UK Museums on the Web 2009 – QR in the wild

Last week was the annual UK Museums on the Web conference.

Things were particularly hectic and exciting for me this year for a whole host of reasons:

  • We launched a new MCG website in the week before the conference – this was a full migration to WordPress MU which I’ll write more about shortly;
  • We were working behind the scenes with the excellent Laura Kalbag to develop a new logo and design guidelines for the group which we also needed to get live by conference day;
  • I suggested I build and trial a QR tag demo based on individualised badges (more below..);
  • I was giving a presentation on ubiquitous technology…

Crazy busyness aside, overall this was for me the best UKMW conference yet, for one very simple reason: we’d managed to get a range of speakers from outside the sector. Often, domain-specific conferences have a tendency to focus inwards, and although it is incredibly useful to see projects that are specific to that sector, I think it is as important that everyone keeps an eye on the outside world. This is particularly the case right now, as museums come down off the 2.0 peak and start to ask where the value is and how best to capitalise on an ever-decreasing budget.

Many other people have done a much better job of describing in detail who talked about what at the conference. If you’re interested, see the many things tagged ukmw09 on Google Blog Search. For me it was probably Paul Golding, Andy Ramsden or Denise Drake who did the most insightful talks for me, but actually every presentation was really interesting and led to a fascinating day.

So now to the point of this post: the beta “onetag” system I put in place to allow delegates to use QR tags in a “real-world” scenario.

For those who aren’t familiar with QR codes, I’d suggest a brief moment over on Wikipedia or go with the one-line description: “barcodes for linking the real and virtual worlds”.

As well as wanting to give people a QR example to play with, I based the idea for the system on a problem which I think needs solving, particularly at conferences: business cards are irritating, wasteful and require re-keying (hence duplication) of details. The idea, therefore, was to give everyone at the conference a personalised badge with the QR code on it, get them on-board prior to the event so that as many as possible had QR code readers installed on their mobiles, and then sit back and watch how this kind of system might be used, or not!

For the badges, I used local print firm Ripe Digital, who are not only incredibly helpful but also have the ability to run what is essentially a large-scale mail-merge: I designed an A6 badge in Adobe Illustrator which had various fields in it which were populated from an Excel spreadsheet of delegates. (Incidentally, we’d made extensive use of Google Docs during the conference for gathering and munging delegate names, and this really paid off in terms of sharing, collaborating and processing delegate information).

I created the actual codes using a fairly nasty mix of Google Charts, downthemall and mailmerge (don’t ask) – once I’d got a local folder with all 100 or so QR codes in it, I just referenced those codes in the AI document and asked Ripe to insert the specific QR tag at top right of the printed badge.

Here’s the front of my badge – note (important, this) that the grey code under the QR tag is also unique to each person, allowing those without QR readers to take part in the demo as well.

The badge, incidentally, also contained sponsor information and outline timings for the day on the back, a detailed description of the timings and speakers on the inside fold and a delegate list on the reverse. The badge was folded from a single sheet of A4 into an A6 wallet hung on a lanyard around people’s necks. The basic premise was to save as much as possible on enormous (mostly unwanted) wads of printed material and focus instead on the key information that delegates are likely to want.

Assuming (not a great assumption, but go with me for now) that someone not only had a reader installed on their mobile but also managed to successfully read the code, here’s what happened:

The very first time a delegate uses the app, they get directed to a mobile-formatted web page which asks them for their PIN (QR number) details – that’s the bit in grey under their glyph:

Delegates only had to do this once (I placed a cookie to keep the logged-in state) – once they had, and on all future taggings, they get redirected to a screen showing them details for the person they just tagged:

This is only so much use, especially given the name badge itself has all of this detail on it already, so I also built in the functionality behind the scenes to email the “taggees” details to the “tagger”, both as a plain email but also with an attached vCard. This therefore means that the person who did the tagging can easily add this contact to their address book without having to re-key any of the information. Here’s how the email looks in Outlook:

And that, basically, is that – 🙂

So did people use it? And if so, how?

