Energy Secretary Ed Davey yesterday announced that in future all energy bills will carry QR codes, which will allow consumers to quickly see where they can get a cheaper deal.
Announcing the move, Davey added that forcing providers to add codes to bills would give people “quick, straightforward way to compare the best deal for them with a simple swipe of their phone”.
And in doing so, he revealed he’s probably never used a QR code. If he did, he’d realise that it isn’t simply a case of swiping one’s phone at all; they’re actually not that simple to use, which is why they’ve failed to take off with the general public, and why this move is unlikely to help many people switch provider.
Here’s how I can look up a QR code on my iPhone:
- Put in pin code on phone
- Open up QR app (which, like most people I don’t have on my phone, but let’s assume I did)
- Scan code, usually more than once
- Redirected to browser
- Browser takes me to page
Which is at least two steps longer than just opening up a browser and going to a website using a clean URL. In that time, the user’s attention is lost – moved on to checking Facebook, or texting their mum.
QR codes have a reputation problem. They’ve been around for 18 years, and for about seven as the supposed saviour of conversion marketing, as a mechanism for getting people to click through from physical things to URLs. Problem is, the overwhelming majority of implementations have been woeful. So where people have used one to access content, they’ve been disappointed, and so been put off doing so again. As they experience more and more bad implementations, their patience for trying again has worn thin.
An even greater proportion of people haven’t even got that far. To less digitally-inclined smartphone users, the QR code itself, with its futuristic look, could be offputting – which makes them precisely the wrong mechanism to target a group who have already shown they’re not willing or able to use a comparison website or switch to paperless billing in order to get cheaper prices.
Emotion is important in communication, and an unfamiliar mass of black-and-white pixels can elicit fear and confusion rather than delight and engagement in people who already lack confidence online (and that’s before we even touch on the bigger issue of the 6.7m adults in the UK who have never been online at all – because IT literacy is so intimately bound up with social exclusion and reading literacy)
The most recent research I can find says that just 10.8% of UK smartphone owners have ever used a QR code. Other research shows that while smartphone ownership continues to grow, QR code usage has remained flat, suggesting use is limited to a small group of technophiles.
Technology, rather than user behaviour, is at the heart of the problem here. Neither Apple nor Android phones come with a native QR reader – meaning 94.5% of smartphone users need to download an app in order to use them, creating further barriers to usage. You can’t just wave a phone over it and go. The user has to recognise it’s a QR code, know what to do with it, be convinced to do so, and then take action.
I conducted an informal survey on Twitter, asking how many times people had scanned a QR code in the last month. Here are the results:
Column 2 (once in the past month) includes one person who “only did it to prove how rubbish they are”. And bear in mind that regular Twitter users are already more likely to be a regular, confident smartphone user than someone who gets a paper gas bill.
As I’ve blogged about before, QR codes are all too often thought a simple solution for bridging the online-offline marketing divide, with littleconsideration given to the logistical and emotional barriers to successful usage. They do have some uses, and some commentators suggest their use in mobile payments may revive QR.
Efforts to signpost people toward information on better pricing are to be applauded. But I’d suggest QR codes on bills aren’t the answer here, because of the logistical, emotional and confidence barriers that prevent people using them, and because trust in QR codes has been eroded through years of marketing misuse.
tl;dr version: will QR codes help people get cheaper energy? No, I doubt it.
Photo credit: Tramell Hudson (Flickr, Creative Commons)
Edit: Terence Eden has responded to the challenge and come up with the argument for QR codes. His post is well worth reading.
It’s hard to believe we came up with the idea of 300 Seconds just a few months ago, as a way of helping women in digital to gain confidence and experience in speaking in public. We hoped that by giving speakers the opportunity to gain experience and develop their skills, we could help to tackle the lack of diversity at tech events.
Our first two events were amazing, packed with great new speakers confidently and articulately sharing their stories and experiences on a wide range of subjects – proving that there’s a vast well of talent out there for conference organisers to tap into. We’re blown away, too, by the individual success stories we hear from our participants – of gaining confidence, of going on to present to big crowds, of new jobs gained.
So we’re absolutely stoked to be hosting not one but two 300 Seconds events this week. This week is Internet Week Europe, a week-long celebration of Europe’s thriving digital industry, and what better way to celebrate than to share stories and successes in our trademark quick-fire format?
