Patenting the User-Centred Design Process

Here's a fairly standard user-centered design process - not particularly different than most: Uncovery, Wireframing, Storyboarding, Prototyping, Development and Optimization.

It's a familiar story to anyone experienced with iterative, user-centered processes. Its name: the Minerva Architectural Process ™ for Persuasion Architecture ™, with the obligatory consulting firm trademarks. The difference: there's a patent pending on it. "M.A.P & Persuasion Architecture are Patent Pending proprietary business processes belonging to Future Now, Inc. Contact us about licensing for your organization."

Now maybe I'm misreading, and Future Now is only trying to patent some very specfic part of an iterative design process for persuasion. (though maybe B.J. Fogg or Andrew Chak might object). Given the USPTO's track record, it may well be granted, despite prior art.

Don't get me wrong, I think Persuasion Architecture is a valuable approach. I just think that patents on process are pathetic. How about you?

Updated: Some Future Now clarification added to comments.

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Scary - is probably a better word

Patenting of known principles is a plague in the digital culture. I don't know this case, and thus cannot comment on it. Yet it seems to me as if this is a tendency well worth keeping an eye on. It can be a hazzle if you need to make sure that your process is not covered by a patent. And the legal implications..? I wouldn't want to think of them.

Gunnar Langemark
Langemarks Cafe

Where's the patent?

I couldn't find the patent application in the Patent Office's database. Does anyone have a link?

(Wouldn't that be interesting if all the talk about Patent Pending was just marketing bravura?)

Clarification from Future Now

Victor: Patent applications aren't public, so there isn't a link available.

I did receive email adding some clarification from Bryan at Future Now (thanks Bryan) - this snippet is shared with his permission:

There are elements of our process that are proprietarily about
persuasion. Most elements of our process can be traced to a preliminary
patent application in 1998 (way before BJ Fogg or Andrew Chak ever even
gave a thought to persuasion and the web.) BJ does not have a
methodology for delivering persuasive websites, nor is our patent about
just UCD processes. It involves proprietary tools, methodologies,
techniques and how our process directly influences your web analytics.
We have shared what we could about our process with the grok and clickz readership, but this is only a small fraction of what we have available.

So the claim is not on a generic UCD process, but on proprietary tools and methodologies that influence web analystics and persuasion.

I still prefer the Adaptive Path route, where everything's open (no patent on the Visual Vocabulary, for example). But if something truly is unique and non-obvious, then there is a case for patent protection.


Jess McMullin

Designing technology to persuade -- BJ Fogg speaks up

Someone pointed me to this discussion.

I don't have time right now to go deeply into the content of the previous post, but I do want to make one thing clear: I've been studying persuasive technology since 1993. I completed a dissertation on the topic in 1997, a project that included developing some design methods and deliverables (At Stanford I took two courses from David Kelley, of IDEO fame, so I certainly was converted to UCD). Also, I taught my first persuasive tech class in 1997 at Stanford. In that class my students and I did design projects, using iterative methods, to create persuasive interactive technology products -- again, the year was 1997, not 1998 or whatever. Of course, most of this is documented, not just in my records but probably in that of my students.

The Myth of "Proprietary"

Consulting firms all tout their proprietary methodologies. But you know as well as I do that "proprietary" methodologies (for a certain discipline like UCD or "persuasion" or change management or ERP implementation or whatever) share certain common characteristics among firms. Often the "proprietary methodologies" share almost everything except naming conventions and deliverable formats. And if a methodology is novel, it's usually because it includes a component that is not normally used in that specific context (but is used frequently in other contexts). I know this from working at a number of consulting firms and comparing methodologies from those firms, partner firms, and competitors.

Future Now may do great work (I have no experience with the company and so can't comment). But this patent stuff is marketing-speak, pure and simple, and I think Future Now would have trouble enforcing such a patent (note: that's very different from enforcing a trademark). Let them go up against a big firm and try to enforce such a patent.

Finally, do clients really engage a consulting firm because its methodology is patented? Not in my experience. They engage a firm because of reputation, referrals, prior experience, good business development practices, promotions, etc. Clients focus on what you can do to help them succeed, not whether you can add "patent pending" to a methodology.


It probably only matters if FutureNow ever has the $$$ to go after other people/firms using a similar process. They'll certainly lose professional standing among peers by trying to patent UCD, or even looking like they are. Greedy desperation is what it sounds like.

Will be out of date before their application is reviewed

Thanks for pointing this out. I agree that its pathetic to attempt to patent a user-centered design process. I'm not against the patenting of any business process, but there's nothing unique in Minerva that could be substantiated. Even more, there's nothing especially compelling about the process. It appears that they took 3 techniques, made up a new word (Uncovery) and threw it together. Wireframing and prototyping are not user-centered at all. They are only design and modeling approaches, and are as standard as a builder's framing and drywalling. User-centered comes about when the using constituency is actively solicited or engaged in user research or participatory design. They didn't even bother to include a user testing component! This "process" would be truly useless to any serious product organization. Our best response is to continue innovating our own methods, sharing what works, and coming up with the occasional new term (e.g., blueprints, activity models?) to throw off the marketers.