Behind the scenes, I was grabbing some data each time anyone carried out a tagging. The data I intended to capture was: who did the tagging, who they tagged and when. As it happens, and annoyingly, my script failed on the “when” bit. I also realise that in hindsight I really should have captured the user agent for each tagging as well – then I would have some insight into what people used, most common devices, etc. With a fair amount more time (of which I currently have none!) I could probably marry up the server logs with device types, but for now I’ll leave that bit of information to one side.

The first bit of interesting information is this: there were 81 taggings during the day, which was actually much higher than I’d anticipated.

27 different people used the system (out of around 100 registered delegates)

On average, the people who did tag someone did it on average 3 times, although this figure is skewed upwards by one person who tagged 21 people! Here’s how the distribution looks:

Another view on this data shows that a fair number of people also tagged themselves, presumably to familiarise themselves with the software (that’s the visible diagonal line bottom left to top right):

So what did we actually learn from this: first of all, total simplicity from a user perspective is – as always – absolutely key. Here, we had a willing audience who had been given a heads-up to expect to install the software, definitely would have been “geek skewed” in terms of internet-enabled devices and were willing to play; and although I was pleased that lots of people took part, the figures show that this is clearly far from being a “everyone does it” activity.

Secondly, the blocker – again, as always – wasn’t just the technology but the social issues that surrounded the technology. I saw lots of people tagging, but this wasn’t an “invisible” activity of the type that makes for seamless interaction. People had to stop other people, ask them to hold still, take a photo, wait for the software to catch up, try again when the barcode failed to read and so-on. However hard I tried to make the back-end seamless, QR software just isn’t good enough (yet) to deal with quick shots, moving targets, wobbling hands. In this particular instance (and this is actually the next stage of onetag that I’m going to look at), RFID or SMS based tagging would have been slicker.

Thirdly, although I see business cards as an issue, it isn’t necessarily a problem which is identified as such for everyone. Exchanging a business card is natural; scanning a badge isn’t. So for this to really work, the technology either needs to be invisible (I just wave my reader over your badge, no focussing or waiting or holding still..) OR the win needs to be much more tangible (a tagger gets more information about a tagee, or there is some kind of other incentive to make the connection, etc). Providing more information obviously has privacy issues, and also potentially usability issues; as the incentive becomes bigger, so – normally – would the complexity of both the system and the explanations underlying that system.

Overall, I was very pleased with how the system worked, and also delighted that so many people took the time to test it out – so thanks to you, whoever you were!

I’m going to be continuing to develop the various onetag systems, and am always up for hearing from you if you’d like me to put something together for your conference or event – just comment or email and I’ll get in touch.

Limiting addiction

Before the brave new world of cloud computing, selling and buying software was a pretty straightforward thing. It’d either be shareware, in which case you’d download and walk away, or there would be some kind of time- or function-limited demo which you’d (if you liked it) upgrade at some point in the future.

Since stuff went cloudy, life has got a little bit more complicated in the world of the software business model. Recently, I’ve happened across a number of services that approach their business models in different ways, and I thought it’d be interesting to compare and contrast.

Pic from

One of the models that has now become popular carries the buzzword “Freemium”. It’s essentially not a whole lot different from a downloaded bit of software which is functionally crippled in some way. In the Freemium model, something is provided which allows the end user access to free stuff, but a lack ultimately convinces them to upgrade to some kind of paid – “premium” – service. A classic example is the widely-lauded hosted project management software by 37 Signals, Basecamp. You’re encouraged to sign up for free. Your account then gives you access to a limited version of the software. In this particular instance, you get a single project and no file uploads, but apart from that everything is the same as the paid version. The unpaid version gives you enough of a glimpse into the functionality and usefulness of the tool to realise that the additional functionality provided by the paid version is likely to be useful. 

