The Rise of Interaction Design Patents

Note: This article generally addresses practitioners and patent attorneys, yet can benefit inventors and interaction-design developers just the same.

State of the Art

It is hard to keep up with technology. Its progress is accelerating (see Moore’s Law; also see Kurzweil’s singularity concept[1]). As patent thickets are flourishing wildly, it is becoming harder then to innovate solely on the side of technical improvements. Other sides may be explored in order to provide strong patentable novelty. In the race for IP protection (or rather offensive possession), it may make all the difference. While the patents landscape and the market in general are saturated with developments in electronics, engineering and IT, making it an incredible feat to find new grounds, there is currently a rising concern with a field which is essentially the utility of those aforementioned, at least regarding us, humans.
It is the impression of this author that there is an increase in the amount of patent applications which concentrate more on aspects of interaction design. And with good reason. Firstly, the field receives a growing recognition and expends accordingly as its own discipline and not merely an offshoot of others (it even sprouts sub-fields of its own, such as experience design). Consequently, new paradigms are being established, fresh schools of thought are emerging and a substantial body of work is being constantly augmented. Secondly, it may be simpler and easier to base a secure portfolio of claimed features and elements in such a widely untapped IP environment. This is compared to attempting to exclude competitors from a technology which can be designed around or avoided. It is extraordinary to find a spot that hasn’t been covered, partly because of the fact that many technologies are advancing from one improvement to the next, seldom as a leap of discovery or creativity. R&D is highly common amongst high-tech societies, each effort mainly producing small increments of ingenuity when compared to the one of the team or department “next door”. Not only is it difficult to innovate, it might also be very uncertain for prior art to be detected in full, and very arduous to overcome obviousness arguments. In confronting only technical subjects, it is sometimes a task of great length to prove inventive steps. In interaction design however, conceptual originality is much probable to be pronounced, as it is basically the most significant factor of an invention in the field.

Engineering Interactions

Generally falling in the statutory classes of a process and/or a machine, interaction design patents focus on interfacing with a device or mechanism (not excluding software), either by its features and/or by methods of use. Rather than dealing with the technical sides, it covers usability. Of course, an invention of a larger bandwidth capacity or a faster processor wouldn’t benefit much from addressing such an issue, as they have none. They are not directly being used or interacted with by humans (often termed “users” when it comes to interaction). Interaction design, therefore, is mainly relevant for such inventions which have any relationship with a person, or people. It needn’t be an “active” relationship, and the person isn’t necessarily an “active” user. This is to say that one may not actively (or even consciously) invoke any specific interaction (the intended design of which may hold promise for novelty, as suggested here). For example, distributing visual sensors in a public place for detecting people’s appearances, analyzing the data and presenting relevant advertisements in some manner (e.g., on display terminals) is a form of designing an interaction, here between the sensory system and the people (which might not even be aware they are “interacting” with the system). The procedures by which advertisements are presented may be the essence of an invention, such as a set of conditions by which they are chosen from a database. To qualify as interaction design, these conditions must account for the people in the “equation”. Alternatively, the mechanism by which the advertisements are presented, and the people are sensed, and their appearance recognized, may not be anything specific, so is the way it is made to function. Still, implementing cutting-edge technological solutions (such as for facial recognition and dynamic projection of images) by understanding how they work is sometimes key for inventing new forms of interaction design. Hence, a designer of interactions would be wise to be educated in actual technology which serves her. Commonly, such a craftswoman (or man) is proficient in several disciplines and sciences, and harnesses her knowledge as she invents. In fact, multidisciplinary tactics are most helpful for integration of concepts from different fields when creating something that isn’t “obvious at the time the invention was made to a person having ordinary skill in the art.”[2]
Take the screw. It can have a helix protrusion (or helical groove) which translates torque into linear force, such as for driving the screw into a nut. Its functionality is very useful, but its usability is expressed by its type of drive design, most often a slot shape at its head. The slot is the interface of the screw, and rotating the screw (with a screwdriver, or nail for some long-nailed handymen or women) is how one interacts with it. From there, interaction design may offer improvements for the driving, such as different techniques and different tools (e.g., a magnetic head or ratchet screwdriver, a drill, etc.), whereas technology may be exploited by interaction design (such as to engineer a new driving tool), or offer improvements strictly for the functionality of the screw as a fastener (as opposed to the function of driving it, an operation which technology may facilitate and interaction design may design). Same goes for the door handle. It can be coupled with an apparatus which secures the door shut, and may be handled to influence that apparatus, yet it may be embodied in a variety of shapes which aren’t exclusively ornamental but might also possess a utility (e.g., a knob is operated differently than a foldable door handle, which have other advantages).

