InDesign CC and 2D Barcodes

I’ve been reviewing, using, and talking about InDesign since version 1.0. With each new incarnation, I marvel that Adobe continues to add new functionality. After all, it’s page design software; how many new things can there be?

With the latest Creative Cloud-deliverable version, users can now auto-generate QR Codes—those ubiquitous 2D barcodes that, when scanned by one of many smartphone apps, point users to a mobile experience of some kind.

The InDesign feature itself seems to be well implemented. The QR Codes are vector-based, with transparent backgrounds, which means they can be scaled without degradation, and even brought into Illustrator for enhancement. (I’ll explore the issues with that in a future blog.)

What really concerns me is that InDesign’s new feature will put a dubious power in the hands of designers who do not understand the nature of the mobile experience. Everyone I know has had the disappointing experience of scanning a QR Code only to be directed to a non-mobile-optimized website. Worse, there is seldom a viable mobile call to action to be found in many QR-Code-related campaigns. (For examples of how it SHOULD be done, check out www.print2d.com.)

QR Codes are already in disrepute, thanks to ill-advised campaigns and over-use of free QR Code generators on the Web. The new InDesign feature is a logical, potentially practical innovation, but dangerous in the wrong hands.

Six Simple Rules for QR Codes

I’ve written and lectured on this quite a bit lately, so I thought I’d post a summary of best practices for QR Codes and other forms of 2D barcodes. With all the hoopla about integrated media (adding mobile engagement to print or video), it seems that a lot of marketers and advertisers are taking the “ready-fire-aim” approach. QR Codes are not new; they’re just getting a late start in North America. They have enormous positive potential, if used correctly. When used incorrectly, they’ll make you and your campaign look foolish.

For the long version of this list, email me: john@bytemedianews.com.

RULE 1: Keep the “Data Density” Low

The more data you encode the denser the resulting tag will be. A “matrix” of more than 33×33 data pixels increases the risk that it will not be scanned or processed correctly. This holds true for URLs. The shorter the URL, the less dense your QR Code image or tag will be. Use a third party URL shortener like bit.ly or TinyURL, if possible, or create short subdomains.

RULE 2: Print Conditions Matter

QR Code images or “tags” should be at least one inch (2.54 cm) square if the consumer is holding the printed piece. For posters and display media, it needs to be large enough for easy scanning. It must also have sufficient margins around the image. QR Code tags should always be printed for use in optimal viewing conditions and on media suitable for mobile users (e.g., on pedestrian mall signs, not on freeway signs).

RULE 3: Make It Easy to Download a Reader

Most smartphones in North America do not come with 2D barcode reader software preloaded. Until that changes, every QR Code campaign must include a simple means of locating and downloading the software. One great approach is 2DGO (http://2dgo.org), a free 2D barcode assistant.

RULE 4: Make the Landing Page Mobile-Friendly

Nothing will kill your 2D barcode campaign faster than directing users to an ordinary Web page. What works on a regular browser will often frustrate and anger the very people you’re trying to reach. Make sure your landing page is optimized for mobile use.

RULE 5: Offer the User Something Valuable

You’re asking a mobile user to spend his or her time with your brand on their personal, handheld device. Make the experience worth the effort. Offer something the user actually wants — something that meets a real need.

RULE 6: Give the User Something Meaningful To Do

Every QR Code scan and its mobile experience represent potential value: a sale or lead, a more brand-loyal customer, a long-term business relationship. For that to happen, the mobile landing page must include some meaningful, desirable action that the user can take — one that makes sense on a mobile phone. (The list of possible mobile responses is long, but a campaign should only use those that really fit.)

Always give the mobile user a real reason to interact with your brand. Just printing a QR Code without creating an engaging mobile experience is like building the door but forgetting to build the house.

For Advertisers, Will QR Codes Blend the Print-Mobile Experience?

Ignoring Harold Ramis’ dire warning: “Don’t cross the streams,” advertisers are daily crossing the streams of media experience, combining Internet and mobile interaction with more traditional fare ― most notably television. Whether our brains can really handle the cascade is an unanswered question, but there is no turning back; consuming one media while interacting with another is “in.” (Text “Amen” to 987654321, if you agree.)

Television is only the first medium to experience this on a large scale. Print advertising, believe it or not, is probably next. The imminent prospect of QR Code (the name is derived from “quick response” 2D bar codes) usage in movie posters, retail store signage and product labels means that print ads in magazines and newspapers will ― and, in fact, already are beginning to ― follow suit. Once the public acceptance of scanning printed pieces with smartphones reaches a tipping point, QR Codes will likely become as commonplace as UPC codes are today.

QR Codes, in brief, are two-dimensional images containing encoded data. (There are other 2D codes, but QR Code appears to be winning.) The process was developed by a Japanese auto parts manufacturer, but is now an open, ISO-governed spec. The more data and error-correction employed, the larger the code gets. Just about anything can be encoded, but the most common use is for shortened URLs, preferably pointing the user to a mobile-optimized site. Unlike the disastrous CueCat experiment of 1999-2000, QR Codes do not require a proprietary scanner, just a smartphone with reader software.

Barriers to Adoption

There are still significant barriers, but these are falling. Until recently, downloading QR Code reader software was a separate step ― and often a barrier to proceeding further. The latest version of Google’s Android and Nokia’s Symbian OS now include pre-installed readers, however, with Apple and even RIM purportedly following suit. Phone CCD camera technology still cannot match a dedicated scanner, but even that gap will close.

Another problem is that QR Codes are decidedly ugly, although firms like Warbasse Design (www.warbassedesign.com) are inventing new ways to include codes in more attractive modes ― such as its clever Iron Man 2 campaign. Also, as smartphone cameras improve, the codes will also be printable at smaller sizes than the current 0.75-inch minimum.

Adoption Trends

Widespread QR Code usage will be common in the entertainment industry first, followed by fashion and clothing manufacturers, the auto industry and―eventually―by other blue chip brands. The reason why entertainment leads the pack is obvious: Movie and TV trailers are easy content to package as a meaningful mobile experience. Other brands will have to work harder, to avoid the pitfall of sending users to a nondescript or non-engaging landing page or―worse still―one that breaks the mobile browser. Above all, QR Codes in print ads need to provide real, exclusive benefits or special offers, such as loyalty program points or e-commerce discounts.

QR Codes may even have benefits on the newsstand. Customers at Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble may not buy all the magazines they browse, but they might scan a code, if suitably motivated. Where that code leads is up to the publisher and its advertisers.

When to Start

Some proponents believe that the QR Code “tipping point” is only six to eight months away, while others believe that camera hardware limitations will hold things up for two to three years. In either case, it needs to be in everyone’s media planning now. With all the attention being focused―justifiably―on interactive digital editions, publishers and advertisers must not ignore the potential of scanable codes in their printed medium, and the engaging mobile sites to which they must lead. They must also resist the temptation to use QR Codes badly, wasting readers’ time on unsatisfying mobile experiences.

The time to prepare is now. Publishers and advertisers who believe QR Codes are limited to Japan, or to young hipsters, should remember how odd it first seemed to hear about reading emails on cell phones.

John Parsons (blog originally published in
Publishing Executive
; re-posted with permission)