Another example is SugarSync, the cloud file-syncing service. Interestingly, while they used to have a “get 2Gb free” freemium model, they have now reverted to “10Gb for 45 days” on their free plan. We’ll examine why in a moment.

The Freemium model is based around something I’m going to call limiting addiction. The service provider is attempting to find a fine balance between provision and lack of provision of service. In the Basecamp example, 37 Signals are looking for users to find the service useful enough that they see the value, but not so useful that they’ve got enough with the free version. In this particular example, they’ve got things right: a single user without file upload ability gets you far enough to see the value of the service, but it isn’t enough that you can actually run any projects usefully. Net result? You upgrade to premium.

Let’s examine SugarSync now. When they first launched, they offered a time-unlimited 2Gb of storage space under a free account. I don’t know the inside track, but I’m betting that users found the service too useful – 2Gb is after all a fair amount of synced disk space – and I’ll bet that not enough of them were upgrading to the premium editions. The Freemium model in this case offered too much for nothing.

In the last couple of days I’ve signed up for a service called Spotify. It’s a downloadable app which lets you stream pretty much any music on demand to your desktop. I love the service, possibly more than anything I’ve come across this year – I’m an avid and Seeqpod fan, but Spotify goes a step further – it is fast, reliable, content rich. It is pretty much the perfect music application for me. The Spotify business model is interesting: you can get music for free, but it is ad supported: every 3-4 songs there is an audio advert. To remove this you can either pay 99p a day or £9.99 a month. 

All well and good. But (and I hate to say this in case they’re reading..), Spotify is offering too much for free. The ads just aren’t annoying enough or frequent enough for me to bother paying the premium. The value is – like with the original SugarSync model – too high. I’m addicted, but not limited by the free version of the software. I’m a customer waiting to happen: If those ads were more in my face – if the software was more limiting – I’d almost definitely pay to get rid of them. I’m sure Spotify will get this right in the end: they’re currently still in closed beta and are very early into their market, and I’m delighted that I get so much value for nothing for the time being. If they’re savvy, though, they’ll continuously tweak their business plan as time goes on until they have the perfect freemium balance. And what is that balance? Well, a high addiction -> limitation -> upgrade rate.

There’s one more example that I’d like to look at, and this one fails for reasons that I’ll highlight in a minute. This example is a web prototyping tool called Protoshare. Rather than opting for a Freemium / functionally limited model, they’ve gone for a 30 day free trial. During that 30 days, you get full access to all the functionality – but after that you have to pay.

Again, all well and good. However, there’s a subtlety here which I think Protoshare have missed. It’s this: People like me who do IA work for a living tend to do stuff on a client/project basis. This means I have two options when it comes to Protoshare: I either start the 30 day trial at an arbitrary (between projects) time – this is fine, and pressure-free, but like most people if I’m not using a tool for a specific purpose, I don’t fully evaluate it under real-life conditions. The second option is to use Protoshare for a specific project. In this scenario, however, I’m putting myself way out on a limb – I haven’t had a chance to test the software before committing to it, and there’s no way I’m going to do a bit of paid (and timetabled..) work for a client without using a tool that I know and trust. Net result? I walk away from a product which could be exactly what I need – and would pay for. If Protoshare had a limiting addiction model, I’d probably have signed up by now.

There are infinite ways of cutting the Freemium business model: you can do it around paid support, functionality, disk space, speed, look and feel, etc. The extent to which various facets of the software are measured and valued is key, and – as the Protoshare example shows – really quite subtle as well. It’s not a case of “X has value Y, do Z” – it is more about considering the software against the likely market, users, use scenarios and so on. Ultimately, though, all these approaches are about giving a taste of something which tempts to an extent that you want more, but doesn’t satisfy. If you fail to tempt enough (Protoshare) or satisfy too much (Spotify), it’s very likely that you’ll either miss markets, or revenue, or both.