User-Centered Intellectual Property

Toward more user-friendly IP tools

Rob Tannen
5 min readSep 18, 2018
Detail from patent D736,230, for a “display screen with a patent family graphical user interface”

User Experience and Intellectual Property

What do you get when you mix 40 intellectual property lawyers with one user experience researcher? As a UX professional, and the only non-lawyer in a recent course on U.S. intellectual property, I can report that there is much room for improved usability within our complex IP system.

While not a complete “outsider” to the legal field — I’ve written, lectured, and consulted on UX design and patents — my ambition is to make IP more accessible to user experience designers and developers. I began to focus on this around 2012, not coincidentally around the first the Apple vs. Samsung trial. I noticed that most of my colleagues in the user experience industry had very little awareness, let alone understanding, of the role of IP in their field. Intellectual property is typically not covered in the education of UX practitioners, and within many organizations, legal departments shield designers and developers from getting too involved.

In user experience, everything starts with understanding the end users. We can broadly define the intellectual property ecosystem — the tools, organizations, and processes of IP — into three types of users — creators, grantors, and consumers:

• Creators generate new intellectual property and include inventors, designers, artists, and writers. By extension, we can also include lawyers who represent creators. Creators aren’t necessarily the owners of the IP they conceive, as it may be transferred to their employers or acquired by buyers.

• Grantors are the entities that provide the rules and system for defining and protecting IP — in the case of the United States government, departments such as the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the U.S. Copyright Office.

• Consumers could mean anyone who makes use of IP, which is essentially everyone who reads or uses products. For practical purposes, consumers can be more narrowly defined as those who consume IP information, for example, individuals researching existing IP. Creators often act as consumers of IP information as well.

A consequence of the longstanding gap between the fields of user experience and intellectual property is the lack of usable tools for IP consumers. This has made it challenging for UX professionals to learn about intellectual property without significant motivation or access to knowledgeable resources.

However, as with other conservative industries like banking, insurance, and healthcare, user experience eventually finds its way in, leading to improvements for everyone. As a result, there have been positive changes in the tools available to UX practitioners, and other professionals.

A User and Customer-Centered USPTO

The United States Patent and Trademark Office is the reference source for data related to those specific types of intellectual property. The USPTO has been making slow and steady progress towards providing more usable and efficient services for its information consumers. Back in 2011, I described the Office’s efforts to increase transparency by creating a dashboard to track and visualize performance data, such as the speed of patent reviews.

Since then, the Office has been improving the user experience of The site was redesigned in 2015 to be more user, device, and developer friendly, including an open source design library hosted on GitHub. This redesign was underway prior to the publication of the USPTO 2014 –2018 Strategic Plan, but reflected the goals of that plan to:

“incorporate user-centered design methodologies and use agile development, which requires constant interface with the public and our employees during development to get their perspectives as early as possible to shape technology products.”

It’s been encouraging to see the Office make user experience a priority that has demonstrable follow-through. Although I’d like to see improvements in the patent search and analysis capabilities offered via the site. The redesign did not update the very dated appearance of the search tools, which provide only rudimentary functionality (i.e., keyword searches). While professionals have access to more robust third-party tools, many individuals and organizations rely on the USPTO site for research. The addition of relatively basic features including keyword-based notifications, saved searches, and improved document viewing and management would be highly valued.

Of course, user-centered design is an iterative process, and as of this writing, the draft of the subsequent USPTO 2018–2022 Strategic Plan is available for review and feedback. Again user experience falls under one of the strategic objectives, but now focused more on functionality, rather than process:

“We will also enhance IT interfaces that will enable our patent customers to better complete their work and interact with the USPTO. For example, this could entail the use of artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning efforts. Another key initiative that will enhance the work capabilities of both employees and customers is to improve searchable (text) access to domestic and international patent applications, including access to non-patent literature/prior art and Office actions.”

Notably, the new plan also references customer experience 20 times, a phrase that doesn’t even appear once in the predecessor plan. The draft states that the USPTO will make efforts to understand it’s customers journeys:

“by taking steps to better understand their interactions with our organization from beginning to end, create an organization-wide shared vision to best serve each customer’s needs.”

The USPTO’s newfound emphasis on customer experience is encouraging. Perhaps even more significant is the Office’s recognition of the need to address both the holistic customer experience approach and the more tactical user experience. This differentiation reflects a level of appreciation and enlightenment that many corporate organizations still lack.

Google Patents and Google’s Patents

By comparison, users of Google Patents can already take advantages of key features that the USPTO is striving for — patent databases of multiple countries, searching prior art, and a modern user interface. Google is not the only patent search tool available, nor the only free one, but its search engine should provide a leg-up when it comes to prior art searches. Surprisingly, Google’s patent search may be as reliable as the USPTO’s. In searching myself as an inventor, Google Patents only found 10 of 11 patents, while the USPTO site search found all 11, even though the missing patent is in Google’s database.

Beyond providing tools for researching IP, Google has been proactive in making IP more accessible to creators. In 2015, the Google Patent Starter Program offered a limited set of Google patents, at no cost, to a small number of startup companies, albeit with some strings attached.

Google has also made non-assertion pledges for certain patents, promising only to take defensive legal action, rather than proactively pursuing potential infringers. Other tech companies have similar agreements, notably Twitter’s “pull to refresh” patent, which I discussed in this context way back in 2013. Not surprisingly, Google is not as open with other forms of IP such as trademarks, or trade secrets for that matter, as it is with patents.

With the USPTO striving to provide customer experiences comparable to the offerings of technology leaders like Google, we should expect to see increased interest by UX professionals into the IP space. This should lead to greater awareness and knowledge of IP in the UX field, leading to more proactive practitioners and more innovative intellectual property. Ultimately, both IP and UX practitioners stand to benefit from these enhancements.