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Are they efficient or clunky and overengineered? Are they for purchases and commerce or for entertainment? Do they educate or confuse? Each of those descriptions has been used to refer to QR codes, the black, scannable squares of code that take smartphone users to some form of linked content. Regardless of people’s view of them though, their uses continue to expand, driven by several macroeconomic and social trends.

The impact of COVID-19 is a pretty obvious driver. If and when consumers felt safe venturing out to a restaurant, having a QR code in the menu or printed onto their check enabled them to pay with virtually no physical contact with any servers. Public health services also post QR codes that vaccine-seekers can scan to get an appointment, check their status, and so forth. For many educators, the QR codes have proven invaluable in ensuring that students have access to the classroom materials that they need when they are learning at home.

All of these developments were preceded by a necessary prior shift though, induced by an Apple update to its phones’ operating systems. That is, the iOS 11 update meant that every iPhone’s camera could scan the QR codes automatically, such that users did not have to download a separate app to make the link, as they previously did. This ease of use greatly expanded people’s willingness to scan the codes, which then set the stage for their expanded uses.

Such uses were not the original purpose of QR codes. Rather, they were invented by an in-house engineer, seeking ways to streamline and facilitate supply chain operations for an automobile manufacturing firm. The idea was that the “quick response” codes could inform the company where each part was in the supply line, enabling faster adjustments and just-in-time manufacturing capability.

Their uses clearly have expanded since then, though not without some stops and starts. As the codes spread, many firms used them in confusing or inapplicable ways, such as when they would be pasted onto outdoor billboards along highways, which drivers could not reasonably stop to scan. Some forward-thinkers hired tattoo artists to ink them with personalized codes that, when scanned, would take acquaintances to their personal social media pages or websites, though that was more for fun than functionality. But as more helpful and relevant applications have emerged, more consumers realize their convenience. In China, where mobile payments are extremely common, more than 90 percent of transactions rely on QR codes or similar links to digital wallets. China’s central government also used them to help trace COVID-19 patients’ movements and health status during the pandemic.

In such settings, when people want the convenience of remote links to necessary information and functions, and companies grow better at supporting their use, the clear functionality and straightforward appeal of QR codes makes them unavoidable. You might not get one tattooed onto your arm, but you’re likely to be scanning quite a few of them on your phone.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why has the spread of QR codes been so staggered, rather than linear? What factors have slowed the growth, and which ones have increased it?
  2. What other, creative uses can you imagine for QR codes that might support marketing efforts?

Source: Lora Kelley, “Actually, QR Codes Never Went Away,” The New York Times, January 28, 2021