Going paperless: digitize instruction manuals and use QR codes to find them in context

Now that I’ve described the tools I use to go paperless, discussed my process for spending 10 minutes/day going digital, and talked about ways to secure and protect your digital file cabinet, I thought it would be useful for some practical tips that makes use of some or all of the above. And I think I’ve got a good one to start with.

One of the first things I did upon going paperless was to get rid of the stack of instruction manuals I’d accumulated over the years. There are some pretty cool benefits to digitizing your instruction manuals and it is very easy to do.

Tip #1: turn those paper manuals into digital documents

  • For ordinary-sized paper manuals, scan them in.
  • Better yet, go to the manufacturer website, search for the product manual you are looking for and download it in PDF format. I discovered this is often easier than scanning in awkwardly shaped or sized in instruction manuals, and saves a little time.
  • I tag all of my digital instruction manuals with the tag “manuals”
  • I created a “Saved Search” in Evernote that looks for anything with the tag “manuals” so that I can quickly access them when I need them.

Tip #2: add this to your daily process

When I get something new, whether it is an electronic gadget or a toy for my little boy, the first thing I do after following the instructions is to toss the instruction manual into my inbox on my desk that collects all of the paper that needs to be scanned that day. That way, when it comes time to do my daily scanning, it’s there and I can either (a) scan it in or (b) use it as a reminder to grab a PDF version from the manufacturer’s website. Once the instructions are digitized, the originals get shredded.

Tip #3: use the note in question for all of your customer service interactions

If I have a problem with a product and need to call customer service, I will generally record information about that interaction (and any subsequent interactions) on the same note in which I’ve attached the instructions. That way, all of the information is in one place and if I need to make repeated calls (and be able to refer to the instructions at the same time) I have it all readily searchable and easily at my fingertips.

Tip #4: use QR codes to make the instructions easy-to-find in context

This idea was originally suggested by Evernote forum user gtuckerkellogg and is so brilliant and has been so useful to me, that I had to include it here and show how I use it. While it requires a little technical finesse, it is not actually very difficult to set up.

For those not familiar with QR codes, they are images that are associated with objects (like a website link, for instance). You’ve probably seen them around. Here is the QR code for this website:


Here is how you can use QR codes to find your instruction manuals in context:

  1. Using a QR code creation app (like this one, for instance), create a QR image for a Note Link in Evernote. I’ve found it easiest to do this when I am logged into Evernote via the web instead of any of the various thick clients or apps. You simply log into Evernote on the web, find the note you are looking for, copy the URL and paste it into the QR code generating app.
  2. The app will produce a QR code image. I copy the image to the note it is associated with. If the QR image is associated with the instructions for my thermostat, then I copy the QR image to the same note that contains the instruction manual to my thermostat.
  3. Print out the QR code and tape it to the object in question. For example, I taped a QR code image to the side of my thermostat. I taped another one to the inside of the door of our refrigerator. You get the idea.
  4. Obtain an QR code-reader app for your mobile device. A QR code reader app allows you to use your mobile devices camera to scan a QR code and have it pull up the associated web page.

Once you’ve done all of the things, you can easily call up your instruction manuals in context. Here’s how I do it. Suppose I need to know how to change the time on my thermostat.

  1. I walk to my thermostat and pull out my iPhone.
  2. I open the QR code reader app and point it at the QR code on the side of my thermostat
  3. Within a couple of seconds, the QR code reader opens up the Evernote note to which I’ve associated the QR code and my instruction manual appears on the screen. (And if I’ve annotated my instruction manual or added other notes to it, I have those on my screen as well.)

Another example: I no longer have time to watch much TV and our cable system has hundreds of channels. I can never remember what channel is ESPN HD, for instance, and I don’t want to spend time flipping through all the channels trying to find it. So what I’ve done is created a QR code associated with an Evernote note that contains the channel guide for my cable system. That QR code is taped to the back of the remote control. Whenever I need to find a channel, I pull out my iPhone, fire up the QR scanner app, aim it at the QR code on the back of the remote and instantly the note containing my channel guide appears.

