Like many of my great ideas, this brief treatise of the foundation of human civilization started as a debate with the Manfriend. One of the things I truly appreciate about my relationship is that Manfriend likes to bounce business concepts off of me. Every once in a while, one will stick and I get to work on a project with the best partner I have ever had. Other times, I so completely reject the premise that my feedback very quickly morphs into a rant. This was one of those times. And the subject of this rant? The relevance of QR codes on labeling.
The Rise and Fall of QR Codes
I actually never got to the meat of the business idea that Manfriend was working on. All I know is that it had to do with QR codes and labeling and that no one should use that technology or build a consumer facing service based on it. The popularity of creating and printing QR codes on all the things was strictly out of novelty. Let’s back up for a moment.
QR codes (QR standing for “quick response”) were designed in the early 90’s as a rather elegant solution for tracking parts in vehicle manufacturing by those crafty Japanese (see also: Toyota Production System). The use of these 2 dimensional codes, however, hit a peak in the 20-tweens with the rise of smartphone technology and the availability of mobile marketing information.
As mobile computing continued to mature, there was one flaw in the master plan of marketing everything using the printed code as a gateway to all the information of the universe. That flaw: consumers have to take their phone out, open an app, and voluntarily scan a code to receive this information for it to be useful to anyone. So naturally, after the novelty wore off, no one used them. People refused to use them so much so, that it spawned one of my many fond corners of the internet: a Tumblr with all pictures of people scanning QR codes. (Go ahead and visit it.)
Nowadays, QR codes have been relegated to mobile rewards, ticketing and payment systems. And even in those arenas its days are numbered with the emergence and popular adoption of NFC. The death of QR code relevance is upon us and thy name is Apple Pay.
Premise of Civilization and the Rise of Technology
The story of the QR code is a repetition of a tale as old as civilization itself. Literally. What exactly is civilization but the ability of man to use his superior intelligence to construct ways so that he is not susceptible to the vulnerabilities of nature? No, really, I’m pretty sure I remember this story from sixth grade. Basically, a bunch of dudes got tired of walking around with the whole hunting and gathering shtick and happened upon some sweet farm land. So the dudes used their superior intelligence to create a rudimentary agricultural system. As time passed on, they got better at it and, lo and behold, they began to have a surplus of food.
So as time continued to pass on, man had some extra time to think about stars and stuff, and some new guys thought, “Hey, farming is boring. I want to make stuff and trade it for food instead.” Then later on, the next generation always being lazier than the previous, some of our forefathers thought, “Hey I don’t really HAVE to farm or make stuff. There are plenty of people in my immediate geographic area already doing those things. Instead, I’m going to write things about farming and making things. I’m also going to right some rules about how my asshole neighbor isn’t allowed to steal my food, because reasons.”
My point being that at the very heart of technological advancement by man is the desire to make things easier, because, at our core, we are the guy who didn’t want to walk around anymore practically starving to look for food. Have you ever watched an episode of Naked and Afraid? That looks hard.
The paradox of which is that we work so hard to create incredibly complex and beautiful innovation, because, in retrospect, not doing so would make our evolving lives that much more difficult. We’re at a point in history where we have built machines to not only build other machines, but to fight our fundamentally human wars for us.
Case Study: eCommerce and UX Design
Which brings me back to my discussion with Manfriend. He seemed to think that consumers would find an information gap without the use of QR codes. My argument was that people really aren’t seeking the kind of information that QR codes are designed to provide. Using QR codes is lazy marketing, as it fills a gap that only clever design was meant to occupy.
My primary work background is in retail and online sales. This background has opened up web design as something more than the hobby it once was for me in my teens. And if there is one thing that is absolutely critical to web design, its that a designer needs to make it as easy as possible for the user to do exactly what you want them to do. UX (aka “user experience”) is a field in design based entirely on this premise.
If there is one thing that years of online sales has taught me is that people are profoundly lazy. Rather than check their e-mail for a shipping confirmation, it’s much easier for them to e-mail you. You know what else is much easier to email about? Product research. So much of the work I do is Googling answers to product questions. And sometimes that’s not even necessary, because the answers are in the product description on the page the customer e-mailed you from. In the bullet points. And completely capitalized.
Mail-in rebates have been the darling of the retail industry for this exact reason. Mail-in rebate promotions are reliably dependent on consumers never mailing them in.
What you call “lazy,” I call “efficient”
I have a theory I can certainly delve deeper in at some other point, but it’s that there is a reason marathon/endurance race participation has seen a spike in recent years. 2013 saw a record breaking year of total marathon event finishers with approximately 514,000 people crossing the coveted finish line. With employment opportunities being so demoralizing at times and milestones of the “American Dream” being so difficult to attain, accomplishing a physical challenge such as a marathon is the easiest way to accomplish something.
Yes, you read that right: more people are participating in challenging activities because it’s easier than achieving the socially constructed expectations for their life. Think of all the hard work you would have to do now to attain social mobility. Now compare that to a 6 month training cycle culminating in a euphoric sense of achievement. The math here is pretty simple.
The point I hope I am making with this illustration is that we accomplish great things, because we perceive the alternative to be hard. And while using QR codes are lazy marketing, the invisible hand of consumer laziness will ultimately win and breed adoption of better technology. The path of least resistance guided human evolution to be clever that way.