Just a fortnight ago I met up with Rosa Birch, one of the women behind Ada’s List, a new online community for women in tech, and together we hatched a plan to bring 300 Seconds to the first ever Ada’s List meetup. So we set ourselves the challenge of organising our biggest event yet in under two weeks.
The Ada’s List and 300 Seconds teams have been working hard to bring together a line-up of speakers that meet our mission: giving women in tech a platform to showcase their skills and a space to share stories, advice, tips and knowledge. We’re also really lucky to have Internet Week’s Festival Director Caroline Waxler, who will be over from New York, open the event for us.
Tickets are free and I’m pleasantly surprised at the number of people who have signed up. Men are most welcome too. If you’d like to join us, there’s still time to RSVP via Eventbrite.
Our speakers have been confirmed and are:
- Ingrid Koehler: Social media and rugby
- Amanda Coban: Managing an alternative online community
- Kate Sandall: To the universe and back
- Amy Burton: Why I still believe in Google+
- Rosie Gollancz: Trusting technology with your health
- Anke Holst: Spinning Yarns, or ‘How I went a bit bonkers about making things’
- Harriet McDougall: User-centred design
Other details are:
When: 12th November, Tuesday, from 6.30pm to 10pm
Where: The Village Hall, Shoreditch Works, 33 Hoxton Square, London N1 6NN
At the same time, Ann and I have been busy since the summer planning our first 300 Seconds outside London. BBC R&D’s Ian Forrester had been looking for ways to improve diversity at tech events for some time, and invited us to bring 300 Seconds to Media City in Salford.
They said: “Working with BBC North, BBC R&D are proud to be part of an initiative that aims to give support and a voice to those who find it a challenge to make themselves heard, and to promote the role of women in the digital community. We know that the north-west is home to some fantastic talent, and we’re excited to welcome them to MediaCity to share their ideas and insight with us.”
Our speakers are:
- Kylie Hodges: The World of Social Media, Premature Babies and International Engagment
- Jasmine Cox: Maker of Things
- Ciara McVeigh: You Don’t Have to be a Geek to Work in Tech
- Victoria Sorzano: Confessions of a Digital Witch: Finding your Niche
- Amy Lynch: The underrepresentation of women in tech conferences
- Rebecca Gregory-Clarke: Luck vs. Hard Work
- Rosie Campbell: Using Game Theory to survive in a hungry tribe
- Catherine Jones: Turning a 1920′s radio into a 21st Century Exhibit
- Jo Claessens: Maker, Me and the Community
When: 14 November, from 6pm
Where: MediaCityUK, Salford
A handful of tickets are still available.
Today is Ada Lovelace Day, an annual celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths named after the first computer programmer. In honour of the occasion, here are seven women who inspired me to work in digital:
1) My grandmother
My grandmother Marguerite was born in 1923, just a few short years after her father returned from the trenches of WW1. She studied engineering at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, and not long after graduating met and married a young Scottish man. Sadly the marriage was short-lived. There were few engineering jobs for women in those days, still less a single mum with a young child, but her technical knowledge and perfect written English meant she found work as a technical translator.
Proving you really are never too old to learn, she took a computer course at 89, and took to it like a duck to water. She got a tablet for her 90th birthday back in January, which she uses every day. She’s not tweeting yet, but I wouldn’t write it off.
2) My mum
My mum Cathie is not a techie by trade, but a travel agent – one of the first industries to embrace computing from the back office right to the front line. She’s been using computers for work since the early 70s, and was quick to realise they’d go on to disrupt nearly every industry. She understood this would be a skill everyone will need, and so she bought us our first family computer, the Amstrad CPC464. I did my first programming on this; I never got much better at it.
She was completely right about digital disrupting the travel trade; while the big high street chains are in decline, she now runs her own travel business from home, working with online tools and systems.
3) My year 9 IT teacher
She realised I had an interest in, and aptitude for, working with computers, and let me tinker away in the computer room whenever I liked. It was thanks to her that I got my first modem and got on the Internet for the first time, in 1993. I haven’t been offline since. She unknowingly changed my life and career. It’s a little embarrassing, then, that I’ve forgotten her name*.
