We’ve previously shared some tips and advice about how to use QR codes, but today we’re looking a slightly different angle – how do you decide which tool to use? To cover this topic we have a guest blog post from Neil Ford, Academic Liaison Development Manager for Library and Learning Support at Bournemouth University. Neil has previous experience in health, public, commercial and academic libraries, current interests include: digital literacy and academic skills support, QR codes, collection development, co-creation of reading lists in academic liaison.
Recently colleagues and students who want to use QR codes in their work have been asking “which tool should I use”? With so much choice it can be a difficult question, and one that depends partly on what you want to achieve with your QR campaign. In this post, I’m going to discuss some criteria that can be used to evaluate URL shortening and QR code generating tools. I’ll be drawing on experience using these tools on a recent project at Bournemouth University that introduced QR codes to our book shelves to guide students to relevant ebooks.
Many online tools now enable you to create shortened URLs and QR codes. This dual functionality makes a lot of sense as the shorter the URL, the easier the QR code is going to be to scan.
Are all URL shorteners equal? Well no!
In terms of technical performance there is quite a difference between different providers.
Another point to consider is whether the tool been designed as a URL shortener or as a QR code generator or both? This might seem like a silly question but, how the tools developers see the product, could have a profound effect on its usability for your purpose (see the section on user interface below).
The size and quality of a QR code can have a significant effect on how easy it is for devices to scan. It’s worth comparing the images that different tools produce to see how well the image meets your needs. How big is the QR code that is produced? Will it meet your needs or will you need to edit it using an image editor?
Again this may not matter too much if you are only producing a couple of codes. If you’re working with large numbers of codes you will want to avoid too much work manipulating images. In general: the larger the image, the better! It’s much easier to shrink an image and maintain quality than vice-versa.
The media that you use to deliver your QR codes will affect how important this criteria is to you. If you are producing codes for a small handout or business card then image size may not matter (as users can get right up close to scan the code). If you’re using codes on posters, signage or lecture slides it may be more of an issue. Creating and testing a prototype using a variety of tools will help you to find out which tools meet your needs.
How easy is it to shorten the URL and get a QR code out of the interface? If you are just producing a few codes for posters then this may not be such a concern for you. If however you are producing hundreds or even thousands of codes then ease of use is going to matter! Even a couple of extra clicks could make a great difference. Half way through our QR code project at BU, Bit.ly’s user interface was “enhanced”, which added extra steps to the process of getting to a QR code. Whilst you can’t control how web tools develop their interfaces, you can select a tool that demonstrates concern for their user community when implementing change.
Seeing the number of hits on your QR code should be a key part of your ongoing evaluation of your QR campaign. Does the service you’re using to create your shortened URLs and QR codes enable you to see the usage? Statistics about how and when your users access library resources can be part of the added value that you can get from a QR campaign. As well as promoting resources, usage statistics can tell you about how and when your users want to access library resources.
You may need to dust off your crystal ball for this one. Free, web-based tools offer us great opportunities but it’s important to remember that, even though the tool may be “free” you are investing your time and work in using it. There is always a risk that the tools will change, move, or even disappear… (did anyone else feel slightly nervous when that whole Delicious thing was going on?). While there are no guarantees, if reliability is important to you then it may be worth going with a well-established tool like Google, even if you prefer a different user interface or URL shortener. If the worst happened and the tool that you’ve used for your url shortening were to disappear, how easy would it be to move your shortened urls and QR codes to another platform? Keeping a record of the targets that your QR codes point to is one way to recover from such a disaster with minimum fuss!
Persistence vs flexibility
Similar to the last point, you may want to consider the life cycle of your shortened URL/ QR code. One of the main reasons that we chose to use Bit.ly for our QR code shortener was that it guaranteed that the shortened URL was persistent and would not expire. At the time this seemed like a benefit. Reflecting back though, being able to change the target of our QR codes would have been a better attribute. Shortly after our QR codes were added to the shelves, we learnt that our library catalogue (our QR codes point to catalogue searches for ebooks) had changed ownership and as a result would be changing their URL! This means that we will need to create new shortened URLs and QR code labels for about 1,000 catalogue searches!
Fortunately, we have recorded our searches and will be able to complete the work efficiently. Looking on the bright side, this gives us an opportunity to re-evaluate the tools we’ve been using and move to one that better meets our needs in terms of usability, metrics and flexibility.
I hope this has been a useful reflection. I’d love to hear about your experiences creating QR codes. Which of the criteria above are important to you? Do you have any other considerations when choosing this sort of tool?