The most amazing thing about Amazon Go
Tim Letscher

Did Amazon Go Solve QR Codes?

QR codes have always intrigued me. An acquaintance of mine created a whole company around QR codes that Snapchat bought for some crazy amount of millions and I’ve never stopped scratching my head about it.

From a usability and adoption perspective one of the biggest hurdles for QR codes is the fact that they have to be captured and scanned from a) native ecosystem which contains the proper data for reading and interpreting it properly or b) a third party developer tool. Convincing people the service being offered was worth the cost (time and effort usually) of obtaining the needed technology to engage in the experience isn’t easy. Even though it only required a simple search and (depending upon your cellphone plan) download of the app. In the heyday of apps and app stores this seemed like a simple task, nowadays the task is more difficult. We now know the battle for screen real-estate is one of epic proportions. Don’t believe it? A Comscore survey in 2014 showed that 0% of the American population was downloading a new app every month. The data doesn’t end there, it’s but a small taste of a larger trend. Unless your name is Snapchat or Uber you’re stuck in the trenches with all the little guys and the competition is fierce.

Ok, so people weren’t keen on downloading a new app just to scan QR codes. Sure, barrier one which some people would remove. It wasn’t just that nobody wanted to download a third party QR code reader, no one had considered the user experience to make QR codes meaningful…so what happens? Memes happen.

When this flowchart was first made they weren’t wrong…they were right. Oh so right. This was circa 2013. How do I know? Well I sat right next to the wall where it was made.

Why does Amazon Go work with QR codes?

Amazon Go has a couple things going for it right now when we consider QR technology. First off they’ve embedded the QR technology inside the user experience. This means they’ve created a dependency on using QR codes and provided the means to use them within their own proprietary experience. Nothing new there, lots of people have done the same. Whats the second thing? They’re providing a physical experience with such an obvious benefit that the technology requirements to engage in it seem nonexistent. Why?

Effort to benefit ration

It’s the effort to benefit ratio. The benefit offered is more than the effort required to obtain said benefit. Seems like a lazy concept right? Not necessarily, every individual gauges what their personal ratio is for every effort. As a service or product it’s up to you to identify where your audience places themselves on the scale and then deliver. For Amazon Go, they created a system that allows you walk out with whatever you want…its a clepto’s dream come true. All the adrenaline of stealing with all the responsibility of not stealing (I jest). You get it though right, theres an obvious benefit to users who take the steps to participate in the experience. Never take your headphones out again! Never look at another person in the yes or engage in light cashier banter. Its a millenials dream come true (as a millenial I’m allowed to say that). The fact that you’re using QR codes fade into the background and forgotten. It’s just a barcode after all.

When we compare Amazon’s experience to the app we built at Slalom which uses image targets(actual photos of objects and/or 3d models)in a QR code like fashion, it can seem silly that Amazon would use a QR code which has little visual cues, brand opportunities, and is perceived as extraneous bit of technology. However when we flip the situation on ourselves lots of opportunities become available. For example, what were their issues as they explored the problem? I can imagine that creating randomized codes and visual indicators for new products is much easier in QR code form than in custom created visuals. Automated process’ already exist to generate unique QR codes at a high rate. You can even create them in Indesign. If you don’t believe me try using a QR scanner on the header image in this article…yup, a sweet link to my website (if you actually went through all of that props to you.)

Amazon may have found one of the best use cases for QR codes by pairing it with a service that provides more value than effort. The QR code fits well, it potentially scales well, and it doesn’t do more than it should. They’ve created a home for it in their experience and everyone who engages within their boundaries agrees to use it their way. Once users are commited and have taken those first steps (probably signing up and downloading the necessary tech) they’re good to go. It’s all self contained.

Does this mean I can put a QR code back on my business card?

No…hell no.

Solve for problems first. If you were to start with a QR code and say what do we apply this to I’m not sure Amazon would’ve arrived at the same conclusion. If you were to start with, “How do we improve the shopping experience? What are the main bottlenecks?” The conversation begins to shift and you stop trying to fit technology in but use it as part of the solution.

I’d love to continue this converation elsewhere. Feel free to tweet me some questions or comments too if you’d like.

Dribbble | Twitter | Instagram

Like what you read? Give Brant Day a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.