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.

Tags:   · 5 Comments

  • http://themuseumofthefuture.com Jasper Visser

    Hi Seb, thanks for this overview and the link to the research.

    The problem with QR in my opinion is that it often is an abstraction of an abstraction. It’s not only, like you say, that the value proposition is unclear; it’s unclear what the value proposition might be (after all, the QR code, like its brother the barcode might just be useful for staff/maintenance). Therefor we need all this clutter around it to explain people how to use it. Plus, with the novelty gone, people (like me) will stop to just scan them to figure out, I guess (I’ve been disappointed a bit too often).

    I have the impression the same applies to NFC, although I can’t be sure because I don’t have any personal experience with this.

    The problem with projects like Google Goggles is that there’s no abstraction at all (regardless of whether this _is_ a problem). I guess visitors in the future will as often use tools like this, as they ask staff in the gallery to tell more about an object.

    But I guess there’s a middle path, using clear icons or symbols in combination with image recognition (a future version of Goggles?), sort of like you now see the “Google X for more information” on ads. If such an icon invites scanning, either because the call-to-action is part of the design or because its location on an object label is branded (e.g. next to the audiotour labels), I guess we can invite much more people to use them.

    We tried something like that with xwashier. I was surprised people understood what they had to do to get from a physical label to the extra online content (which included downloading an app that made image recognition possible, as Google Goggles does not allow you to add to their database). But it worked pretty well, and the labels were more pleasing to look at as well (which helps if you want to put them up in the public space). 

    • Atticus Jackson

      I very much agree with this. I think people would be much more inclined to use QR Codes if the call to action was a part of the code itself, which is very possible. Brand the object and if your brand has enough pull, people will want to scan even if it’s just for another advertisement.

      More users need to know that QR Codes are useful for more than just online use. URLs are not the only thing that can be embedded in them! I’ve made a few mockups of different uses of QR codes for advertising and also personal use @ http://www.qustomqrcodes.com/content . I’m really trying to get the word out about proper use of the codes. Too many businesses use QR codes horridly!

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