Thursday, September 10, 2009

Do-It-Yourself QR Codes: A 4-Step Guide

Approximately one year ago, the Mattress Factory began experimenting with QR (or Quick Response) codes and this past April the museum became the first in the United States to utilize the technology on-site as a visitor engagement tool. More on that HERE. Our use of QR Codes in the galleries has been getting some attention (1,2), and I've fielded numerous inquiries from artists and arts organizations wishing to utilize this technology in their practice or operations.

One can only presume that, as 2D barcode technology continues to evolve and becomes more accessible to more people, more artists and arts orgs will want to utilize it. And on the heels of that interest comes people and companies that will attempt to capitalize from providing clients with an essentially open (read: FREE) technology. So, in an attempt to save our fellow artists a boat-load of money, we decided to publish a step-by-step guide for those who wish to experiment with QR code technology. No consulting firm needed. Please keep in mind that this is only how we here at the MF implemented the codes. If you think there are better ways, or workarounds, please share in the comments to the post.

STEP 1: Upload Killer Content (IMPORTANT!!)
Give people or visitors a reason to open the codes. The codes we place throughout the galleries contain link to mobile browser optimized (JI - 9/15/09) rich multi-media content that provides context or backstory to the artworks we exhibit. We upload video files to YouTube, behind-the-scenes still images to Flickr, and informative text-based PDF files, all of which are supported by QR code technology accessible via most mobile platforms (JI - 9/15/09). Universal codes that access a stagnant website may prove to be less interesting to your audience.

STEP 2: Generate the Codes
Once you have developed the content you wish to share with your audience, it's time to make the codes. We use a very simple web generator provided by Kaywa. This generator is nice because it provides output & resolution options. If you're creating a print piece, you can select the extra large file output which optimizes quite nicely for signage.

Because the density of information contained within a code can effect its readability, we shorten all URLs with This may seem like a frivolous extra step, but it greatly impacts the ease with which our codes are read. Below are two codes that open the same URL. The URL embedded in the less dense code on the right has been shortened making this code easier and more consistently read.

STEP 3: Place or Hang Codes In Desired Locations
Once we generate our codes, we design the signage and collateral materials that will hold them. Codes can be displayed and read in hardcopy or electronic (screen) format. The only obstacle we've experienced has been customizing the size of the codes. Ideally, we'd like the codes to be smaller (i.e. 3/4" x 3/4"), but the smallest we've been able to go with consistent readability has been 1.5" x 1.5". As QR technology and hardware progresses, I anticipate the ability to reduce code sizes will emerge in the near future.

Mattress Factory Museum
Mattress Factory gallery card containing a QR code.

STEP 4: Introduce the QR Codes to Users in a Non-Intimidating Way
Let's face it. The unknown scares people. And new technology has a way of intimidating potential users. We knew going into this that it was imperative to present the codes to visitors through technology they were already familiar with. We started by hanging several "This is a QR Code" signs in the museum lobby and elevator. These signs contain a short description about what the codes are.

We knew visitors would have more questions about the codes that would be impossible to answer through signage, so we created a simple text message (SMS) info relay. Through TextMarks, an inexpensive and easy SMS shortcode provider, visitors who send the keyword QRCODE to TextMarks' shortcode receive an immediate reply containing two links. The first link directs the user's mobile phone browser to a site that detects what type of phone they're using, provides more information, and a FREE download of the appropriate code reading application.

The 2nd link directs iPhone users to App Store, where they can download the most current FREE version of the BeeTagg Multicode Reader. There are numerous barcode reading applications available on most mobile platforms, but we recommend BeeTagg because of it's universality across the spectrum. In fact, factory-installed readers are now common on many phones including Nokia devices and the G1 Android. This SMS information relay has proved to be a vital piece to our QR code puzzle and has served those visitors curious about the technology greatly.

So this is what worked for us. I'm interested to hear if other organizations find this information useful and beneficial. For further reading about QR codes in a museum setting, check out how the Powerhouse Museum in Australia has been using them. If you have further questions or a tip that might help others to implement innovative use of QR codes, feel free to leave a comment. If you'd like to hit me up off-line, shoot over an email or track me down on Twitter.

