QR code printed on the side of a parking kiosk

An intelligent use of a QR code.

In the following clip, Scott Stratten rants wonderfully about QR codes and how they are woefully misused.

What I like about this clip (aside from it being pretty funny) is that Stratten very wisely draws a line between bad technology and using technology badly. Too many people blame the latter on the former when it comes to QR codes. I probably don’t have to remind you that you shouldn’t use a new technology just because it’s new.

Since I don’t have to remind you of that…(right?)…I wanted to instead consider some legitimate uses of QR codes. Before we get to that, let’s quickly cover what QR codes are and how they work.

A QR code is essentially a web link translated into a barcode. That barcode can then be scanned and executed by a device with the proper software. In general, executing the QR code means that the software will take you to the initial URL that was translated. Given the device-driven nature of this technology, here are some broad guidelines to keep in mind when designing an experience around QR codes:

Construction worker with QR code business card

This schmuck thinks he’s so clever, putting a QR code on his business card. Don’t be this guy.

  • If there’s a chance your target audience won’t have their devices with them (i.e. they’re at a wedding, on an airplane), don’t bother.
  • If you can meet the same goals with a short, easy to remember URL (i.e. example.com/raffle) then use that instead.
    • Note that if your domain name is particularly long, cumbersome, hard to remember, or has special punctuation in it, you might be more apt to use QR codes to get people to your site.
  • Since we’re talking about visiting websites on smartphones, make sure that your website is mobile friendly.
  • The best target audiences are not at home. If they’re already on your website, reading your email blast, or interacting with you over the Web in any way, then it’s too late to use a QR code. Use a regular hyperlink instead.
  • Ensure that your audience will be able to pull their device out to scan your code in the same minute (not moment, not second — one minute) they see it. Remember that it’s much faster to read text than it is to scan a QR code (so if you’re designing an ad for the side of a bus, it’s better to use a short, easy to remember URL than a QR code).
  • QR codes work great when you want to save your user the annoyance of typing in a long URL that depends on 100% accuracy to get what they’re after.
  • The bottom line: the purpose of QR codes is to bring your user to a specific web destination when it would otherwise be inconvenient or cumbersome to get to that destination.
  • Because this technology is so poorly used and users have been disappointed by the results so many times, make absolutely sure that whatever you’ve translated to a QR code actually works when scanned!

With those guidelines in mind, let’s look at a few examples.

Packing Slips and RMAs

Smart phone scanning a QR code printed on a beat up package

You’re gonna want to return that.

Imagine you ordered a product online, and it arrives with a packing slip that has a QR code printed on it that, when scanned, will take you to a page where you can submit a review for the product. It’s a personalized QR code just for you, so when you arrive to the page, it already knows what product you’re reviewing, when you ordered it (so you’re already authorized as a real customer), and all you have to do is type out your review. It’s notoriously difficult to collect reviews from customers, so the easier and more streamlined you can make the process, the better.

Same idea for requesting a return merchandise authorization (RMA). The packing slip might be outfitted with a QR code that, when scanned, takes you to a page that already has your name and contact info and the order number filled out; all you have to do is fill out the reason you want to return the item.

Business Collateral

If you have a product catalog or brochure, you might consider including a QR code for every product highlighted. Rather than making the customer manually go to your site and click around searching for the product they saw in the catalog, they can go straight to it on your website. Same goes for a print ad for a particular product.


Shopper scanning a QR code on the tag of a shirtIf a customer is in your store, browsing your merchandise, and they have additional questions or want to see what other colors/options are available online, you can print a QR code on the stock shelf tag that will take the user to the product’s page on your website.


Woman scanning a QR code on a real estate signIf you’re at a trade show, concert, movie theater, marathon, hot-dog-eating-contest, or some other type of event and you want to bring customers that browse your booth to a special event landing page on your website, a QR code is worth considering. Real estate signage, as depicted to the right, is also a great place for QR codes.


Hopefully, you have a few ideas now for how you might incorporate QR codes into your business. I want to end with noting how Mercedes Benz has started using QR codes on their cars to assist in rescue efforts. Maybe someday QR codes will save kittens instead of killing them.

All images © iStockPhoto

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