Will QR codes help consumers get cheaper energy?

man scanning qr code

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:

qr bar graph

Number of times people have used a QR code in past month.

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.

QR WTF: transitory technology and internet immortality


An unquestioning press release re-hash on The Guardian’s website today claimed “traditional graveyards are being transformed through technology with interactive headstones providing a revolutionary way for people to remember loved ones.”

A £300 QR code etched into granite, claim Dorset funeral directors Chester Pearce, will enable visitors to learn all about the person buried, rather than being limited to a name, age and date of birth and death.

Or will it? QR codes attract significant criticism for being fiddly and hard to use, but in many cases this is simply because they’re used in entirely the wrong contexts.

My concern in this case, though, is that people are being sold a transitory technology for what’s supposed to be a lasting memorial. Let’s look at the issues:

  • The QR code links through to a website giving details of the deceased, as well as providing a comment feature where people can share memories.
  • All well and good – for now. But how long will this last? Who curates the content? Who ensures the domain remains up in five years, ten years?
  • Then let’s look a little further ahead. Despite a great deal of hype, signs are pointing towards QR codes not really gaining traction with smartphone users.  People are talking about the (far less faffy) Near Field Communication protocol performing the same job, better. I would wager that the QR code won’t be around in 2030, let alone 2080.
  • If my wager is wrong, that’s ok, because I’m pretty sure this website won’t exist either – and nor will the ‘lasting memorial’ websites these QR codes point to.
  • So what are we left with, in 2030? A weird design, etched in stone, which no device can decode, and (even if it could) almost certainly won’t point to a live website.

Claims that the QR codes will be “useful to those visiting graveyards to research their family tree” in the future ring very hollow once you think the thing through.

I’m no fan of QR codes, but in the right contexts they perform a useful task. What are those contexts?

As Bruce Willis’s case against Apple over the right to bequeath digital purchases highlights the fleeting nature of online content, many are starting to look at their digital legacy. As content increasingly becomes digital-only, it’s right that we consider the permanence of what we leave behind. But leaving a QR code as your memorial means that you’re merely one whose name was writ in water, not marble.

(with thanks to Adrian Short for the Keats quote).