QR codes are pretty lame. They are usually part of some ill-conceived marketing campaign and can be found on billboards or product packages, looking conspicuously alien. It’s likely that only 1% of the general population knows what the hell a QR code even is and that it’s actually meant as some kind of a convenience for human beings.

QR Code on a Philly Cheesesteak

QR Code on a Philly Cheesesteak

Take a look at the image on the right. Someone in the Johnny Rockets marketing department decided that their customers would be so excited about the new Chicken Philly Cheese Steak that they would download a QR scanner app to their phone, launch the app, snap an image of the code and be amazed that the phone magically took them to… wait for it… www.johnnyrockets.com.

But there may still be hope for the awkward QR code. The key is to find high-value processes that are a big enough pain in the butt that scanning the code is dramatically more efficient than the alternative. In other words, QR codes need real use cases and I think I found a pretty good one.

Electronic bill payment is too hard

Here’s a bill I just got from my garbage collector resource recovery service. This bill appears in my mailbox only 4 times a year, so I’ve never set up e-payments. It’s just too much hassle. But I recently decided to give it a go…

Step 1

Parse the bill to figure out how much I owe and how to pay online. Note that the URL for bill payment is on the return envelope, not on the bill.

Garbage bill

Garbage bill

Steps 2-21

Now it’s time to set up e-pay! I counted a minimum of 20 steps in this process, not including the confirmation page.

e-Bill Pay Setup

e-Bill Pay Setup is over 20 steps

That sucked. How can we make it better?

The process I outlined above is typical for setting up e-bill payments and a typical person might set up well over a dozen of these. What if we could simplify it using QR codes?

During a one-time setup process, you link your credit card or bank account to a centralized bill pay service and install an app on your phone. Next, simply open a bill, any bill, find the QR code and scan. The bill is automatically paid after a simple confirmation of the payment amount. That’s it.

Pay by QR Code

Pay Now appears at the bottom of all of your bills.

Here’s what it might look like on my garbage bill:

Garbage bill with QR code payment

Garbage bill with QR code payment

As you can see, this is a dramatically simpler process than setting up e-billing for each of your accounts. It easily eclipses the cost of opening the app and scanning the code.

The benefits could extend beyond one-time payments. After scanning a code, the app could ask you if you want to eliminate statements by mail, if you want to set up recurring payments, etc. If your credit card expiry date changes or you switch banks, you can update your info in one place for all billers.

Out of the hands of marketers, into the hands of designers

Chips AhoyQR codes may never take off, but if there’s any chance for them they need to be moved out of the hands of marketers and into the hands of designers. We need to find use cases of real value, like removing 20 steps from a bill pay process, not linking you to a promotional web page about Chips Ahoy cookies.


I’m working with Brad Frost to curate a collection of absurd QR codes out in the wild. Help us collect great examples of QR codes gone wrong at wtfqrcodes.com!