) of you who don’t really know what QR codes are, look at the upper right of this post to see an example: they’re a two-dimensional barcode of sorts, typically consisting of black modules arranged in a square pattern on a white background.  QR codes can encode all sorts of information: text, a URL, or other data, and they are typically read/decoded by smartphone applications that are readily and freely available on most mobile platforms.

QR code enthusiasts envision people walking up (for example) to the door of a restaurant, using their smartphone to scan the code displayed in the window, and, well, getting any number of potential outcomes on their screen: a menu, a coupon, a URL, a pointer to a video about the place’s history, etc. In fact, in some countries like Japan, QR codes are everywhere, used for these and many other business situations.

From a technical point of view, it’s indeed really cool that this Rorschach-worthy splotch can be instantly converted to text or other information. Depending on the specific format (yes, there are several divergent standards) and on the nature of the content, as many as 4,296 alphanumeric characters can be contained in one of those splotches. That corresponds to roughly 700 words, or almost three typical pages of ordinary text. That’s a lot of information available at a smartphone glance, so to speak.

So what’s my beef with all that? What’s not to like? Two aspects particularly rankle me as an IT executive:

  • It smacks of technology for technology’s sake. Most great CIOs I’ve known have spent a lot of their career pushing back against being typecast as a mere technologist; most of them recognized early on that the way one adds value to a company as a technologist is to get deeply steeped in the business ins and outs, especially customer and financial aspects, and to apply technology appropriately, not just because it’s “cool.”

So sure, QR codes are “really cool” technologically. But are the business use cases really there? Will customers, in numbers, actually go the extra mile of seeing that splotch and feeling motivated enough to pull out their phone and scan it? Personally, I’m an early adopter of and avid experimenter with new technologies (especially when they’re free and widely hyped, as is the case here), but I have scanned fewer than ten QR codes ever. For many advocates, I fear that the coolness (and granted, the potential) of the technology is making them overestimate the probable acceptance of that technology by the masses.

  • Excessive hype.  Aside from applying a basic “sniff test” to the breathless, even giddy posts pertaining to QR codes, I’ve noticed that many such posts and even press releases quote surveys and reports on the supposedly major acceleration in QR code penetration here in the US. (Sample purple prose in one such report: “QR barcode use has suddenly gone ballistic.”)

The surveys themselves, and the reports based on data taken from those surveys, are visibly flawed.

If you dig into these posts and reports, it turns out nearly all the data cited stems from a mere handful of companies (ScanLife, JumpScan, and Mobio Technologies, Inc.), all of whom, wait for it, just happen to market QR-code related products! Can you say “conflict of interest”?

Moreover, the surveys themselves, and the reports based on data taken from those surveys, are visibly flawed, chock-full of statistical and methodological red flags:

    • the reports almost invariably feature graphs that lack Y axis labels, or that are labeled (for example) as “no scale given; relative measure only.”
    • The reports often combine data for all bar code scans (including UPC (conventional) barcodes, which are of course a far more plausible and prevalent use case, due to the abundant comparison-shopping apps that people use in bookstores etc.), and then use that data to infer QR code usage. One survey evidently asked the general question, “Have you ever used a barcode scanning application?” And the data then obtained from the answers to that general question now leads QR code advocates to conclude (erroneously) that “while QR codes aren’t mainstream yet, they’re past the early adopter phase.”
    • There’s seldom an attempt made to take into account one key factor in the increase in barcode scanning: the meteoric rise in smartphone penetration overall. A rising tide lifts all boats, and even if we’re seeing an increase in QR code scanning, that needs to be taken in the context of millions more smartphones being sold per month.

Finally, in a particularly delicious example that Darrell Huff would be amused by, ScanLife shows a graph comparing 1D (conventional) barcode scans with 2D (QR code) scans, favorably to QR codes, of course. Well, read the fine print under that graph: “Note: 2D traffic includes 3rd party apps while 1D traffic is only sourced from the ScanLife app”. Apples are being compared to oranges here, in other words. Vested interest. When data is presented in so obviously skewed a fashion, by people with a clear commercial agenda, one has to wonder whether it’s really all part of a sales job.

And the reports also don’t even begin to address a potential major factor when examining such data at this stage: what percentage of people scanning QR codes are doing so right now simply out of the sheer novelty of it all? As Steve Smith observed, “we are still in the gee-whiz stage of 2D codes”. Will this phenomenon have legs, so to speak?

So let me recap my main concerns about the QR bandwagon:

  • Even relatively widespread adoption (which QR codes have yet to see, of course) of a great new technology by technophiles doesn’t guarantee eventual deep penetration to the mass market. That should be obvious to anyone who isn’t running a Linux box for their desktop.
  • Will a critical mass of non-technical people (say, those who couldn’t manage to set the time on their VCRs back in the 80s and 90s) really tend to whip out their smartphone and scan QR codes in profusion? Maybe, but right now it’s just a matter of opinion.
  • Will there ever be enough “bang for the buck” with QR codes (i.e., investment of time/money versus benefit obtained from using them)? Even as an early adopter, I’ve scanned fewer than 10 QR codes ever, because there was never sufficient payback for my effort. And for the retailer or marketer: will QR codes really pull more people in the door, or is it just another gimmick? Where’s the data? (the real data, that is). Even in museums (one plausible use case mentioned for QR codes), I can envision only the highly motivated museum-goer as likely to indulge in QR code scanning.  It’s technology for a very narrow slice of the audience. It may be worth doing for that slice, sure, but let’s not go overboard in our excitement or our investment.

