QR Codes: Helping Users Access Content
By Alex Kern, MLIS, and Janice Milliken
Content is still king, but how information is consumed is playing an increasingly important role.
The Stanislaus County Law Library in Modesto, California, has been evolving its website through the years with the purpose of better serving the information needs of our users. One aspect of that evolution was to serve users with mobile devices. In 2007, as part of my MLIS curriculum at San José State University, I had a final project that involved creating a cohesive website using the techniques learned in the class. My project consisted of recreating our website in a standards-compliant format. A standards-compliant website allows access to a wide range of users. Mobile device standards were met with a style sheet that allowed the website to be navigated and viewed on a mobile device.
In 2007, smart phones did not have the capabilities they do now. The key concepts at the time were to hide images and other incompatible content and to provide navigation in a way that the mobile phone could utilize. Eventually, the project was expanded to include all the content from our website, and it replaced our old website. Although the website included mobile access, it was not an issue for most of our users. As time passed, more of our patrons could be seen using iPhones and Android phones. At this point, my personal and professional world intersected because I now had a smart phone that was capable of interacting with our website. With this capability it became easier to make meaningful revisions to the website to optimize it for our mobile users.
Smart phones offer more than a small screen that can be used to replicate the computer web browsing experience. Smart phones are offering applications (apps) for social networking, games, and other forms of entertainment and education. One of the limitations of smart phones, however, is that typing is difficult. One way around this limitation is to embed information into a picture that can be scanned. This is the basic idea behind Quick Response (QR) codes.
Our home page has a QR code that, when scanned, will take a person to the mobile version of our OPAC. There were two primary reasons we decided to use the QR code. The first was the length of the uniform resource locator (URL). Although we could have used a URL-shortening service, the end result would still have required considerable typing effort on the part of the user, presenting a usage barrier. The second reason was to increase awareness and use of our catalog. A person with a smart phone might be willing to look at the catalog if access is easy.
The decision to implement the QR code was easier than the actual implementation, which took more work. Some of the lessons learned during implementation included:
- Contrast between the QR code and its background is important. Solid backgrounds make it easier for a device’s camera to differentiate between the background and the QR code. I chose to use black QR code against a white background to simplify matters. However, if you treat a QR code as a line drawing when placing it, your chances of success will be significantly increased.
- Create a blank buffer around the QR code to help the device differentiate between the QR code and the background.
- Original Android Phones and iPhones cannot read reversed QR codes, so these codes should be avoided to provide access.
- The complexity of a QR code is determined by the length of the information being embedded. Using a URL-shortening service will allow a simpler QR code to be developed. Simpler QR codes are easier for smart phones to read.
- QR codes are dependent on factors outside the creator’s control, specifically the size and resolution of a device’s camera. Following the above guidelines will increase the likelihood of the code being used successfully.
Content is still the primary reason to visit a website, but how the content is accessed is changing. A Pew Internet Usage survey from June of 2011 found that 42 percent of adults who own a cell phone have a smart phone. Of these users, 25 percent say their phone is their primary source of internet access. This number will likely grow, so it is imperative to provide access to your library’s content, to the extent possible, on mobile devices. Technologies that assist users with mobile devices, such as QR codes, can and should be used by all libraries regardless of size.
Alex Kern, MLIS, (firstname.lastname@example.org) is law library assistant and Janice Milliken (email@example.com) is law librarian at Stanislaus County Law Library in Modesto, California.