* if any Maria Fidelis alumna are reading this and can remember her name, it would be great if you’d jog my memory
4) Mary McKenna
Mary was one of the first people off Twitter that I met in real life. She founded Learning Pool, an e-learning business based on open source. Female entrepreneurs are a rare breed in tech, but Mary’s ambition and no-nonsense attitude set her apart, and in a few short years she’s turned it into a successful global business.
Mary also proves that you don’t need an asymmetric haircut and skinny jeans to be a successful dotcom entrepreneur. She champions and supports other women in tech, with excellent blog posts like this one on negotiating your salary.
5) Sue Black
Dr Sue Black is an award-winning computer scientist, researcher, consultant and advocate of women in computing. She’s best known for her (successful) campaign to save Bletchley Park. In 2011 she set up the <goto> foundation, to to change public perception of, and increase participation in, computer science.
Sue had an atypical route into computer science, moving into it by studying as a mature student with two small children. Her story, which she’s written at length on her blog, is truly inspirational. Through tech education Sue was able to bring her family out of poverty, earn a decent living and create a better future for them all. She knows first hand what a difference education and confidence with technology can make and now wants to give that opportunity to other mums – so she founded SavvyTechMums, which delivers intensive, hands-on workshops to help mums become tech savvy.
6 & 7) Hadley Beeman and Ann Kempster
Frustrated by the lack of women we saw speaking at tech events, we talked about the reasons why this might be the case. Eventually we realised that we’d better stop talking and do something about it, and together we hit upon the idea of 300 Seconds, our series of lightning talks which aim to raise the profile of women in digital.
Hadley and Ann are both tremendously hard-working, clever, capable and endlessly curious. None of us would have got 300 Seconds off the ground alone, but they helped me realise that by working with brilliant people, and being creative and persistent, we can change the world.
This list could have been extended to 100 or more without much difficulty. On Ada Lovelace Day, people all over the world are celebrating those women in science and technology who have inspired them.
Who are the women who have inspired you?
I recently heard user experience described as the “joy of use”. But all too often, that’s tolerance at best – and more often, discontentment.
Marshall McLuhan famously wrote the medium is the message. In digital, the message – content – is inseparable from the full experience of using the site, the medium. However good the content, the end user’s impression is how both the content, and the medium that delivered it, made them feel. That means there’s a symbiotic relationship between content and the structure, design, information architecture, navigation, and anything that contributes to the joy – or otherwise – of interacting with a site.
So this weekend I took myself along to UXCampLondon, a one-day unconference for those interested in user experience.
Here’s my highlights:
Bringing human emotions into habitual micro-interactions
The two brothers behind Brighton-based agency Ribot kicked off with an opening keynote on habitual micro-interactions – those regular online habits, which give some type of reward (such as Facebook or Foursquare checkins).
These are often of limited appeal, mostly to Quantified Self nerds like me, who see the data itself (and associated bragging rights) as reward enough. But for an app to gain traction, it needs to offer the user more – it needs to recognise the value of human emotion.
Antony Ribot began by talking about the Nike+ Fuel Band, a personal activity tracker that he’s clearly a big fan of. It rewards the user with praise and recognition when they achieve successive episodes of above-target activity. But as Ribot pointed out, when you need feedback from the app is not when you’re already doing well, but when you’re close to failing, and need a reminder to spur you on to meet your goal.
While Nike+ is a great app, by focusing only on success, it fails you when you need it most. Ribot noted that when he missed a day, the app didn’t remind him. It simply re-set, as if his successful streak had never happened. He was back to square one, sending him into a kind of Nike+ tantrum, disengaged with both the app and his exercise regime.
This was a funny (if long-winded) reminder that the focus of user experience design is not design, but users – real humans with real emotions and foibles.
So Ribot made human emotion central to the iOS app they’ve created for coffee chain Harris + Hoole. This loyalty app allows users create a profile, including uploading a photo and details of their favourite coffee (‘my usual’).
When the user checks in using their handset at a branch of H+H the server will identify them in the queue from their photo, be able to address them by their first name and ask “your usual?”. Users can collect loyalty points via the app, and there are plans afoot to add payment functionality.
