An apology to the QR code

Iain Montgomery
Jun 25 · 3 min read
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More QR codes.

Why did the QR code not catch on in the west beyond the mobile boarding pass?

In China it’s used for everything, most obviously for payments where Alipay and WeChat Pay are ubiquitous and often the only form of payment accepted … which sucks if you want a late night KFC as a slightly tipsy tourist I must add. Cash and credit card not accepted here.

But they’re on advertising as a way to get more information, used to unlock bicycles and contact cards everywhere.

I have a theory here and it’s all down to shitty thinking. We treated the QR code as a gimmick, something you added as an after thought as a brand to give customers ‘access to exclusive content’ or some other form of engagement nonsense. We didn’t think about what it was actually doing. Further, we made people download extra apps to access them too. I remember by first Android phone back in 2009 and downloading one of them, then wondering what the point was.

Now we’ve got our camera apps capable of reading them so it’s virtually frictionless but I wonder if we missed the chance. We don’t design to be utilitarian, more on that in another post, we design because ‘millennials like to have experiences’, not the easiest way to get the job done, because when you do that, you get behaviour change. So much so that when week Jake and I had cravings for chicken, we’ve not been able to satisfy them. And it wasn’t just limited to chicken, we also found back street bars and cab drivers frustrated by the foreigners who can’t access these payment platforms. Each time, cash is reluctantly accepted and the bank card just isn’t even an option. The QR code made it obsolete.

The lesson here isn’t necessarily to give the QR code a second chance in the west for that opportunity may have already passed us, but to remind ourselves to design for the most utility in the problems we’re looking to solve and make them as easy as possible for our users.

In China, if it weren’t for that, I doubt we’d be so obsessed with mega apps like Alipay and WeChat. I’m sorry we couldn’t make it work in the west.

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Two Bulls in a China Shop

Market Gravity takes on China to learn all about people, technology and business in the Middle Kingdom.

Iain Montgomery

Written by

Innovation Consultant. Former Market Gravity & Deloitte Digital. It’s Now or Never.

Two Bulls in a China Shop

Market Gravity takes on China to learn all about people, technology and business in the Middle Kingdom.

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