An example of a modern “shape”, which borrows from the field of electronics, is a key panel or biometric pad (coupled with an electronic lock), with which interaction is much different than with mechanical handles and knobs. And while the electronic lock is a technological invention, its interface (the panel or pad) is more related to interaction design which may bring forth additional innovations.

The screwdriver in the previous example is a tool designed for interaction (e.g., to be rotated by a user) by a method of use (the rotation performed by the use). It has a defined utility for a desired result (a screwed screw). However, as a tool to be used by humans, it also defines an experience influenced by its elements and/or features, such as the shape of its handle or the ability of its shaft to tilt. Some of the features/elements may be designated for determining the outcome, while others for determining the interaction with the screwdriver — how the user uses it.
Some inventions design interfaces (features and/or elements of a device, such as of the screwdriver) and/or interactions (methods of using a device) which don’t necessarily have any effect on the result (but might facilitate it by improving the experience). For the screwdriver, a screw is eventually screwed, and there’s not much to improve here (however, an improvement may be its faster or tighter screwing), yet it may be done with better comfort, or even made fun (think of kids’ toolkits).
Lately, objects are turning more and more interactive (feeding the field of human-computer interaction, or HCI), as integrated circuits and sensors are embedded in many goods, such as household appliances and even cloths. Their abilities multiply many folds, such as in the case of the mobile phone, now making calls as a minor attribute. The experience of using them is much more intricate (albeit subtly so in some, mostly revered as well designed). If their technology is not supported by proper design, they are likely to fail, be ignored or lose in the battle for consumers’ adoption. As more technology is shoved into smaller enclosures, designing usability (as a factor of interaction design) becomes a challenge which promises lucrative rewards.
As stated, a large section of interaction design is dedicated to experience, which leaves it to be interpreted by some as art. However, it is a misconception to automatically associate interaction design with other design faculties, even if it is leaning more towards the artistic end of the spectrum. Shouldn’t all creations be regarded as art, be they a form of expression or a form of invention? Still, there’s no denying that interaction design is not a science, and indeed it may bear principles more similar to those of music, drama, fashion and literature than to those of chemistry, electronics, biology and physics. And yet – it is a utility. It is technology applied. It is means to an end. And while it is conditioned to personal inclinations, it works, or is made to work, to accomplish results. Its desirability is for demand to decide, same as anything else, even though in this case it is heavily dependent on taste and tendencies of individuals or audiences, rather than pure efficacy (which is not a bar for patent eligibility anyway). Interaction design may also be regarded as applied art, such as in the intersection with the field of industrial design, but at the same time one might title it “interaction engineering”, without arriving to much (or any) contradiction. Furthermore, the semantic distinction is blurring more as we move into modern ages, such as this “digital age”.
John Maeda, a self proclaimed (and internationally renowned) artist, considered one of the leading figures for the 21st century[3], advises many conglomerates (e.g., Philips), corporations and academic institutes (e.g., MIT, whereat he is both a student and a professor) on technology and business, often addressing R&D rather than design departments.[4] Bill Moggridge is an industrial designer (the designer of the first laptop, among others) and a pioneer in user-centered design. He preaches much about digital technology and the integration of hardware and software. He educates on design, yet is responsible for many well known technological concepts. Rich gold was a digital artist, inventor, cartoonist, composer, lecturer and inter-disciplinary researcher. He was a provocative speaker who lectured on the nature of engineering, and created the PARC artist-in-residence program (PAIR), which pairs fine artists and scientists together based on shared technologies.[5] Caleb Chung is a toy designer credited for one of the first interactive dolls, Furby, sold in tens of millions of copies. He has been issued tens of patents, and is a co-founder of UGOBE, where he is titled “that inventor guy”.[6] Jeff Hawkins, the founder of Palm Computing, and just recently a member of the National Academy of Engineering, is one of the most productive scientists of today, yet is responsible for some of the most successful designs in high-tech.[7] Matt Jones, an interfacing consultant for some of the largest technology companies in the world (e.g., Nokia) and an information architect, declares that “you can’t separate technology from experience”[8] and backs it up by a diligent effort for merging technology and design. These and other designers, many of which are officially inventors, are at the forefront of a widespread enterprise to tear down the boundaries between technology and design.

