Quick Response Codes (QR Codes) for technical communicators

I am submitting this article tomorrow for publication in the newsletter of the ASTC (Australian Society of Technical Communicators).  I would value your input before I submit the final text.

Have you ever seen what looks like a square bar code  on a poster, magazine or product packaging, and wondered what it is? Welcome to the world of Quick Response codes, better known as QR codes.

QR codes are a type of two-dimensional bar code developed in Japan by Denso Wave, a subsidiary of Toyota,  for the automotive industry.  The code consists of black square dots arranged in a square grid on a white background.  Information is encoded into a pattern of dots and read with a scanning device.

QR codes became popular in consumer advertising and product packaging as a result of the widespread use of smart phones. Using freely available applications, a QR code can be read with a smart phone using the built-in camera. The software then takes action depending on the type of data.

In this article I explore how QR codes can help in the field of technical communications. Can these codes help users access documentation and be better informed?

Various types of information can be encoded and will trigger an associated action on the smart phone:

  • URLs – The web browser with open the supplied link
  • SMS – a phone number is encoded along with optional SMS text allowing the user to send a text message
  • Telephone Number – phone number encoded allowing the automatically dial a number
  • Plain Text – the text will display on the screen.  To get the best results for reading with older phones, the text should be restricted to less than 300 characters.
  • vCard  / contact information –  a name (first name and last name),  phone number, web site and contact details can be encoded to create a business card. After scanning, the phone will add the details to your contacts.

How to create QR codes

How can you create QR codes? I have found many web sites for creating codes for downloading as an image file. You enter the required information, click a button and the code is generated.

  • http://goqr.me/ – easy to use web site with forms for text, URL, Call, SMS and vCard and a control for sizing the created code
  • http://www.createqrcode.appspot.com/ (uses Google’s Chart API)
  • http://www.qrstuff.com/  – this site has templates for Website URL,  YouTube video, Google Maps location, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Contact Details (VCARD), Events (VCALENDAR), and more.

How to read QR codes

There are many free applications available for iPhone and Android phones. I use an Android phone and downloaded the “Barcode Scanner” app from the Android Marketplace.  iPhone and iPad users can download QR Reader for iPhone from the iTunes store.

QR codes for Technical Communicators

The potential for using QR codes in the technical communications field is huge, but currently underutilised. At present, QR codes are mainly used in marketing and advertising. Now that smart phones are so prevalent and Internet widely available, QR codes can facilitate technical communication.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Additional text can be made available on documents and forms. A QR code does not take a lot of space, but can hold a lot of information.  Such codes could be used to provide additional information, help text or instructions in other languages.  After the Barcode Scanner program has scanned the code, I have the option of sending the text by email or SMS.

The following code contains the first verse of Australia’s national anthem – Advance Australia Fair. Click the code to display a larger version.

2. Provide links for more information.   In New York, QR tags are now printed on construction permits posted at construction sites.  This allows citizens to access web sites with more details about the construction project.  Similarly, you could create QR codes to affix to documents, project plans, training guides and user manuals.

3. Provide links to online documentation.   I would like to see QR codes attached to appliances with links to online documentation. This would be far more convenient than trying to locate the instruction manual. QR codes could be useful to link to service instructions. For example, if I wanted to repair my clothes dryer, I could scan the QR code on the back panel the access a web site of “how to” information.

4. Business cards and name badges at conferences.  QR codes containing contact information (vCard) would be useful for exchanging contact information.  The code could be printed on the name card. A new protocol would emerge at conferences, “Please may I scan your QR code?”.   If you really want to promote yourself, you can get QR codes printed on a T-shirt.

The code at the beginning of the article contains my contact details.

5. Phone numbers. QR codes could be placed next to printed phone  numbers on form. This would allow quick dialing with no mistakes in entering the number.


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4 responses to this post.

  1. Hi Charles,
    This is a great article with some stimulating ideas. I have a question though …
    Are the QR codes resizable?
    Bede

    Reply

    • The programs used to create the QR codes allow you to specifiy the size of the image. It is best to choose the size and not resize the image otherwise the image becomes fuzzy and won’t scan correctly. I will add that to the article.

      Reply

  2. You can imagine young folks though: A cute gril walks down the street with her QR code on her t-shirt (imagine that across her chest, mind you) when an interested guy walking towards her aims his smart phone at her chest and takes a pix. Upon being slapped silly he retorts: “HEY, I was JUST getting your INFO!” Yeah, yeah, sure, sure … ;0)

    Reply

  3. BTW As usual, great (informative/interesting) article!

    Reply

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