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The Modern QR Code Life

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A recent both refreshing and stressing trip to London made me painfully aware of bad technological integrations in everyday life. One of those painful devolutions in my opinion is the overuse of QR codes. I’m not a fan of QR codes and wrote about QR design mistakes before, but in big cities like London, it seemed to be cool to use for almost anything.

Want to have breakfast? Find yourself a hipster place—we found Farm Girl in Notting Hill, I reckon it was trendy because they served me blue matcha “butterfly” tea with almond milk—and take a look at the menu to get the stomach grumbling. Wait, there’s no menu on the table, nor will there anything (paper-like or otherwise) be passed to you. Instead, there’s a QR code you have to scan to access the menu. It encodes a URL, so if:

  • You didn’t bring your smartphone;
  • You didn’t bring your smartphone-addicted friend;
  • Your battery died;
  • Your data network plan has dried up;

You’ll have to ask the staff for recommendations and hope for the best. It wasn’t a big problem, but a nuisance nonetheless: I don’t like taking out my smartphone in a place where I want to relax, eat, and be in good company. Furthermore, I’m not from the UK, so international (European) data roaming rates apply. Of course these are fare less expensive than say ten years ago, but still: it’s remarkable that everyone seems to regard this as normal: being constantly connected. To disconnect and eat, you have to connect.

So you pull up that menu website. Hey, wait, a friend sent a message, I’ll first reply to that. And to that rather urgent e-mail.

Want to have dinner? Find yourself an excellent ramen noodle shop—we found Kanada-Ya in Covent Garden—and… Wait, before we even get to the table, where of course we have to QR-scan for the menu, we have to QR-scan, or even install an app to join the waiting queue? The website provides the following handy how to dine with us guide:

No need to queue! We now take bookings using the WalkUp app which makes it easy to dine with us. You can check our live availability and wait times right from the phone, no matter how far away you are. – If you see “Eat Now” button, it means that we’ve got a table for you and can hold it for 10 minutes. – If no tables are available straight away, add yourself to our virtual waiting list if you’re close by and we will notify you when your table is ready. – Too far away? You can still check the waitlist and add yourself to the queue once you’re closer.

To make it easy (that means simple, right?) to dine with us? Impossibly difficult for older people, you mean? What if my grandparents want to eat superb Japanese noodles? They don’t even have a smartphone. Sure sure, the children might come along and do the whole app-qr-whatever-ceremony for them. But what if they don’t (or encounter one of the above smartphone-related inconveniences)? We dutifully scanned the code and waited outside until the staff called us in. Twenty years ago, they had a similar system to avoid the work pressure of constantly directing customers: grab a number from the ticketing machine. There, done.

What if I want to board the train back to Brussels? Just scan the ticket at the gates, right? Oh, that’s a QR-code? It depends on the technical interpretation of the abbreviation, but yet another disadvantage is using printed paper with QR codes. I am very well aware that you don’t need to print your ticket in this digital age, but for insecure people like me, you’re being presented with another problem: the success of the scan depends on the quality of the print. Take a look:

Left: printed and re-scanned. Right: screen grab of PDF.

Can you detect the gray extra lines forming on the code to the left? Our printer isn’t the best. I encountered similar difficulties with restaurant staff scanning my (paper version of my) COVID-safe pass: the camera of their machines had trouble deciphering its contents. After the fourth attempt, they gave up and simply allowed me in.

I ended up boarding the train using the PDF version without trying the paper version I brought as a backup, but I noticed another problem: my phone’s gyroscope is busted, and the screen rotates too eagerly, confusing the scanner, and taking ten seconds longer than needed.

By using QR codes, restaurant owners offloaded the price of printing a menu to the customer: yet another tiny but certainly hidden cost. I recognize its advantages: the URL doesn’t need to change making the menu itself flexible.

But I absolutely resent the trend towards relying on bad habits of bringing your smartphone to the dining table. If this is the modern QR code life, then I want the ancient “let me tell you what’s on the menu” or vintage “here’s a tangible thing that tells you what the menu is” life back.

Addendum: While thinking about the implications of smartphone requirements, I completely disregarded two very important topics: accessibility and privacy! We seem to prefer interaction with shoddy interfaces on small screens where different browser and OS versions all add to the complexity of simply rendering a restaurant menu instead of reducing it. Furthermore, to use the WalkUp app, you of course have to exchange your precious data. Why?

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Wouter Groeneveld discusses his experience of the new normal associated with the use of QR codes and smartphones for viewing menus. He touches on the bad habit of expecting people to use their smartphone at the table and privacy impact.

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I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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