December 16, 2011


Getting data from a public place onto a mobile device—whether that data is a discount coupon, a museum map, a restaurant menu, or any other kind of mobile web site, is a problem with no shortage of solutions. Location-based services, NFC systems, and even Bluetooth 4.0 each offer a handful of promising possibilities, but the clear leader is the simplest: QR codes. Yet while the QR code has long been a staple in its native Japan, it has a ways to go to find popular adoption elsewhere.

The QR code likely owes no small part of its popularity in Japan to a long history of integration into mainstream mobile handsets. Even within the infamously labyrinthine UIs of popular clamshell handsets, QR code scanning generally isn’t much harder to find than the camera mode itself. Yet nearly everywhere else outside Japan, you’re on your own.

Working out of the box

Engagement with QR codes in the US is on the rise—to a towering 5%, according to a recent Forrester study. Percentages are higher with smartphones (pushing 20% with the iPhone, higher still on power-user-focused Android), but the Japanese example makes it clear: making QR codes a reliable way to connect with the majority of mobile users will require a better, more integrated user experience from phone manufacturers and mobile OS vendors. The question for them, then, is how to integrate that experience.

Most Japanese phones have the equivalent of a discrete menu item or app for QR code scanning. But there’s really no reason for it to be stuck outside the phone functionalities that bookend the QR code experience: the camera (the external end) and the browser (the internal end). Ideally, it should be integrated into one of them.

Exploration 1: The browser

As QR codes will generally lead to a mobile website, it follows to attach the acquisition of the code to the beginning of the web browsing experience. Why not integrate QR code scanning right into the browser’s address bar?

In this concept, the camera icon appears when Mobile Safari’s address field is clear, replacing the circular “X” button: The user has signaled an intent to enter a new address, and so the camera icon augments the affordance of the keyboard as an additional input channel for a web address. This vocabulary could be used for QR codes’ less-popular applications as well, as a channel inside a contacts app or calendar.

Exploration 2: The camera

Many phones have a dedicated camera key, and even the iPhone gained a soft-key to launch the camera in iOS 5. This rapid access to the camera makes it a great candidate for reducing friction to the acquisition of a QR code. But how do we balance ease of recognizing codes with the other, non-code-reading functionality of the camera?

One solution is to make it modal: The iPhone’s bundled camera app offers an obvious place for such a switch.

The ideal solution, though, might be to simply make the functionality transparent. Rather than require mode selection or input from the user at all, why not simply detect QR codes as they come into view? The potential pitfall here is unintentional activation, should a QR code accidentally come into the field of view while the user is trying to use the camera for something else. The intrusiveness of the scanning affordance must be minimized.

An augmented-reality-style pop-up with a preview of where the QR code will navigate to offers a clear path to the link, but without interrupting normal camera usage. This approach does, however, lack some affordances. Without a mode selector, how is the user to know the camera app is capable of scanning QR codes?

In the wild

Anecdotally, the camera app as starting point seems to be the most intuitive context for a QR code reader. I recently assisted a co-worker who was attempting to test a QR code one of the designers at the office had prepared. She was concerned the code wasn’t set up correctly, as it wasn’t registering on her iPhone.

The problem? She had never installed a reader app. The seamlessness of the iPhone experience and the growing popularity of QR codes logically led her to believe the built-in camera app would read them.

Perhaps it’s time for Apple, Google, and other leaders in the mobile industry to make that logic hold.