How Apple And Google Could Make QR Codes Mainstream

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Editor’s Note: Brenden Mulligan is an entrepreneur and product designer who created Onesheet, Webbygram, TipList, ArtistData, MorningPics, and PhotoPile. You can find him on Twitter at @mulligan.

QR codes are everywhere. Frustratingly everywhere in my opinion. Countless companies put them on marketing materials, but not a single person I know actually scans them. I’m friends with lots of smartphone owners, and I’ve literally never, ever seen someone pull out their phone and scan a QR code.

There are even a handful of startups that consider QR codes part of their core offering to small businesses. They’re relying on people actually scanning these stupid things for their products to work. Silly.

However, as negative as I am about them, QR codes actually make a lot of sense. One of the most challenging things about the gluttony of digital offerings is bridging the gap between the digital and physical world. Mobile devices present the opportunity to do this better than ever. If I’m standing at a store, and they want me to follow them on Twitter, mobile devices allow me to follow them immediately, as opposed to waiting until I get home to do it.

QR codes simplify it even more. It’s much easier for me to scan a code and have it take me directly to their Twitter page than have to type in their username. Or even better, if I get a reward for taking a digital action, like filling out a survey, it’s easier to get me to the survey with a scanned code than giving me a URL to enter.

But in my opinion, up to this point QR codes have been an overall failure mostly because I don’t feel like the majority of people use them.

When asking around about why friends don’t use QR codes they claim they don’t have a way to scan them, even though doing a search for “QR scan” in Apple’s app store returns over 500 results.

If the problem is that people don’t have scanners installed, one straightforward solution would be for Apple and Google to include a standalone QR Code app with iOS and Android. Then at least most people with smartphones could scan the code without having to download another app. But I’m not convinced this would solve the problem. Asking someone to launch a specialized app to complete a task is asking for a change in behavior that most users probably aren’t willing to do.

Another solution is to fix the problem by using another technology, like location gating or NFC. But implementation of both of these would be costly and difficult. It would obviously never make sense for a business to embed NFC chips in every coffee cup they sell, and marketing materials are not always associated with just one location.

So what’s the ideal solution, assuming the goal is to get people to actually use these codes? My suggestion would be to make the camera software just a little bit smarter.

To truly take QR codes to the mainstream, Apple and Google should actually build a scanner into the camera logic. Similar to how the camera senses how much light there is, or if a picture is in focus, it could scan whether or not a QR code was in the frame. This would essentially turn your camera into a constant QR scanner.

If a QR code happens to be in the frame, a message would pop up asking if you’d like to follow the link. If you hit ignore, QR codes would be ignored until the next time you launch the app. No separate app, no new behavior. Just an extension of existing behavior. And of course, you could always turn this off in settings.

Probably not as simple to implement as it seems, but think of the implications.

Imagine how different this experience would be for consumers. Instead being told “Scan this code with a QR Code Scanner app on your phone”, the user would be told “Take a photo of this!” That experience would make so much more sense to 90% of users. Open camera, point phone at code, get sent where you need to go.

Simple. It might make having these codes all over the place actually worthwhile.