QR codes seemed like that kind of brilliantly simple idea that would catch on. You could create your own codes - a small square made up of smaller random squares with 3 larger squares in the corners - very easily with a simple piece of software, then stick them just about anywhere. Then you scan the codes on a mobile device to bring up a webpage or app to link the offline printed world to the online digital one really easily. And when they arrived in the early 2010s they started to appear all over the place - on exhibition stands, poster ads, press ads and on the back of business cards - but they quickly became seen as a bit gimmicky and ultimately a bit of a faff – you needed to download a little reader app onto your phone to be able to scan them and most were links to web pages so if your connectivity wasn’t great you’d just get a spinning wheel and by the time it had loaded you’d either lost interest or the sales guy had explained it all to you anyway.

They arrived with a bang and quickly became ubiquitous, in fact you were almost embarrassed not to use them, but then, bit by bit, trade show by trade show, business card by business card you started to see less and less of the little square boxes codes with their random splatter of little squares. You still saw the odd one, but it seemed like they were slowly dying.

Then the world changed.

QR codes are now being pressed into service across the world in a range of ways aimed at combating the pandemic: from tracing potential sources of infection, to implementing ‘contactless’ alternatives to things that are likely to spread the disease. They’ve been reborn and suddenly they’re everywhere again. Everybody’s using them and they’re the new [if old] trendy thing. Just recently Instagram launched a new feature to generate a QR code leading back to your Instagram profile, designed to be compatible with any third-party camera or QR code scanning app. Although a number of social networks have similar features, Instagram is only the second social network – after Twitter – to use universal QR codes. There have been two small evolutions in technology that have helped. Firstly, you don’t need an app anymore, just scan with your phone’s camera and it’ll find the web page for you. And secondly, widespread wifi and faster mobile connectivity mean it’s pretty rare not to be able to get online on your phone these days.

The two big winners of the QR revival are the healthcare and hospitality sectors. In healthcare, as remote and digital treatments become more and more commonplace, the QR code is a great contactless way for patients to find downloads, track infections and gain access to online resources.

“As the coronavirus pandemic gripped China, Chinese authorities began to press QR codes into service as a tool for tracking and monitoring the movements and infection status of millions of residents. The system, which requires citizens venturing out in public to scan a QR code when entering and leaving a venue, along with having their temperature taken, was pioneered in Wuhan and later adopted by more than 100 Chinese cities. While the use of QR codes in China is nothing new, as they are embedded into daily life as a means of linking the online and offline worlds, the use of QR codes for contact tracing has now been adopted across the world – from Singapore to New South Wales, Paris to California… While the approach taken to contact tracing, and particularly data collection, can vary from country to country, QR codes are widely regarded as a straightforward way to make these programs possible.”

Rebecca Sentence, e-consultancy.

In hospitality we’ve all seen the codes appear as little stickers on tables in bars and restaurants as the sector, which has been severely damaged by the pandemic, tries to rebuild. Passing around a physical menu is now a potential point of infection, so QR codes have become commonplace as a means of accessing a digital menu, scanned on a sticker or a disposable card. And ‘contactless’ digital menus come with a number of advantages for restaurants as they can be made interactive and quickly updated to reflect dishes as they are added or sell out. Typing in a webpage URL or downloading an app adds friction to the process so, because QR codes instantly take the user to the relevant page when they are scanned, they’re very user friendly. QR codes can even be used to handle contactless ordering and payment on top of displaying the menu for example GoTab uses QR codes for ordering and mobile payment, the company has seen a surge in adoption thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

In many ways they’ve actually improved the customer experience, as you can find a table, scan the code, peruse the menu and place an order without having to try and attract the attention of a waiter, or wait for him or her to finally spot that you’re actually gagging for a drink. Now the first time you see them is with a tray of drinks.

QR codes are also being used to solve problems presented by common points of contact like self-serve drinks machines. Coca-Cola has started to change their machines to allow for contactless activation via a QR code an important solution for Coca-Cola to get the machines up and running again. And Instagram’s new QR code feature will help businesses encourage visits to their Instagram profiles by giving them a scannable code that they can print on any marketing materials.

There are still the same drawbacks to using the codes, such as the basic need for the user to be au fait with the technology, but it’s pretty simple so you can see people catching on very quickly, and the need for a connection to the internet but this has become much easier over the past 10 years. There is also a potential for security flaws to be introduced without anyone realising, for example if a malicious code were printed over a genuine one.

QR codes are undoubtedly back from the dead and have the potential to finally fulfill their potential and become a useful and versatile tool as they continue to overcome their gimmicky reputation and past failings. With the renewed interest in QR codes brought about by pandemic, their use continues to spread amongst consumers, which suggests a positive future especially for the healthcare and hospitality sectors and for brands who use Instagram for customer engagement.