Aside from the obvious concerns about this being creepy and overfriendly, what’s interesting about this app is that the technology supports – but takes a back seat to – customer experience. The app provides something more than the social currency of a Facebook checkin, by layering this in to real-life customer interaction that feels warmer and more personal.
Whatever your thoughts on sharing your name, photo, location and coffee preferences with an ‘independent’ chain that’s 49% owned by Tesco, the H+H app is an impressive example of how to inject better emotional design into apps and online experiences.
This set the tone for the rest of the day, a fascinating insight into the many and varied elements that contribute to the joy (or pain) of using a website.
Simplifying the UI to improve conversion
Paola began by describing a familiar problem; an e-commerce design that’s expanded rapidly finds they have a lack of consistency in page elements, like buttons and labelling. In fact, on this site half of the front page elements were for SEO purposes only, and they have multiple product managers and departments managing the page.
There followed a textbook example of how to do a UX redesign.
- Had 40 multivariant tests running on the homepage at all times
- Did an audit of the site. Printed screenshots of inconsistent elements and showed the sheet volume to stakeholders to highlight the extent of the problem
- Created a persona. Lucy represented different customer ‘modes’, such as researching, price comparing, booking, etc. Lucy was frequently referred to in workshops (“what about Lucy? All she wants to do is book”)
- Developed a plan setting out how create consistency on buttons, next steps, location of information, etc
Once Paola had scoped the problem and solution, she sold the need for simplification to the business by emphasising the benefits in simplifying updates as well as improving customer experience (in turn, increasing conversion).
…or rather, it would have been a textbook example, if hotels.com had implemented the changes. But they haven’t yet, because of the way the site is managed. And that, my friends, is why getting your site governance right is essential.
Redesigning the comic book for the digital native form
A chance corridor conversation led me to attend a session on comics next. To say this is an unlikely choice for me is an understatement; I just don’t get the appeal of comics.
I’m very glad I did. Katan led a a fascinating discussion on reinventing the comic book for the digital age. Comics are currently where sales catalogues were in 1999, with producers putting barely-changed versions of their print design online.
That, explained Katan, is a huge missed opportunity. Digital native display of sequential art should not mean animation of flat art. To truly embrace the potential of the online form, they need to move to a display which is multi-layered and non-linear, taking full advantage of hypertextuality to give a richer experience of going back and forth in time, or between elements of the story.
Katan is working on an ambitious project, called CAPOW, which creates both a workflow system for the various artists who contribute to a comic, and a content management system that will allow for a responsive reflow of panels across screen sizes, and enable better publication of non-linear visual stories (what Scott McCloud calls the “infinite canvas”)
While I’m still not likely to buy a comic, I found this a really inspiring session; it’s left me thinking about other publications which are trapped in a presentation form from a pre-digital age, and how they can be reinvented.
Sketchnoting is a style of visual note-taking that has become hugely popular at tech conferences in the past few years. I first became aware of it when I spoke at Intranatverk earlier this year, where Francis Rowland did sketchnotes of each of the talks, including mine.
I’ve seen a bunch of other sketchnotes since, but not been tempted to begin using the technique myself as I cannot draw (At all. Really, I’m terrible at it). But when I spotted there was a workshop on it at UXCamp, I was keen to go along and find out more about it.
The session was led by Information Architect Boon Yew Chew, who uses sketchnoting as a regular technique in his work. He gave an overview of the key tools and techniques, including how to capture the key points and (usefully for me) why an inability to draw need be no barrier to taking sketchnotes.
He then challenged us to give it a go, taking notes on a short TED talk. The photo above shows my efforts. It turned out better than I expected, and is a technique I’m going to practice a little. Boon gave me a copy of Mike Rohde’s Sketchnoting Handbook, which I’m already using to try and learn the techniques and structures.
This was the first time I’ve been to UXCamp London, and overall found it worthwhile and useful event, with a good mix of talks on widely varying topics.
It could have done with more people running sessions, as at a couple of points there were only two or three to choose from, which were very overcrowded as a result. But it was very refreshing to see that women made up around half of those attending, and running sessions. And at only a tenner including lunch, it was remarkably good value too.
I’d encourage anyone with an interest in UX to attend in future years (or months – there’s a UX Camp Brighton coming up in November).