Technology is a great thing. Smart phones are becoming more popular and the efficient transfer of information from the people who have it to the people who want it is always needed. This information transfer is often in the form of websites or apps but can also a variety of other sources such as RSS feeds and QR bar codes. Even though we are moving toward a more digital world, much of the communication and information we receive is in print form or other method of one-way communications. To help bridge the gap between print and digital communication, we have the QR, or Quick Response, bar code.
QR bar codes have a variety of uses and they are becoming more popular. It is common to see the strange looking square symbols on products, menus, and buildings. A while ago I wrote a post entitled Practical Small Business Technology Marketing about the benefits of QR bar codes and a few ways to use them to help your business. As with all technologies, there are improvements and updates. In an effort to stay up-to-date with those advances, I have compiled some information concerning the creation of QR bar codes, their possible uses, and the results when scanned on a smart phone.
UPDATE: If you are using QR codes, check out my other website ScanThisGuide.com. It has tons of QR code reviews from real products that you can learn what to do and not to do. Plus, you can download my free ebook that has more in depth QR code goodness. Now, back to the post…
Creating a QR bar code
There are many free online QR bar code generators available. The one I find myself using most often is from the ZXing Project. It seems to have the most options compared to the others I have tried. Google also has their own library for encoding QR bar codes and many of the generators you can find online uses Google as their generation engine. In my experience, the results of all the different generators are basically the same. The only differences are in the features they offer and the ease of use.
As I write this (early April 2012) there are 9 different formats for data including a calendar entry, contact information, URL, geo location, plus others. I’ll include a complete list later in the post. Along with the data format options, you have the option of the Bar code size (which is of little use in my opinion; I’ll discuss why in a bit), Character encoding, and Error correction (which is very important to me).
In addition to the generator, ZXing also offers free bar code scanning apps for both the iPhone and Android platforms. The one I will be showing will be the Android version running on an LG Ally. Now, on to the generator.
The following options are always available regardless of the data type encoding: Bar code size, Error correction, and Character encoding:
- Bar Code Size controls the size of the output image. Personally, I always select Large and then resize as needed. Apart from the size, you get the same image. The sizes are as follows: the Small size is 120px square, the Medium size is 230px square, and the Large size is 350px square. All sizes include a white border. More on the border size in a bit.
- Error Correction, with L, M, Q, and H options, affect the complexity of the image. Using these options, you can increase the reliability of the bar code being decoded if damaged or obstructed. The error correction ranges from 7% to 30%. The use determines the error correction needed and I often use either the L (7%) or the H (30%) options but rarely the others.
- Character Encoding controls how the data is stored. With a little experimentation, I could not find any change in the final QR when the character encoding is changed. Through a little more research, I came up with the following information:
- UTF-8 is the most common on the web but is somewhat limited
- ISO 8859-1 is the most popular, covering more characters than UTF-8
- Shift-JIS is typically used for the Japanese language
A note about the white border; the border is necessary for the scanner to differentiate the QR bar code from the background. The minimum size of the border is the width of one element from the code but it is recommended that the border be at least four elements wide. As more information is encoded, the complexity of the code increases and the sizes of the individual elements decreases. There is also a minimum size that a single element can be, but that depends on the resolution of the scanning device. Your best bet is to generate the code, scale to the desired size, and try it on a mobile device to make sure it works.
There are a number of different data formats available on the ZXing QR generator: Calendar Event, Contact Information, Email Address, Geo Location, Phone Number, SMS, Text, URL, andWifi Network.
Take note how the scanner and phone interpret the results. Depending on the data encoded in the bar code, the phone will display options for the user to utilize the data in some way appropriate for the data.
The Calendar Event allows you can encode the following options (you don’t need to fill out all of them, just the ones you need):
- All Day Event (checkbox)
- Start date
- Start time
- End date
- End time
- Time Zone
- Daylight Savings
Here is an screenshot of a Calendar Event QR being generated, the resulting bar code, and the result when scanned:
The option given to the user is to add the event to their calendar.
A Calendar Event can be used in the following ways:
- Notify customers of a sale
- Let customers know about a customer appreciation or business anniversary party
- Provide an easy way for friends to plan for that special get together by including a QR bar code in the invitation
- Remind clients of a meeting or appointment and allow them to easily enter the information into their calendar
The Contact Information data format can be used as a digital business card or just an easy way to share information. The options are as follows (any information can be omitted if desired):
- Phone Number
- Address 2
- Encoding (MECARD or vCard)
All of the fields are easily understood but the encoding may take a little explanation. Typically, a vCard is a small data file that is often attached to emails. This vCard can then be imported into Microsoft Outlook or other contact management program. A MECARD, on the other hand, is often encoded as a bar code. The fields available in both encoding formats are very similar but for QR bar codes, I think it would be a good idea if you stick with the MECARD encoding if possible.
Here is an screenshot of a Contact Information QR being generated, the resulting bar code, and the result when scanned:
One thing to notice about the above results, encoded as a MECARD, is the title field. You can that the title field in placed at the end of the notes field. The codes are very similar, but just to show the difference, here is an screenshot of a Contact Information QR being generated with vCard endoding, the resulting bar code, and the result when scanned:
In both results, the options given to the user is to add the information as a contact, to dial the phone number, or to send an email.
