Future prospects uncertain for the homely squares

One of the new features of Apple’s iOS 11 update is a quick-response (QR) code reader baked into the camera. Big news for consumers?

Hardly. Since the busy little squares of black and white began proliferating in the mid-2000s — showing up everywhere from storefronts to packaging, food labels to advertising, event tickets to tombstones — they’ve been mostly ignored by the people they were designed to reach.

Quite Ridiculous, at times

Ask yourself: When was the last time you spied a QR code, whipped out your mobile, opened the special app you downloaded for just such moments, carefully framed and focused on a distinctive grid pattern, hit “scan,” and then learned something new?

Unless you work in marketing or manufacturing, chances are good you’ve never used one and may not even know what they do. Several studies showed that in 2013, around 20 percent of American consumers had, at one time or another, used a QR code or downloaded an app for reading them; but only about 2 percent actually use of them on a regular basis.

That same year, Ad Age published an obituary for the QR codes. Many others have followed since on a fairly regular basis.

“They seem to be a solution without a problem to address,” said user-experience pioneer Carol Barnum, director of research and a founding partner at UX Firm in Atlanta. “Users have to be motivated to go through the effort—and for what? I’ve had a QR code reader on my phone for years and have never felt motivated to use it.”

Cumbersome to use, misunderstood, and derided as ugly, QR codes are so ubiquitous that they fade into the cluttered backdrop of consumer life. They haven’t always worked as intended. When they do, they often lead to web sites that are not optimized for mobile viewing.

At worst, they risk brand disaster, potentially cloaking malware, or lingering too long after a promotion’s end and falling prey to hijackers, as Heinz discovered to its chagrin two summers back.

Nevertheless, they persisted

After countless dismissals and penultimate farewells, QR codes may, in fact, be due for revival. They certainly haven’t gone away, and in many ways, they remain surprisingly popular.

Marketing and advertising professionals appreciate how they enable consumers to connect more deeply with brands, access discounts and promotions, and explore their messages in greater depth. QR codes convey 100 times more information than a simple barcode or tagline, so what’s not to love?

Outside the U.S., QR codes are big, especially in Asia. They originated in Japanese automobile manufacturing during the 1990s, and since then have been adopted in clever ways, including as a tracking tool for dementia patients who might wander off and become lost. A QR code that identifies who they are, where they belong, and their medical status adheres to their thumbnail and can be read by police and others.

Thailand recently introduced “smart” driver’s licenses featuring QR codes that are more durable and secure than the previous paper cards. Which prompted predictable suggestions from some Thai citizens that the government should only issue licenses to drivers smart enough to not behave like idiots in Bangkok’s notorious traffic.

And in China, QR codes are central factors in a digital-payments bonanza, worth an estimated $1.65 trillion last year. Compact and easy to create, they enable small businesses to use mobile payment systems, even if they don’t accept credit cards.

An enterprising bride in Beijing last spring even wore a QR code around her neck at the wedding and encouraged guests to use it to more seamlessly share gifts of money with the new couple. That may be taking it a tad too far, though.

Apple to the rescue?

And in the U.S. it may be that the Cupertino assist resurrects the humble QR code for American consumers. After years of coy hesitation, Apple’s decision to embed a native QR reader in its primary mobile software is the kind of needed break that may reduce UX friction and smooth a path to widespread consumer adoption.

Whether this change will be sufficient to resurrect its fortunes remains to be seen.

Apple also threw a bone to QR’s rival system by enabling iOS 11 to read NFC (near field communications) signals, adding to uncertainty about which option, if either, will become win the day with consumers. None of us will know for sure until scorn gives way to habit, but that day may arrive soon.

Unless, that is, something else emerges to seize the brass ring and send both systems to the archives, where they can rest on a shelf next to the Y2K preparedness kits.