HHS learns QR code lessons on AIDS.gov website

Jeremy Vanderlan spots free-floating “QR code” matrix bar codes everywhere — on signs, backpacks and walls.

But to take advantage of the new Quick Response code technology for the federal AIDS.gov website, the team decided the codes always must be used within a meaningful context.

QR codes are square-shaped matrix bar codes that one can scan with a mobile device or smart phone. The codes usually contain a Web link for a mobile-enabled website. Someone can see the code on, for example, a magazine advertisement, scan it with a smart phone and watch as a web site opens with content related to the ad.

For the managers of AIDS.gov, "meaningful context" means the QR is always displayed and distributed on posters, fact sheets, business cards and other materials easily identified as AIDS.gov materials, Vanderlan, technical lead for AIDS.gov, said Sept. 27 at a QR code webinar sponsored by the General Services Administration’s Web Manager University.

“One of our first important considerations was to always have credibility and context attached to the QR code,” Vanderlan said.

Other federal executives thinking about adopting QR codes might want to consider other lessons learned by the Health and Human Services Department when it began using the codes several weeks ago to facilitate links to its AIDS.gov website.

For one, HHS officials discovered that some of its website addresses were 30 to 40 characters, which was too long to fit easily on a QR code, Vanderlan said.

“Long URLs create complex codes. We realized we had to simplify,” Vanderlan said.

The risk of a too-complex QR code is that it may be difficult to scan, resulting in inability for a user to connect to the link.

The solution is to use shortened URLs, Vanderlan said. For example, one of the AIDS.gov QR codes links to http://m.aids.gov, which is the mobile website.

The AIDS.gov team began using QR codes several weeks ago as part of its outreach to the public and vulnerable populations. It developed two QR codes linking to two separate AIDS.gov pages, including the mobile AIDS.gov website.

The HHS agency has been distributing the QR code on posters, fact sheets and business cards. The goal is to enable members of the public to easily scan the QR codes to link to AIDS.gov’s mobile resources, Vanderlan said.

Another key decision was to use the QR codes primarily to link mobile device users with AIDS.gov mobile resources, he added.

The agency also decided to brand its QR code with the words, “AIDS.gov” along with a graphic image of a red ribbon.

Other best practices recommended by Vanderlan included:

  • The minimum size for a QR code should be at least 1.25” by 1.25.”
  • Add white space around the QR code to make for easier scanning.
  • If possible, publish the QR code link in a written URL format as well, in case the QR code is not accessible to the user for some reason. The written URL link provides an alternative means to access the same information.
  • Use analytics to obtain information on how the QR codes are being used.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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