Digital accessibility: QR codes and short number SMS

Background

VocalEyes works with and for blind and visually impaired people to increase access to arts and heritage. In 2021, while considering how to direct visitors to online content (including audio description), several client museums and heritage sites asked us how accessible QR codes were for blind and visually impaired people. We ran a short survey via social media and email about QR codes and short number SMS.

What is a QR code?

A QR (Quick Response) code is a type of two-dimensional barcode invented in 1994 in Japan, which can be ‘read’ by a smartphone camera. In the museum context, QR codes are used to direct visitors to web or app content.

With the iOS11 update in 2017, all iPhones became able to read QR codes using the native camera application (rather than a third-party app). This was followed by Android 9 (Pie) in 2018.

Consumer behaviour have changed due to COVID-19, with a move to contactless options, and the use of QR by the UK Government’s Test and Trace app for people to check in to venues (launched September 2020).

30% of UK respondents to a survey in 2014 had scanned a QR code at least once.[1] This figure was 86% in a similar survey in September 2020.[2]

Our survey findings

38 respondents identified as blind or visually impaired, 36 of whom owned a mobile phone with camera and apps. Four responses, from individuals who did not identify themselves as blind or visually impaired, were excluded from the findings reported below.

QR codes

66% of respondents agreed with the statement “A QR code would not be visible to me”

47% agreed with the statement “I have downloaded a QR scanning app”

Select the statement that best matches your experience of QR codes

I know what a QR code is, but I have not used one 39%
I have used QR codes once or twice aided 18% 26%
I have used QR codes many times aided 8%
I have used QR codes once or twice independently 16% 34%
I have used QR codes many times independently 18%

 

How easy do you find using a QR code independently?*

Very difficult 17% 60%
Difficult 43%
Neither easy nor difficult 22%  
Easy 9% 18%
Very easy 9%
Net ‘Ease of use score’ -42%

*Figures based on those who had used a QR code

Comments: positive

“Yes, I have enough vision to aim my camera in the general direction of the QR code and it usually finds it”

“The NHS Covid app has been a necessity recently so you just do it however inconvenient it is. Once I understood what to do it was not difficult.”

“Yes. It could be a useful way to bring up information about exhibits; if it’s in text that my phone can enlarge or turn into speech.”

“Yes so long as they had some form of identifier to help find them and line the camera up with them.”

Comments: neutral

“As long as the QR code works, that is fine though I have had situations in the past where the code wouldn’t scan.”

Comments: negative

“As I am totally blind (not able to recognize light from dark) I would not be able to use QR codes without assistance.”

“No the light levels are low and I prefer an audio guide or large text booklet”

“I’m not sure if I would as it would be difficult for me to locate them in the first place. Some form of indoor navigation system incorporating beacons to provide routing information in addition to object information would probably work better.”

“Have tried but not easy to use particularly with other people around”

I wouldn’t use QR codes in a museum as being totally blind I wouldn’t know what I was doing to reach the QR code. Only if there was some kind of tactile indication that there was a QR code would I do it and even then I think it might be more hassle than it was worth.”

“… I think the Navilens technology holds more promise as these can be used from a distance unlike QR or bar codes, … they have local and cloud-based databases which gives flexibility. It is an app of course so those without phones will not use any of them.”

“No problem using QR codes, problem is finding them in the first place. A consistent standard for location is needed eg head height, circa 2m, to left of article to which it relates.”

“If I were with someone or I had clear instructions where to point my phone”

“No. I don’t have a mobile and can’t use one. I am sick of the assumption ‘everybody’ does.”

“I would if scanning them was fairly straightforward with audible guidance from a QR scanning app”

“No, I have no smart phone as it is too expensive and I wouldn’t get much use from it. I also need phone to be hearing aid compatible”

“I don’t know. I have no experience of QR codes and would need help and information on how to use them and what app I would need to do so.”

“No, I struggled to understand the system. I was not 100% happy downloading the app [for security reasons]. It was also too fiddly to try and find on my phone to activate anything.”

“If it was using the QR code reader in the camera app rather than a separate app then probably yes.”

“It’s all very well having the codes but you still need to get around the museum and you need to find the codes in order to be able to use them.”

