SXSW 2D bar code badge system confuses many

Designed to help SXSW attendees exchange profiles with a smartphone scan, the system was seen by many as requiring too many steps. However, it is likely a good first step toward something strong next year.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read

AUSTIN, Texas--Networking is a very big part of why thousands of people have come to the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival from near and far for five days of one of the most popular confabs in the country.

But as anyone knows who's been to packed conferences, especially ones with long days of sessions, meetings, and evening socializing, it can be cumbersome to keep track of all the business cards that pile over the course of the event. Even if you don't lose some of them, you might have trouble days or weeks later putting faces to names.

Each SXSW 2010 attendee had a QR code embedded in their conference badge. Seen here, the 2D bar code in the middle of the badge was intended to be scanned so that attendees could easily exchange profile information. However, many attendees had trouble with the system. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

That's why the folks running SXSW have turned to technology to try to find a new way to help attendees get more lasting value out of all that networking, even the part of it that happens late at night in dark clubs over beer that has long since gotten warm.

In a bid to make the exchanging of contact information more automatic at SXSW this year, the organizers have printed a personalized QR code on each attendee's conference badge. A QR code is a two-dimensional bar code that can contain all kinds of data and transmit it when scanned by a specialized reader.

The idea was that after downloading one of many available free readers onto their smartphones, attendees would be able to quickly scan others' QR codes and quickly be able to have that person's profile transferred to the scanner's my.sxsw account, which is each participant's repository of their schedule, their own profile and communications with other attendees they are following.

SXSW promoted the QR code system in registration e-mails, early in the full program guides and on the inside back cover of the pocket guides.

However, while a terrific concept in principle and clearly meant with the best of intentions, it seems that many people either aren't using the QR code system, don't understand it, or have abandoned it after an initial attempt, often because they are first taken to a mobile URL asking for their my.sxsw login information, a stumbling block that for those who made it past this step is not repeated on subsequent uses.

"It's a good idea, but it's not a very good user experience if the very fist thing you see is [asking for your] user name and password," said Andrew Lih, a SXSWi attendee and the author of "The Wikipedia Revolution." "There's nothing to entice you...I wouldn't be surprised if most people see that and say, 'eh, it's not even worth it.'"

Other attendees interviewed for this article reported skepticism with the effort based on a sense of it requiring too many steps, the downloading of an application, or taking too long. And while it's clear that there were some people effectively employing the QR codes while in town, I didn't identify any, despite talking to a number of conference attendees.

In an interview Monday, SXSW Chief Technical Officer Scott Wilcox said that through the first three days of the event--which included both the SXSW interactive and film festivals--there had been about 10,000 scans of SXSW badge QR codes. And while he didn't yet have any more depth on that data, he said that he's "happy with the usage so far."

According to SXSW Technical Coordinator Russell Phillips, it would count as a scan if a user got as far as the sign-in screen.

"We were looking for new ways to help networking at the event," Wilcox said, "just to complement what already goes on face to face, offering up something to be tested, reacted to and [to] get feedback from all the smart people who come here."

Since SXSW is a mecca for those working on the newest and hottest interactive technologies, it makes sense that the event would want to try to incorporate something like QR codes, which are picking up steam around the world as a lightweight way to transmit data. Even beyond their use on the SXSW badges, QR codes are all the rage at the event this year, being utilized in things like a scavenger hunt around Austin and as an automatic way to check in to Foursquare. And other bar code scanning systems, such as Stickybits, were also in evidence here this week.

Wilcox said he and his team had no specific expectations of how many people would scan badge QR codes, or what they would try to get out of it. And it's clear that Wilcox and his team were on to something good with the QR code effort, and that this year's attempt to incorporate it into the SXSW badge system was but a first step.

"We didn't quite know what to expect," Wilcox said. "We're extremely happy with the fact that people have been using it, and we're excited for their feedback."

What I appreciated after talking with Wilcox and Phillips was the sense that they appear committed to the QR code concept and are open to ideas of how to improve it for next year and beyond.

One attendee I spoke with asked why the codes didn't offer the ability for both parties in a scan to follow each other on Twitter, and when presented with that idea, Wilcox agreed that that would be a valuable extension in the future. Both he and Phillips acknowledged that they had encountered limitations of the iPhone and the ability to tie mobile applications back to the main SXSW Web site.

So, hopefully, this year's QR code gambit will be just a jumping off point for SXSW. If one thing is clear about the thousands of people who come to the event, at least among those here for the interactive festival, it's that new ways to efficiently communicate with each other, and build new relationships are very high on people's wish lists. And while SXSW's attempts to meet that desire may not always work the first time, one has to applaud their wish to help make for a better experience.

"With anything we do at SXSW, we have to go through the year to know if it works, [and] to know what we could do better," said Wilcox. "As with everything we do with the event, we put it out there and then try to make it better...If we can make it even more transparent in the future, even more people would use it."