Back in the late 90s, several companies invested millions of dollars promoting what amounts to an earlier version of this scheme: specialized barcodes published in magazine ads, designed to be read by a “CueCat” scanner which they distributed broadly, for free, to people like Radio Shack customers and Wired magazine subscribers.  It failed miserably. In December 2009, the popular gadget blog Gizmodo even voted the CueCat the #1 worst invention of the “2000s” decade.  Yes, now we have smartphones and don’t need to obtain special equipment, so that gives QR codes an advantage that CueCat didn’t have. But still, it gives me pause that QR codes are being promoted with much the same zeal, and perhaps with similar blinders as to the true practicality of the technology. It’s déjà vu all over again: endless hype, plus technology pursued without solid practical reasons to do so: these are, and deserve to be, twin bugaboos for any technology executive.

And that’s why I express skepticism about QR codes on Twitter.

Lagniappe:

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“Data”:

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Dan Bobke July 13, 2011 at 9:25 pm

I am wondering the same thing about Near Field communication. My phone has NFC capability – certainly not why I bought it! In my reading on the technology, it doesn’t appear much different than QR codes except you don’t have to scan anything. It is a proximity technology.

Bottom line – is it giving me anything useful? I haven’t seen it yet.

Peter Kretzman July 13, 2011 at 9:35 pm

Interesting perspective — NFC is one of those “chicken and egg” things too, where there’s little point in business entities supporting it if few devices are out there. As the owner of a car with keyless access and ignition, though, I feel it’s a potential game-changer in terms of convenience. We’ll see how the hype cycle goes for it — my objection to QR, as should be clear to anyone who reads my post, is that the hype far outshines the reality, and that that’s a classic pitfall for technologists to fall into.

Thanks for commenting, Dan.

MaR July 15, 2011 at 1:42 pm

First I don’t really get how this post has to do anything with CIO perspective. Its normal technology cycle (now in hype phase) everyone around technology should be aware of.
Secondly, QR codes are really poorly equipped for the advertised job, but I’ve seen them used with moderate success for mobile airport check-ins and print-at-home concert/train/etc tickets. Notice the role reversal – it’s not user who scans the code! But I can imagine NFC taking over in the near future. It’s just that QR codes currently better fit into existing infrastructure.

Tiam K. July 15, 2011 at 4:00 pm

Personally I am a big believer in QR Codes and I should mention that I am associated with a company that offers such services to agencies and businesses, however, the latter is a reflection on my passion for mobile technologies and not vice versa; I co-founded the company.

I understand your skepticism for QR Codes and I too, have a dislike for shoe-horning technologies where they don’t belong for the “cool” factor. But as you mentioned, it’s still too early, at least as far as the North American market is concerned, to really know the long term benefits or even longevity of QR Codes. Companies like ScanBuy and the other front runners are all venture backed with huge financial incentives to hype and misrepresent the data they have aggregated. This has led to a wave of novelty driven, poorly executed campaigns which would explain why you have barely scanned a handful of these codes. Noteworthy QR Code campaigns that offer real value to consumers have been far and few in between which also means it is too premature to measure the potential return on investment this technology can offer.

However, looking at the data that we have collected and a cross section of the data presented by companies like ScanBuy without any bias, it’s not hard to see that adoption is most certainly on the rise with nearly 1000% growth year over year. That may not mean much now given the small size of the market, but it’s a promising indicator; five years ago Twitter was a joke. Naturally with any technology, most early adopters will be the technophiles as they are usually ones to envision, implement and push such endeavors but comparing QR Codes to Linux is most certainly an apples-to-oranges comparison as is comparing the “non-technical people” today to those of the VCR era. We live in a world where my parents are on Facebook, own an iPhone, an iPad and send me emails and text messages. These are the same non-technical people that I had to educate on turning their personal computers on and off, let alone set the time on their VCR! In today’s technology savvy age and companies like Apple leading the way with good design and intuitive software, this is a non-issue.

I have firsthand witnessed what a difference – both for the consumer and the business – a well-executed QR Code campaign can make. As the technology garners more interest with better defined guidelines and best practices, I foresee larger organizations and agencies embracing it in useful and innovative ways, making the real benefits more clear and effectively putting all the skepticism to rest. From a technology standpoint, QR Codes offer an abundance of value to just be a fad. I should also note that even though NFC seems like the natural progression of QR Codes, they each provide value that the other does not and can most certainly co-exist.

Peter Kretzman July 15, 2011 at 6:18 pm

Thanks for commenting, MaR. The main point of my post was actually not so much to tear down the idea of QR codes (which do have their place) as it was to talk about WHY I had, as a technology executive, such a strong reaction. So that’s how the post had to do with CIO Perspective: my beef is with technology for technology’s sake, coupled with excessive hype around that technology. As I say at the end, those should be twin bugaboos for any tech exec. So agreed: everyone in technology should be aware of and watchful for just those aspects, because they’re what give technology professionals a bad reputation. In this case, of course, we have technology hype AND marketing hype, so it’s the worst of both worlds.

Peter Kretzman July 15, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Agreed, Tiam, it’s probably premature to judge. That’s why it’s especially rankling when supposed reports on QR code penetration use words like “gone ballistic” about what we’re seeing today. Agreed also: without bang-for-the-buck (what I called a “payback” for the scanning user) for QR codes, they won’t go anywhere. But you and I differ, I think, on how likely it is that the industry can achieve that bang for the buck. Again, I’d love to see (real) data on this, such as from the “well-executed QR Code campaign” you mentioned. What difference did it make? How did you measure? Are the results published and observable as to methodology and approach? Those would be my standard questions when evaluating the potential of any new technology.

Peter Kretzman August 6, 2011 at 10:54 am

An interesting note, about four weeks after this article was posted: I’ve had a grand total of THREE people scan the QR code I supplied, while hundreds of people have read the post. Granted, there was no “call to action,” but still, I think that’s indicative of the low likelihood that a given QR code will get any real use.

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