Read All Posts by Jeffrey


Daria Brashear said...

Just one thing: when you've placed the same QR code in multiple places, like, say, throughout 1414, finding a way to make it obvious that someone who's decoded and fetched information once need not do it again has some value. Otherwise, as you already knew, I am a huge proponent and fan of this use of technology.

Jeffrey @ the MF said...

Great recommendation. We'll definitely incorporate this moving forward.

radon said...

Thanks for writing this. It's exciting that this is DIY-able both for institutions and artists.

Shelley said...

Jeff - excellent tips...especially the shortened URL bit. Thanks for posting.

justinph said...

This is really helpful. Glad to see some other institutions within the US have been experimenting. We've been toying with the idea at the Walker.

Philip Warbasse said...

2D Barcodes are the messenger and nothing more. They don't "support" anything. They bring us to content by scanning a tag vs. typing in a url or some other form of text-data. They make accessing content easy, creating one of the first "digital bridges" between the real and the virtual.

My design firm has been creating 2D marketing strategies for nearly 3 years now and we have learned a lot. I hope these tips will help you understand why a good consulting firm is still very important in mobile marketing. I am, however, a proponent of doing things for oneself, thus I am writing this to help artists make their own way. Additionally, I am throwing in some assistance at the end of this post for anyone who needs it. Please see full post here

Very Best,
Philip Warbasse
Warbasse Design

Anne G. said...

This is very cool and a perfect application of the technology. Good job on educating people in an environment where they're open to trying something new.

I'm curious if you have done any of the links geared toward benefit of differently-abled people, such as audio descriptions for sight-impaired, etc.? I think that will be a very interesting and helpful application of the technology as well.

And do you mainly link the codes to outside rich media or do you also have content on your site that you link them to? (Similar to traditional audio museum tours?)

Thanks very much, cheers,
Anne Gallagher

loveitallabove said...

ok. that is just bada$$ !

man, that is so tomorrow I can't even read the whole thing right. but the graphics you've presented give the impresssion of this real user-friendly, touchy-feely "user interface" on-site.


Jeffrey @ the MF said...

@Philip: Thanks for commenting. I just want to reiterate that we're not using these codes as a "mobile marketing strategy," but rather as an experimental visitor engagement tool. Big difference.

@Anne: You bring up a very interesting idea with respect to people with different ability levels. We do not currently use the codes in this capacity, but might explore this after your commentary. To your second question, we link to a hybrid of external rich content and internally-housed files, depending on situational appropriateness.

@James: Thanks for the kind words, dude!

Philip Warbasse said...

@jeffrey I respectfully disagree. When you make assumptions that are incorrect and encourage people to create a user-experience that will only work for the few and will be potentially bad for the rest, people like me will call you out every (and I am one of the nice guys in the industry). You are on the right track, but some of the advice in the blog post is simply incorrect. I have a lot at stake if 2D takes off, so I find it imperative to do everything I can to make the experience as useful as possible for others. Some minor changes in your strategy and you coudl increase your audience 10 fold. Don't get me wrong, this discussion has been healthy and that's what it's all about. Keep going and best of luck.

Jeffrey @ the MF said...

@Philip: I updated paragraph three to be a bit more clear, but I still don't see anything fundamentally or factually incorrect within the post. The sites that house our 2D content are optimized cross-platform and, based on user feedback, they're read consistently with little to no disruption.

Jeff said...

Philips's points are well taken, however his presumption that "A good 2D barcode campaign begins with creating a seamless, positive user experience for anyone who scans a code." reminds me a little bit of the web developers who assert that websites must support every extant version of IE, however ancient. There is a certain dose of self-interest in the suggestion. As the website says, "Contact us for a quote to host your mobile strategy."

Of course - all other things being equal - we want everyone to have an optimal experience. But it we have to choose between that and doing nothing because we can't afford the consultant from the cutting edge design firm who warns us not to try this on our own, then there is going to be a lot less innovation going on.

Bravo for what you have done and thanks for sharing the tips. I especially liked the hint about using SMS to help new users find QR code software to install.