QR codes. We’ve all seen ’em—they look like graphic design gone wrong, and it seems like they are everywhere lately. It begs the question of whether anyone is really gaining value from them?

Although there are some very good uses for QR codes, it seems like companies have started to slap them on everything but the kitchen sink. People have stopped considering whether their user will really find them helpful, which is exactly why we feel they need to go. Here are a few reasons to take caution:

People don’t have the technology to make use of them.

You’ve got to have a smartphone to read a QR code, and at the time of this posting, a quick Google search reveals that only a little over 50% of the US population own smartphones. Thats roughly half the population who won’t even be able to use your QR code. But that’s not all. Not only does a user have to have a smartphone, they also need to have a QR reader app. I found one source online who proposed that only about 8% of smartphone users have a QR code reader on their devices.

People don’t know what to do with them.

Not only does a large portion of the population not have the ability to use a QR code, the fact is that many people just don’t know what it is for. I’ve found this to be true with a lot of the older baby boomers. They aren’t all super savvy with technology and many just don’t know what to do with that black-and-white checkered box, so they skip right over it. That means, if you’ve relied on that code as a critical part of your message, this valuable chunk of the population is completely missing it.

Scanning a QR code isn’t as easy as you think.

The fact is that scanning a QR code takes several steps. First you’ve got to have the right equipment (smartphone and QR reading app), if you have that, you need to get our your phone, navigate to the app, launch it and scan the code. That’s three steps just to figure out what is hiding behind that ugly black-and-white box. On top of that, you’ve got to be in a situation where you have a good data connection and can stand still for several seconds in order to scan the code. The chance of someone scanning the code is getting slimmer and slimmer. Consider where you’ve been seeing QR codes lately—billboards, cars, ads, clothing, and business cards. Of those media, several of them (billboards, cars, clothing) are in motion or at strange angles, meaning they are virtually unscannable by your audience. In the case of the other media (ads, business cards) a QR code is probably more trouble than it is worth. Tell me this, would you rather get out your phone and scan a code to get info off a business card, or would you rather just remember a url?

They’re visually distracting.

In addition to all of these functional issues with QR codes, the bold black-and-white checkered box shape is incredibly distracting to any other messaging or branding that surrounds the code. They’re really quite ugly and it becomes hard to maintain your brand image when a QR code is in the way. Plus, best practices indicate that a QR code needs to be about one inch square in order to be easily scanned, which makes for a serious design challenge on standard-sized pieces.

If all those reasons don’t resonate with you, ask yourself this: when is the last time you scanned a QR code? That’s what we thought. In fact, while prepping for this post, we discovered that comScore did a study that determined only 5% of the population have ever scanned a QR code. So you’re not the only one who has never scanned one.

Like we mentioned above, we aren’t suggesting QR codes should never be used ever again, they just need to be used at the right time, in the right place.

So when should I use a QR code?

In the few places we’ve seen QR codes used well, they are implemented as more of an educational tool, rather than a marketing device. They’re used to get information about a product that might be out of a customer’s physical reach, or as part of a walking tour at an exhibit. They are places where a user has time to digest the concept and gains them additional, extraneous information about something.

The fact is that QR codes aren’t that useful for users. Plus, you’ve got to admit they are just plain ugly. Before you slap a QR code on your next ad or marketing piece, think carefully about whether your user will really get value from it, or if you’d be better off using a simple url.