Yes, Just Do It! – But do it right
I’m delighted to have had the opportunity for having some of my thoughts on QR codes for museums published in Muse (vol. XXX, no. 4, pp. 34-47, July 2012). But with the high cost of the print medium these days, there is never enough space in a magazine article. That article, as a consequence, was devoted primarily to exploring some of the exciting possibilities QR codes offer for a new level of engagement with the museum visitor.
That article was very much about ‘why do it?’, not ‘how to do it.’ So this blog posting gives me the opportunity to move beyond the limitations of print to begin the exploration of best practices when working with QR codes for the museum visitor.
There is actually some controversy surrounding the use of QR codes in museums. Perhaps that’s not surprising. There are usually radically different opinions about the use of any new technology in a museum (as there are about a lot of other aspects of contemporary museological practice).
Some museums have been unsatisfied with the results of their experiments with this technology. There is usually a reason for this, however, and that reason usually involves not only ‘how-to-do-it,’ but how to do it well.
In museums it’s important to continually try out new ways of doing things, including the use of new technologies. It’s also important to do it right and to start evolving a set of best practices for the most promising initiatives.
I’ve discussed some of the things that can go wrong (and how to avoid them) in my earlier post, ‘Kickstarting The Mobile Museum.’ (http://innogenesis.info/2012/03/kickstarting-the-mobile-museum/) For a start, those of us who are enthused about, for instance mobile applications, have be aware that especially since the technology is new, not everyone knows what it is and how it works. I am reminded of the detailed instructions prepared by telephone companies for users of the new rotary-dial telephones introduced from about 1920 to about 1950, depending on the exchange. These instructions would still probably be helpful to any of today’s teenagers faced with using a heritage phone to dial a call. Not every smartphone user has downloaded and used a new app.
When I’m working with any mobile technology in a museum, and QR codes are no exception, I consider a 25-point checklist that must be satisfied before the offering goes public to the museum visitor. Introducing a new technology is an area where failure is not an option. Fail, and forever more when a new mobile technology idea comes up it will immediately be squashed by the nay-sayers and opponents of innovation who will chant, “We tried that once already and we know it doesn’t work.” Don’t let this happen to you. Get it right the first time and improve your odds of success.
Prepare for Success
Here are a few of the things that have to be in place if QR codes are to be a success in the museum setting:
1. Design your own unique code. Make it attractive enough to encourage those who find the raw, black-and-white patterns unattractive. Distinctive code imagery will also discourage the planting of spam codes that could link visitors to commercial websites.
2. Make it big enough and be sure it is accessible to smartphones. Be sure it is sufficiently well-lighted to scan well. Test, test, test, and test again to make sure that different smartphones and different QR code apps can access your content.
3. Make sure the code leads to a mobile-friendly web page. Mobile web design is not the same as conventional web design, but it is something any web designer can manage easily.
4. Answer the question, “Will our visitors be able to find out what a QR code is and what it can do for them as soon as they walk into the museum?” Or if they miss it upon entering, will they still be able to learn how to take advantage of your rich media offerings at any time during their visit?
5. Be sure to use codes consistently and in a number of different ways in your organization. And keep it up. A one-shot effort that lasts only a few weeks is unlikely to become a hit
6. Check to make sure that there is a strong cell phone carrier signal available throughout the areas of your building where QR codes are in use. Otherwise, provide free wifi access. I recently visited a museum that used a smartphone app in their basement where the carrier signal was so weak you could not download the app. I had to leave the exhibit, go back upstairs to download the app, and then return to the exhibit before I could take advantage of the rich media features. Every little barrier that stands between your visitor and effective use of your offering can cause the whole program to fail.
Reap the Benefits
When done right, QR codes still represent one of the best ways to go in reaping the amazing potential for increasingly rich engagement of the museum visitor through mobile technologies. The advantages include:
1. QR code readers are available for every major mobile operating system. They are cross-platform, so you can take advantage of the ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) approach. Visitors bring the smartphone hardware with them, in their pockets. The museum does not have to supply physical devices, unless it wishes to do so to provide a larger view-screen or as a supplement, for visitors without a smartphone.
2. Because most museums are already involved in the creation of websites and exhibition graphics, effective QR code links in the gallery are remarkably inexpensive to implement.
3. Because implementation is inexpensive, it is easy to change and improve content. Systems are easy and economical to maintain.
4. QR code use depends on a smartphone app with which many people are already familiar because of its widespread deployment in product marketing. You don’t have to create a new, proprietary app that only works in your institution or for each new tour or treasure hunt you want to offer.
5. QR codes offer access to a wide range of rich media options – images, audio, video, 3-D animations – in fact, anything the internet has to offer.
6. Interactivity, engaging the museum visitor in mobile dialog, is possible.
And finally, learning how to do it right with QR codes is sure to prepare you for taking advantage of the tsunami of future museum mobile technologies that is already starting to swell.
References: Here are a couple of more links that may be of interest