Patent research applications are intricate tools, repositories of complex information with legal implications. They can be used to inform high-stakes decisions, and can take time to learn and utilize with proficiency and insight. Good tools with value-added features generally require some investment of both time and money. Moreover, they are often tools that we choose for others: for our firms, our companies, our faculty, our students, our colleagues. And they are also tools to support decisions that are deeply important to our clients, whomever they may be.
Free tools may be appropriate for occasional users and even fairly sophisticated users, but free does not mean without cost. Some tools create security concerns, while others can encourage users to create suboptimal workarounds and inefficient workflow patterns. Premium tools, on the other hand, are only worth their premium prices if the features of the tool match the needs and preferences of the intended users.
If intellectual property research is a core part of how we serve our clients and colleagues, choosing patent research tools should not be a decision we make lightly—whether we are choosing a free or a fee-based tool.
While the specific basic requirements may differ greatly depending upon our individual contexts, the following broad categories of characteristics should always be considered when evaluating a patent information product:
- Data Coverage and Sources
- Search Features
- Accessibility of Specific Information Types (Specific to Need)
- Data Quality
- Information Security
- Fitness for Intended Use
Depending upon our use scenarios, we may also consider the following to be basic requirements, although these features may also be considered “special features” by some user groups.
- Data Analysis
- Data Visualization Features
- User Experience
Context First: Users, Needs and Environments
Librarians and information managers—those responsible for selecting and curating digital information resources—understand that the process of selecting a resource never truly starts with the resource itself.
Ideally, we work from the outside in, starting with our users and their needs, and the context within which the resource will be used. Thus, when evaluating what I have to say about any IP tool, each of us should consider the relevance of the observations to our own contexts: our needs, our users, our preferences, and our environments and constraints, including resource and financial constraints.
The View from Outside
This category of information is valuable because it allows one to understand how a vendor is positioning a tool and how successfully the tool is representing itself in the marketplace.
Product reviews, of course, give interested parties an opportunity to assess whether investing the time and energy into a trial will be worthwhile.
Product literature, on the other hand, tells us what a company wants us to know about their product. The same information also tells us something about how the company sees its customers, and that, in turn, gives us clues to the how the company and the product might behave in our interactions.
The most sophisticated features on the market mean nothing if you hate using the product.
While users can differ widely in their preferences for user interfaces, poor design decisions can make an otherwise great tool unusable to all but the most determined of users. Conversely, features that greatly enhance user experience, such as features that streamline workflow or reduce confusion on a visual layout, make the tool more useful to more users.
Here are some aspects of user experience to consider:
- Customizability (e.g., Layout or Workflow)
- Innovative or Differentiating Features
Online access to patent information used to be a rarity. LexisNexis, in fact, was a pioneer in this domain.
However, now that raw datasets of major patent authorities can be easily purchased or even downloaded for free, vendors must work even harder to differentiate themselves from both familiar and emerging competitors.
Many commercial patent database platforms, including LexisNexis® TotalPatent®, offer various features that provide unique value. These features may include proprietary, innovative features, such as semantic search, or enhanced attention to the quality of certain types of data, such as corporate entity names or machine translations. Some examples of value-added features can include:
- Integration with other resources
- Unique search technologies
- Data quality enhancements
- Convenience enhancements
- Human and machine translations
- Analysis features
- Visualization Features
Finally, an information product can also be evaluated by considering the vendor that provides the product.
Pricing, support, training and customer service quality are obvious considerations, but the vendor’s business model and customer interaction philosophy can also make an impact on user experiences.
Some questions to consider:
- If the tool is offered to users at no charge, how does the information provider support the tool?
- How does it maintain its commitment to developing the tool and providing services?
- If the vendor is a start-up, what might be the long-term prospects for the tool?
- If the vendor is an established player, what legacy issues might affect the usability of the tool, or the responsiveness of the vendor?
- What might be the relative risks and benefits of going with a particular vendor?
In many ways, the most important question to ask about any particular vendor is not so much “Is this information provider a good one?” but “Is this vendor the right provider for us?”.
The considerations for evaluating information providers and vendors can vary greatly, but a thorough evaluation process should include examination of at least the following factors:
- Business Model
- Target Market
- Customer Service Practices
- Training Practices
- Customer Relationship Philosophy
- Technology Development Practices
- Platform Development History and Future Plans
- Relationship of Platform to Other Vendor Offerings
- Type of Organization
- Reliability, Stability, and Long-Term Viability of the Vendor
Only you can decide whether a given tool fits your needs, preferences and specific context. The best way to really take a tool through its paces is to use it, and one way to do this is by signing up for a demo.