This is an Urbanscale Weeknote titled “Week 46: QR or not QR,” written by Adam Greenfield in New York City on the 20th of November 2011.

Week 46: QR or not QR

Adam Greenfield on 20 November 2011

We capped another week of project-based hustle by doing some quick-and-dirty field research on pedestrian understandings of QR codes, the two-dimensional barcodes I first encountered in Tokyo in 2001, and which have recently become fairly hegemonic on the streets and subways of New York City.

Given that very ubiquity, I wanted to get to some clarity as to what ordinary people think when they encounter one. As I’ve noted here before, our assumption/bias going in was that an absolute majority of pedestrians and transit riders encountering the codes would neither know precisely what they were, have the wherewithal to use them as intended, nor be able to complete the task strongly implicit in the code’s presentation.

Assumptions and bias, though, are invariably a lot less interesting than actual findings. With the aid of my intrepid ITP students, then, we set out to get some answers, and see if we couldn’t either confirm or disconfirm those suspicions. We wrote a bare-bones interview script, set up intercepts in Manhattan’s Union Square and at 7th & Bedford in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, and successfully completed a survey of a small but suggestive number of respondents (n=28). We’re planning to follow these locations with research in the Jackson Heights district of Queens, to more fully round out our picture of New Yorkers.

The questions we had for people were simple, but have apparently never been asked by the advertisers and marketers who have invested so much time, energy and effort in deploying QR:

» Do you think you’ve seen one of these before?
» If so, do you have a name for it? What would you call one of those if you wanted to describe it to someone else?
» Can you tell me what they’re for?

The script also guided our researchers in some basic points of observation:

» Did respondents know in principle how to use a QR code?
» Did they currently have on their person everything they needed to make use of one (i.e. a camera-equipped smartphone, an application capable of handling QR codes, a data plan with sufficient data remaining on it, and a viable network and/or WiFi connection)?
» Could they actually complete a URL load via QR capture when coached?

We supplemented the intercepts by mounting posters in both locations featuring QR codes that resolved to site-specific URLs. While not particularly rigorous — and subject to the significant differential in baseline pedestrian traffic between Union Square and Williamsburg — we figured this exercise ought to give us a very rough approximation of how many people in each area were willing, able and motivated to capture a naked QR code with their phone.

The results were absolutely fascinating, and should be rather cautionary for anyone professionally invested in using QR codes with North American and Western European audiences.

» While general awareness of the codes was frankly rather higher than we’d expected, and a majority of our respondents knew more or less what they were for, very few (n=2, or around 7%) were successfully able to use QR codes to resolve a URL, even when coached by a knowledgeable researcher. One further respondent was able to load the correct URL into their browser, but was hampered by the lack of a sufficiently robust network connection.

» Interestingly enough, two respondents specifically characterized the QR code they were shown as “a Blackberry thing” (“…you wouldn’t understand”?) while another respondent was familiar with the codes only in terms of an application we’d never heard of, called LevelUp. Most people referred to them as “barcodes” or “those things you scan with your phone.” Other responses included “square things” and “those little boxes,” while one respondent referred to the code as “a microchip.”

There’s no reason, of course, why people ought to know a piece of technical nomenclature as arcane and specific as “QR code.” But understanding what terminology people use when they describe or refer to the codes can help us prise apart the mental models they employ in conceptualizing their function — and this, in turn, can help us design more effective alternatives. On this question, then, it appears that the advocates of the scannable, two-dimensional barcode as physical gateway to “informational shadows” have a way to go in familiarizing the general North American public with the convention.

» A strong theme that emerged — which we certainly found entirely unsurprising, but which ought to give genuine pause to the cleverer sort of marketers — is that, even where respondents displayed sufficient awareness and understanding of QR codes to make use of them, virtually no one expressed any interest in actually doing so. As one of our respondents put it, “I’ve already seen the ad, and now I’m going to spend my data plan on watching your commercial? No thanks.”

While technically, this is a question that’s outside the ambit of the current research effort, it ought to function as a sieve in conditioning anyone’s understanding of our results. That is to say, if only a small percentage of respondents successfully arrived at the intended URL, they emerged from a population that was specifically primed with the task by a bunch of meddlesome researchers.

Given that this motivational priming is entirely absent in the wild, you’d have to think that only a vanishingly small proportion of the people exposed to a QR code in the context of, say, this ad will ever see what the sponsor intends for them to. The call to action simply isn’t sufficient to overcome people’s lack of interest in and inclination to click on an otherwise opaque code…especially now that there are the first stirrings of a general awareness that QR malware can be used to inject malicious exploit code into one’s device.

» Finally, if we’d been doing a more rigorous kind of research, we’d have had to throw out a good two or three responses based on respondents’ overfamiliarity with the tactics and practices of marketing and advertising. Damn, but you New Yorkers are all up in the media industry.

We’ll have a complete write-up for you shortly, with the raw data, and a video of the intercepts available a little thereafter. Bottom line is, we hope you find this research useful, and it’s certainly shaped our understanding of the complicated interaction between physical representations, mobile devices, connectivity networks, online information and a real-world userbase.

LOGISTICS: We’re observing our first studio Thanksgiving this week. Among the many, many things we have to be grateful for is your continued interest in what we’re trying to do here at Urbanscale. You have our sincerest thanks for that, with the hope that we continue to earn your attention and support in the months and years to come. We’ll see you in December.

UPDATE: It took less time to compile the raw data from our QR research than we’d expected. Here it is, provided to you under the terms of an Open Database License. Endmark