Using QR codes is a wonderful and inexpensive way to tag real word objects and give them a physical context to your digital data–like the instruction manuals and warranty documents. Of course, this only works well if you have all of your instruction manuals scanned into your digital filing system.

ETA (4/24/12 7:20pm EDT):  I just did a test to confirm that this works using an Evernote Note Link instead of a URL. I pasted in the evernote:// link (you can get this link from the Note menu -> Copy Note Link) in the QR creator instead of a URL and got a QR code. I then scanned the QR code on my iPhone and the note opened up in the note in the Evernote App instead of the browser. No login needed. I didn’t know for certain if this would work, but it worked perfectly when I tried it.


  1. That QR code tip is amazing.

    How do you deal with other people (your wife) needing to access documents like manuals/bank statements/etc in Evernote? Do you each have an account and share notebooks?

    1. Thanks Elizabeth. I can indeed share notebooks with my wife (a benefit of having a premium account) so that she can access the manuals. More likely, she would simply pick up my iPhone or iPad and scan the codes herself. But truthfully, my wife has no need for instructions for some reason. When she opens something up, she scorns the instructions and casts them aside and just starts constructing whatever it is the box contained. (I am the opposed, reading the directions completely before starting.) Eventually, however, she pauses, frowns, and finds she has to back out of some step because she’d gone and done something in the wrong order. 🙂

  2. You can create a “search engine” in Google Chrome to make QRcodes using Chrome’s URL/search box. Enter the URL “chrome://settings/SearchEngines, and create a new search engine with the URL “http://chart.googleapis.com/chart?cht=qr&chs=300×300&chl=%s”. It uses Google’s Chart API to create a QRcode of whatever you enter after your keyword.

    I also wrote an entry in my blog with a macro to insert QRCodes into Microsoft Word via Google’s Chart API. http://www.stevenwb.com/blog/Lists/Posts/Post.aspx?ID=82

  3. Excellent and intuitive way to use Evernote. When scanning the QR code, are you only able to bring up the web version on your mobile device?

  4. Thanks for the shout-out, Jamie 🙂

    A lot of my own progress towards paperless-ness now uses QR codes, including boxes in storage, which hold a QR code to an “index note” containing either a list of items in the box or note links to notes with more details. For long term storage, probably best to avoid a label printer. Despite the convenient stickiness, the thermal printed labels are not permanent.

  5. This is a great idea but….I copy the url of an EN note and generate the QR code. Using either Barcode Scanner or ShopSavvy I’m taken to the log on screen of the EN web app. I’m not taken to the note. What am I missing?

    1. I think you have to be set for the Evernote website to “remember you for 7 days.” Otherwise I believe you do get prompted to log in. I’ll check my settings to confirm.

    2. Sairy (and everyone), I just did a test to confirm that you do need to be logged into the web app for this to work correctly. HOWEVER, I also did a test to see what would happen if I created a QR code using an Evernote Note Link instead of a URL. I pasted in the evernote:// link (you can get this link from the Note menu -> Copy Note Link) in the QR creator and got a QR code. I then scanned the QR code on my iPhone and the note opened up in the Evernote App instead of the browser. No login needed. I didn’t know for certain if this would work, but it worked perfectly when I tried it.

  6. Jamie great idea. Whilst this may work on Iphone it does not appear to work on Android, or at least I cant get it to work.

    What QR gen are you using?

  7. Hi. One question: why do you store the QR code image within the note it is associated with? As reference? Thanks for the great tips!

    1. Christian, I store the code with the note in case I need to print it out again to replace one that has decayed over time. Easier than having to recreate a new code all over again.

  8. Wonderfull usecase! I thought about that earlier this year. And when I was a teenager, I did with basic barcode and an MSAccess database and a PS2 barcode reader. Just a question, how do you print those QRCode, special printer or you add some tranparent plastic on it?

    Thanks for your reply.

