Patents on usability

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen has come into a fair amount of criticism recently. First, Jeff Jarvis squabbled with Nielsen about e-mail vs. RSS. From Frank Spillers I now learn (NOTE: See update at bottom of post for corrected time line information) that Nielsen has been criticized at Slashdot for this paragraph:

You can patent usability innovations to keep the competition from stealing them. Most Web projects are managed by marketing departments that have no experience with the patent system. Websites, however, are inventions and should be protected when you invest in developing something new. Talk to people in your legal department. They might know of a patent attorney who doesn’t bite.

Spillers quotes from Slashdot:

So if I come up with a great usability enhancement, I should patent it? How does that increase the usability of the web overall? We live in a sea of unusable web sites and horribly designed programs.. now he’s saying “hey, the goal is actually not to make web sites more usable. The goal is to come up with usability enhancements that one or two web sites will use. The other sites can go stuff themselves

I can imagine that there might be times when a company invents a Web usability concept so new, or so unique to its industry, that filing for a patent is the right thing to do, but for the most part I think usability is one of those issues that we should all share. Heck, in most cases just caring about usability is a huge competitive advantage.

One of Spillers most interesting remarks, though, comes at the end of his post:

The key issue here, I think, is that Jakob Nielsen has an unhealthy monopoly on Usability Consciousness. He promotes best practices, he preaches obedience to his guidelines and when he postulates opinions they are interpreted as instructions.

More later on how this has eroded Jakob Nielsen’s popularity within the usability community.

As far as I know or can remember, Nielsen was the first person on the Web to give a hoot about usability. Many in the usability community who are now critical of him probably owe their careers to him.

UPDATE: Ouch — for some reason, my RSS reader picked up a bunch of old Spillers posts. The post I link to from above isn’t new. It’s from 2004! (I only came across Spillers’ blog a couple of months ago.) So, this is no recent criticism of Nielsen. It’s old news. However, since it’s still interesting, I’m leaving this post up (this update comes only about five minutes after the original post). Here’s Spiller’s longer critique of Nielsen, and it’s worth reading the whole thing.

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