Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Chickens, eggs & QR codes

November 21st, 2011 by Seb Chan

Adam Greenfield at Urbanscale just posted some interesting research his team has been doing in NYC on the citizen familiarity of QR codes.

This is especially timely as QR codes are getting a lot of interest (finally) from the cultural sector. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney has been doing QR codes for a few years – first failing – but now perhaps getting good traction with them now that the code scanner is built into the exhibition catalogue App. Shelley Bernstein’s team at the Brooklyn Museum have also been rolling them out. And Wikipedia’s been promoting the nifty language ‘auto-detect’ QR codes that Derby Museum & Art Gallery have developed (QRpedia).

But there are still very valid concerns about the appropriateness of them – especially now that visual recognition is coming along rapidly (see Google Goggles at the Getty) and maybe even NFC might gain traction (see Museum of London’s Nokia trial). QR codes feel very much like a short term intermediate solution that isn’t quite right.

Here’s Greenfield:

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 … were successfully able to use QR codes to resolve a URL, even when coached by a knowledgeable researcher.

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.”

These findings mirror the anecdotal experience most of us have had with QRs ourselves. The value proposition just isn’t obvious – and the amount of scaffolding required to encourage scanning can, in museums, sometimes take up as much visual space as the content that ends up being displayed (especially for object labels).

Is this just a chicken and egg situation? I’m not sure.

Greenfield’s initial findings do show that even when there is awareness there isn’t interest. And, I’d add, even when there is interest, museums need to be especially careful to consider what visitors actually want/expect to see when they scan vs what museums are able to show/tell. This is a crucial distinction that is often missed in discussions of in-gallery content delivery.

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