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December 08. 2013 4:19PM

Sam Asano's Let's Invent: Make your invention easy to use



THIS WEEK we are discussing the "user experience" of websites," known as "UX." In last week's column I mentioned a reader who wanted to create scheduling software in the event industry. The reader wanted to know if that concept could be patented, and whether the $50,000 fee a software developer requested to create the software was excessive.

My answer without knowing the details was "No" to both questions. It really isn't patentable, and a $50,000 fee for perfecting the software isn't that excessive.

However, I would like to ask some questions to this reader from New York. Have you looked at all software available in the marketplace for your industry, and have you found that none would do what you plan for your product to do?

If you think your concept is unique and offers features that no competitors offer, then you MUST verify if such a feature is positively beneficial to users. (I hate to pour water on this reader's head, but I am compelled to do it as my standard practice — please don't take it personally.)

Or is this feature you think the market needs just your imagination? It would be tragic to spend $50,000 of your savings just to find that your product isn't so special that people in the marketplace wouldn't bang your door down to buy it. In fact, they'd yawn.

In the world of invention, whether it is hardware or software, functionality supersedes everything. That has always been an unfortunate phenomenon. That is because in the space of inventions, engineers and programmers dominate the product development. The people who develop products know inherently how to use it; after all they came up with the idea. They can use the product blindfolded. Because it is their own concept, they tend to ignore the difficulty the future inexperienced users might face in using the product — be it hardware or software. When an innocent and inexperienced user gets lost in the software and gets frustrated, developers would deal with it with a mild derision. "Oh well, poor thing. This is how to use it. See?" Then they would go away in triumph.

In the world of product development, most amateur-developed software either totally by-passes the phase of UX trial or grosses it over. (Yes, that's the world you 99 percent inventors are in. Do not think you are an amateur, whose performance couldn't equal that of professional. If you are an inventor, you must perform as good as or better than a pro.)

It is quite obvious to experienced computer software evaluation experts that the product hadn't undergone serious UX testing with many generations of operating software. Thus a simple scheduling software development could rack up a serious expenditure in the UX trial phase.

Basically a UX trial consists of two rough phases. One is to try the software with various generations of operating software expected to be found in the customer's computers. Second is to try all sort of data entries by people unfamiliar with the software to see where and how they fail to proceed.

The reader in New York had thought $50,000 excessive. In my opinion the UX trial phase may become a significant portion of the total expenditure if the software is to succeed in the marketplace, and in the end the amount may not be sufficient.
Software developers either in their haste to finish the project or their simplified view of the world that customers must follow their dictums often create bizarre layers of redundant and unnecessary user interface. A good example is the so-called Airport Code. All of us airline travelers must enter the airport codes of the departing airport and the destination airport. Last week, I flew from Manchester to Chicago Midway airport. That meant I had to first find the airport codes before I could search a convenient flight schedule.
Don't tell me computers cannot be programmed to understand names of an airport in plain English. This is just another piece of inconvenience we users must overcome or suffer because programmers weren't considerate for what users have to go through.

There will be more articles in this column on software as more people start learning to program and develop apps for various smartphones. Don't think the app space is an exclusive domain of young professional programmers. As far as I am concerned they don't do that great a job. Some apps' UX are horrible. You 99 percent inventors can do it.

Shintaro "Sam" Asano of New Castle, who speaks and writes English as a second language, was named by MIT in 2011 as one of the 10 most influential inventors of the 20th century who improved our life. He is a businessman and an inventor in the field of electronics and mechanical systems, who is credited as the original inventor of today's portable fax machine. He also developed a data tablet used in the retail point of sale to capture customer signatures when credit cards are used. Write to him at

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