Fitting the Bill

Usefulness is a requirement for being granted a patent[9] which interaction design clearly fulfills, even more than we regularly appreciate. Interaction design defines use, either by a method, and/or a mechanism (or device) which facilitates it. So to continue the previous discussion, even if it does brush closely with aesthetics and impression, it never steers away from functionality and always, at its essence, describes a utility. A good example might be from graphic design, also a field intersecting with interaction design. Graphic design, when in reference to interaction, usually deals with graphic user interfaces (GUIs) – visual presentations serving as the front-end of a system, such as of a site or software, with which users may interact. Like other useful tools, GUIs may vary in appearance, yet some may be based on similar underlying principles, no matter how they are displayed. Some are designed to enhance convenience, some efficiency, while “design” here refers to elements and features for interacting with a GUI (even just by viewing it), not to their appeal to the eye. Note that visual characteristics such as arrangement or positions of items, or such as transparency dynamics, may have a utility value, especially in a virtual environment (as the case with GUIs). Sometimes perception greatly influences a process (e.g., an interaction) or its results. It may be a particular propensity to put a menu here and a scroll-bar there, but if it is helpful in any way, and may be drafted as a rule that can be recreated for other menus and scroll-bars, it is an invention, and as such ought to be patentable. In another example, the Swiss army knife has a successful design of hiding its tools inside a compact body. Other than the clear benefits of comfort, it may also be argued that the visual benefits of reducing apparent complexity is a substantial advantage over alternatives, and as such qualifies as a utility.

Similarly, the clamshell design for mobile phones is for size manageability, but also as means to conceal operators which aren’t always needed (think of TV remote controls which had a “door” for advanced buttons, once popular as a trick against overcrowded controls which deter consumers). Just as “form follows function” (a dogma of design, not agreed upon by everyone), form becomes the function where it is a factor for an outcome, an experience or both.
Patent law exists for several reasons. One is to promote innovations that wouldn’t have been pursued if not for the financial incentive of patents, while the non-obviousness requirement holds-off patents for mild steps of progress that probably would have come about anyway. Interaction design warrants a high level of creativity and is often risky as a commercial endeavor because it tends to toll conception changes and shifting points of view which directly influence consumers in unexpected fashions. It is unknown how significantly new “designs” will be accepted in the market. For that, venturing entrepreneurs and investors should be compensated. Products embodying novel interaction designs are very easily reverse engineered for their fundamental workings, an act which ought to be prevented by the proper patents.[10] It is for these reasons that many seek to patent (much more develop) interaction designs, or features and/or elements thereof in their inventions, rather than remaining in more technological territories.

In Practice

It is a well known and well practiced approach to claim a device and a method, for twice the protection. This is also the case here with interaction design, and even more so than in other fields. While an interaction design may be just a novel method of using a known product (or technology), or just a novel product which can be used similarly to others, usually interaction designs involve both kinds of complementary novelties. Otherwise, when one is neglected, it is encouraged to find one or develop one, if only for the sake of the specification. Making one up or describing one prophetically ought to be easy. For example, an application for a touch-screen which has new specific features can be added claims citing use of the new features. Same for a construction of a virtual control panel (e.g., keys arrangement of a media player), in another example, wherein the operators of the panel are “translated” into phrasings of how they are operated. The other way around is a bit tricky. An inventor might discover a method by which a known device (such as the touch-screen above without the new features) or software (such as an image cataloging program) is interacted with, having features and/or elements as known in the art. Still, it may be possible to devise a product (physical or virtual) tailored to the specifications of the method, or which facilitates it. It is achieved, for example, by converting steps to components which are essential for performing them. This should be done with care, to best block competitors without being dismissed as overlapping prior art. Such excursions enrich not only the eventual patent, but also the business opportunities of the client, as the process of drafting may illuminate missed premiums.
Practitioners who service inventors of inventions with a direct relation to people ought to note that a great deal of attention should be made to the experience and impression of using or executing the invention. This is beneficial not only for the development of the invention itself, but also as a conscious strategy of furthering the intellectual margins between which it is claimed. Looking beyond the restrictions of the technical ingenuity, extended value may be located, either just as a phrasing craftsmanship, or additionally for the actual invention itself. It may already exist, just waiting to be appropriately disclosed.
In conclusion, as technology is becoming more “humanized”, the connection between it and its users (or consumers) expectedly springs an abundance of innovation, which requires the assistance of the patent system to back it up, and to adjust to its unique nature.

Article by: Saar Shai

1. The Singularity Is Near, Ray Kurzweil (2005)
2. 35 USC §103, Patent Laws
3. More of the Esquire 21, Esquire (1999)
4. Laws of Simplicity, John Maeda (2006)
5. The Art, Technology, and Culture Colloquium / Berkley Center for Media
6. New Castle Gates Head, Thinking Digital (2009)
7. Designing Interactions, Bill Moggridge (2009)
8. Backing-Up Life, Calcalist (21st of May, 2009)
9. 35 USC §101, Patent Laws
10. Disclosing Commercial Incentive in Patent Specification, Abhilasha Kumbhat, NLU