Contact Information can be used in the following ways:
- Easily transfer Contact Information from print form, such as a business card, to a digital form
- Leave an easy way for someone to contact you, provided they have a smart phone, without leaving you personal information for the world to see
- Control the way people enter your information into their contact database. If you have a name that is difficult to misspell or email address that is complicated, you can help out the recipient by automatically filling in all the relevant information.
The only option for the Email Address is… well… an email address.
Here is an screenshot of an Email Address QR being generated, the resulting bar code, and the result when scanned:
The options given to the user is to send an email or add as a contact.
An Email Address can be used in the following ways:
- Provide a quick and easy way for someone to send you an email without the need for them to type it in on their smartphone
- If you have a retail store, you might provide an Email Address QR to allow customers to email in suggestions or customer service questions
- If you advertise, an Email Address QR can be setup to provide an easy way to sign up for a newsletter
The Geo Location data format allows you to identify a specific place via map coordinates. The options for Geo Location are as follows:
Here is an screenshot of a Geo Location QR being generated, the resulting bar code, and the result when scanned:
The options given to the user is to show a map of the location or to get directions to the location.
Geo Location QRs can be used in the following ways:
- Easily identify the location of your business, maybe for driving directions
- Create a high tech Geo caching quest
- Communicate the location of a trail or camp to a friend meeting you on a camping trip
Similar to the Email Address, the only option for the Phone Number is a phone number.
Here is an screenshot of a Phone Number QR being generated, the resulting bar code, and the result when scanned:
Similar to the email address, the options given to the user is to dial the number or add as a contact.
A Phone Number QR bar codes can be used in the following ways:
- Give your customers an easy way to contact you with the click or a button or the scan of a bar code
- Reduce the barrier for someone to call in voice feed back. If all they have to do is scan a code and talk, they may be more willing to complete the 2 minute survey you ask them to take.
SMS, or Short Message Service, is better known as text messages. Businesses are beginning to use them more and more for marketing and discount clubs. One particular one that I use often is from a company called Plum Reward. They have small devices scattered at different businesses where you can enter your phone number, letting the business and Plum Reward know you have been there. The business can then reward you for the number of visits.
The options for SMS is as follows:
- Phone Number
Here is an screenshot of an SMS QR being generated, the resulting bar code, and the result when scanned:
The options given to the user is to send an SMS or send a MMS (a messaging format that includes pictures or sound).
An SMS QR bar code can be used in the following ways:
- Provide an easy way for customers to sign up for your text message discount club
- Allow customers to vote on your business in a contest via text messaging
- Let friends RSVP easily your party
Similar to the Phone number and Email address, Text has only one option, a text field. The encoded text can be as much as 7,000 characters but your QR reader may not be able to read that much. When possible, stick with the least amount of text required. No reason to tell your life story in bar code (but that would be cool).
Here is an screenshot of a Text QR being generated, the resulting bar code, and the result when scanned:
The options given to the user is to do a web search with that text, share the text via an email, or share the text via an SMS message.
Text QR bar codes can be used in the following ways:
- Provide a short explanation about a product or option
- Give the ingredients of a dish or recipe
- Send a secret (but not that secret) message
There are many encoding formats that only have one option and the URL is one of them. The URL, or Uniform Resource Locator, is a web address.
Here is an screenshot of a URL QR being generated, the resulting bar code, and the result when scanned:
The options given to the user is to open the link in a browser, share the link via an email, or share the link via an SMS message.
URL QR bar codes can be used in the following ways:
- As an easy way for customers to find your website. When combined with other information, such as UTM data, the clicks can be tracked to see how much traffic you are getting from specific QR bar codes and advertisements
- Send customers to a specific page to explain more about the product or service
- Provide an easy way for customers to check the status of their order or order history from an invoice
The Wifi Network QR bar code makes it easy for customers, clients, employees, and friends to access your wifi network without having to find the network and enter what may be a complicated password. For security reasons, you may decide not to broadcast your network’s SSID but with the Wifi Network QR bar code, it is easy to connect to your network.
Here is an screenshot of a Wifi Network QR being generated, the resulting bar code, and the result when scanned:
The options given to the user is to connect to the network.
Wifi Network QR bar codes can be used in the following ways:
- Direct customers and clients to the Wifi Network for general access that is not connected to your business network
- Provide employees with an easy way to connect their smart phones to the company network
- Allow VIPs or paying guests access to a private Wifi Network
As you can see, the humble QR bar code has a variety of uses. It can convey your contact information to a colleague, help you connect to a private wireless network, find out where you are, and even add that party to your calendar so you won’t forget. By adding a little creativity, QR bar codes can help your business and personal life in ways nothing else can.
QR bar codes can also be a good method of marketing, even in the absence of a smart phone. By paying attention to the error correction, size, and amount of data encoded, you can insert logos or words visually into the QR bar code itself. Check out these examples to see what I mean (for more examples, check out my Projects page):
If you have any questions about QR bar codes or any of the possible uses, drop me a line or check out some of these resources:
- Wikipedia article on the QR bar code
- Google Favorite Places
- Google Images search for QR bar codes (for useage ideas)
- Information about the QR bar code from the creator, Denso Wave
If you want to learn what makes a good QR code, check out my other site ScanThisGuide.com. There, you can find over a hundred reviews of real QR codes on products that you see everyday. Some are good and some are not so good but either way, there is a lot to learn from the mistakes and successes of others.
With all the great ways to encode data, how will you use a QR bar code? Leave a comment and let me know