  9. Jamie, thanks for publishing this tip. And Greg, you are a genius. QR codes on storage boxes! Wow!

    To make this idea utterly complete, I’d add some kind of index number or letter/number combination that I’d attach to the outside of the box and include in the note. Then I could search Evernote for “digital frammistans” and find out that they are in box XYZ123, which I could then locate by sight in a huge pile of boxes (at the bottom of the pile, inevitably).

    Just a reminder: when you label a box, it’s a good idea to put identical labels on at least 3 sides of the box — better yet, all 4 sides. Then no matter which way the box gets turned, you can still find the label.

    Now I’m off to start organizing some boxes….

    1. Don, I like the storage box idea! Another use for writers: tape a small QR code into the back page of issues of Analog in which your stories (or review columns) appear. The QR code is linked to the Note which contains a PDF or Word (or whatever) version of the final manuscript for the piece. When asked for a reprint, say for an anthology, grab the issue, scan the code, and up comes the manuscript used to produce the story/article. Of course, this really only works if you don’t mind taping something into your magazine. (You could imagine doing something similar for contracts as well, I suppose.)

  10. Jamie,
    I second Tony’s comment “Jamie great idea. Whilst this may work on Iphone it does not appear to work on Android, or at least I cant get it to work.

    What QR gen are you using?”

    I am using android also (see my earlier comments) I had already tried all of your suggestions without seeing your results.

    Do you have any idea of what is going on? I love the use case and would like to use it.

    1. Sairy, I’m afraid I don’t have an Android device so I cannot test it there. As far as the QR gen that I am using:

      If I am sitting at my computer, I tend to use this one.

      On my iPhone my QRReader app also has the ability to create a QR code.

      Have you tried creating a QR code for an Evernote Note Link instead of the website URL? These are links that you can get inside Evernote, from the Note -> Copy Note Link menu. Instead of starting with “http://” they start instead with “evernote://”. I was able to create QR code using this and when my reader reads the code, it opens the note inside the Evernote App on my iPhone as opposed to inside the web browser.

  11. Don, that’s very similar to what I do for storage boxes. You are *absolutely* right about the value of an index number on the box. It’s also very useful if the QR code refers to an master note for the box containing note links to individual items, perhaps with photos; you can put the code for the box on the individual notes. I have a bunch of AppleScript to smooth the workflow.

    I’m setting up a new lab, and plan on using QR codes for shared equipment calendars and forms.

  12. Jamie, Copy Note Link worked! I had been copying the link that shows up in the web version (PC version of EN). Opening the EN software on my pc and THEN using Note/Copy Note Link worked perfectly.
    Thanks for this use case.

  13. You reference using the “note menu” to copy the note link. I assume you must be using an android phone or an app that is not on an iPhone. Do you have instruction on how to copy the note link from the iPhone app?

    1. Hi Todd,

      I think Jamie means the note menu when you have your desktop version of Evernote running.



  14. I’ve already been putting manuals into Evernote but the use of QR codes is brilliant. I have an Android phone and find the Kaywa app just crashes and QR Droid which is quite nice and seems to work does not allow evernote: style links to work. Anybody have this working with an app on Android?

  15. Using QR codes for these things are absolutely genius. Greg should get some sort of award for this idea.

  16. I’m moving to a new house and after we unpack everything inevitably there will be boxes we put back into storage. This time, however, I am going to

    1. Spread the content of those boxes on the floor
    2. Take a pic
    3. Create a note of that pic
    4. List the contents, for evernote searches later
    5. make a qr code and stick on the box

    in this way I can search in evernote and find the box I need. Or scan the box and see the contents.

  17. Hi, Just arrived at this great article. This is brilliant!!!

    Unfortunately, I’m unable to reach the specific note when scanning the QR link – It opens up evernote on my iPhone/iPad but doesn’t open the note.
    Maybe this is because I use a non premium EN account?

    I was able to QR the web link (generated by Share->copy note url) but this accesses the note through the browser and not through the EN app.

    Any suggestions on how to resolve this issue?

    Is there any disadvantages using the web shared url instead of the EN in-app link?


      1. Thanks. It does look like this and the EN app opens when I scan it but I get to the main screen and not to the specific note.

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