QR codes - sense behind the dots.

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I'm sure we've all encountered a ‘Quick Response’ - QR code before, that small black and white box you can scan with your phone to magically point you toward some kind of additional content. They were first created in 1994 by a Japanese data capture company; originally designed to track car parts. Since then, marketers have latched onto them as a way of effectively linking people to further content from print campaigns, while there are also a number of creative ways the general public have utilised the codes.

qr code
Versatile - There's no real limit as to where you can print a QR code.

But have you ever wondered, what do all the dots mean – is there method behind the madness? The answer, of course, is yes. Here’s a helpful graphic that’s sheds a little light.

qr code

  • Version Information: QR codes come in all number of sizes, depending on the amount of information (or number of ‘modules’) required. The size of a QR code is known as the ‘version’, falling between versions 1 and 40, dependant on size. For codes version 7 and above, these two 6x3 boxes must be included containing the version information string, notifying the size of the code.
  • Format Information: The format information string provides information on the level of ‘error correction’ and ‘mask pattern’.There are four levels of error correction, L M Q and H. To put it simply, this is information on how much ‘backup’ data the QR code holds. For instance, Level L has the least backup data. This means that the physical code could receive up to 7% of damage before it is likely to no longer work. Level H however, tells us that the code contains much more backup data and therefore, can take up to 30% of damage before no longer being functional. QR code users can change the level of error correction depending on the intended use for the code i.e. how likely is the code to be damaged? The ‘toss-up’ here is that, as we increase the level of error correction, we must increase the version (or size) of the code, in order to hold the additional data, which could prove problematic if space is tight.The mask pattern contains a formula for how the matrix of the code will be outputted (there are 8 available). It starts to get a little complex here, but the basic purpose of a mask pattern is the make the final QR code as easy as possible for a QR scanner to read.
  • Timing: The timing boxes always alternate between black and white, and therefore don’t contain any ‘information’ as such. Rather, these boxes are used to help detect the position of each cell in the ‘grid’ by the end-user mobile application.
  • Position & Alignment: These parts are compulsory in QR codes, regardless of the size, and are used as detection patterns. One master-stroke of the QR code makers is that they can be scanned from any orientation. When the end-user scans the code, the three position boxes and analysed for their position against the alignment box, therefore allowing the program to work-out which way the QR code is facing. This is particularly useful if the QR code was printing on a postal package for example, so can be scanned quickly and easily from any direction.
  • Everything else: The rest of the code contains the particular data wishing to be transmitted. QR codes can hold a whole number of different formats of information – including numeric and alphabetic characters, symbols, binary and Japanese characters. A QR code can hold 100 times the data of a conventional bar-code, allowing for far wider functionality.

So there we have it - QR codes for dummies, on a basic level. The codes have had a bit of a troubled life in the marketing world, a significant problem being poor quality content behind boxes. Just think about it, how many times have you scanned a code to find fairly useless or uninteresting results at the other end? In this sense, we should be careful when using QR codes, much in the same way we are with content marketing - don't do it just for the sake of it.

Another issue that has limited the value of QR codes is the lack of standard end-user software. Neither Android or Apple mobile operating systems include QR code scanning apps pre-loaded. In many cases, this is a deal-breaker; a significant barrier between QR code content and the consumer.

Have you used QR codes before? Perhaps have a think about how they could be relevant for your business activities.

Until next time.

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