Short number SMS

SMS short codes are a 5-digit numbers that allow people to engage with an organisation via text via a more easily used number than a regular 11-digit number. Normally users will be asked to text in a keyword to the 5-digit number. The keyword identifies them as responding to a particular ad. Short codes are widely used for services such as charity donations (including at some arts venues), mobile services and TV programme voting, but can easily be used to send users links to text or recorded audio about exhibitions or artworks on a venue’s website. There are numerous services available, all at a cost to the organisation, and the user – who will be charged their normal rate for an SMS. However, the majority of users have a number of SMS included in their monthly tarriff. The cost to the organisation will be based on the volume of usage.

74% of our survey respondents said that they would not be able to see a large print sign with instructions for a short number SMS service, and nearly all said that a companion or member of staff would need to let them know about this service, and give them the instructions on arrival.

Have you used a short number SMS service before?

I wasn’t aware of short number SMS before reading this

42%

60%

I know what a short number SMS is, but I have not used one

18%

I have used short number SMS once or twice aided

5%

8%

I have used short number SMS many times aided

3%

I have used short number SMS once or twice independently

16%

32%

I have used short number SMS many times independently

16%

How easy do you find using a short number SMS service? *

Very difficult

12%

18%

Difficult

6%

Neither easy nor difficult

41%

Easy

18%

42%

Very easy

24%

Net ‘ease of use’ score

+24%

* Figures based on those who had used a short number SMS service

Would you use a short number SMS service in a museum? Do you have any additional comments?

Positive

“Haven’t tried this yet but would be happy to give it a go.”

“I would use if made aware of it and what to do.”

“Yes, maybe they could make business cards with the Braille code on.”

Neutral

“If it becomes necessary of course I will.”

Negative

“Again, difficulty of locating SMS number non visually or in low light situations.”

“Not sure why it would be useful.”

“I would probably feel more comfortable using the previous option. This one sounds like more effort.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know how it would work. I have only used this for reporting scam texts or getting next bus information. I’m not sure I could operate it with a link with my phone as I have never done this.”

“Maybe. A QR code would feel more convenient and instant though.”

“No. I have problems with numbers and inputting them and letters into my phone. I cope well with an audio guide please can this be available.”

“Someone would need to inform me about the short number service for me to use and probably by the time I had sent a message and then read the information, someone could have read the information to me or I could have read the information myself independently beforehand if provided with it for example by email.”

“I would not think that short SMS services would be particularly relevant in a museum other than to take you to a website with guidance on everything.  You would then need the ability to navigate a website to read the relevant information. This could work for some but it depends on being able to navigate a website efficiently and knowing something about how best to navigate the particular site that the SMS links to. You can’t assume this level of knowledge.”

Conclusion and Recommendations

Comparing the statistics, more respondents had used a QR code (61%) than a short number SMS (40%). However, among those who had used them, short number SMS had a higher net ‘ease of use’ score, of plus 26% (“Easy or very Easy: 44%, Very difficult or Difficult: 18%) compared to QR codes at minus 42% (Easy or very Easy: 18%, Very difficult or Difficult: 60%)

While we did not explicitly ask users to express a preference on which was more usable, for those who had used both, their average score (where very difficult: -2, difficult: -1, neither easy nor difficult: 0, easy: 1, and very easy: 2) was 0.42 for SMS and -0.28 for QR.

In the comments, many people identified the key problem for blind and VI people about QR codes – the issue of locating them. The Navilens system was recommended, which is capable of reading labels from long distances (up to 12 times further than QR), without focus, and at wider angles.

Certainly, SMS has the equivalent issue of having to convey the details in visual format, but there also seems to be an additional drawback of SMS services in terms of perception: despite the survey explaining how this could provide the same outcome (your phone being sent a link), many respondents still asked why it would be useful. There was also the feeling that it involved more effort on the user’s behalf: it is true that they have to enter both a code, and the 5-digit number. However, this information is easily instructed by a companion or member of staff to a blind or VI visitor, without the need to support them locating a QR code.

Overall, we recommend that organisations:

  1. Consider that many blind or visually impaired people will not be comfortable using either technology or will rely on support from venue staff or a companion to do so successfully.
  2. Offer both QR and SMS to assist visitors to access online resources. While QR is more widely used currently, SMS is more usable.
  3. Explore Navilens as a potential solution.

[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/314556/qr-code-and-ar-app-usage-in-the-uk/

[2] https://www.statista.com/statistics/199334/us-qr-code-scanners-last-time-scanned/

Download this report as a Word document: VocalEyes Digital Accessibility QR codes and short number SMS