Image by Procsilas Moscas

Médecins Sans Frontiers came to us with a website that was already up and running.

The concept was sound and the site was functional, but they knew that it would only begin to thrive with more input from its users.

The Patent Oppositions Database (PODB) is a resource for those who wish to challenge medicine patents. As MSF explained, patents, and in particular the practice of ‘evergreening’ them (extending their life indefinitely by making slight modifications to the medicine’s make-up), give pharmaceutical companies a monopoly on pricing, and can impede access to patients who would benefit from them.

PODB aims to collect and share previous examples of art and arguments used in lawsuits, so that they may be used by anyone in future oppositions.

The site already contains a wealth of useful information, but its success depends on user engagement — only if users add to discussions and upload past cases will the project really succeed in its aims.

Médecins Sans Frontiers had identified that this engagement would only come about through design improvements, enhanced functionality, and possibly the addition of data from other sources. They also understood the need for a complete analysis of the site before they made firm decisions about the changes that should be made.

And so, that’s where we began: with a set of recommendations for MSF, in the form of a detailed report. Here’s how we approached it.

Patent Oppositions Database homepage

Breaking it down

We tackled the task from three sides.

Interviewing users

Where possible, we always begin any analysis of a site by speaking to the people who use it: their experience is the most valuable, and no-one can understand their needs better than they do themselves.

We spread our interviews across four different types of user, from researchers to MSF staff, but with a bias towards the most important users, the legal experts who would refer to the site’s materials to help them make new oppositions against patents, in court.

For each type of user, we were interested in hearing about their needs and frustrations with the site as it is now. We also asked which other sites they used and what they particularly liked or disliked about them, and the ways in which they collaborated online.

Finally, we set our users some simple tasks to see how they used the site and what the blocks were to easy task completion.

Content analysis

We analysed every page of the site to see where usability improvements could be made, from ‘quick wins’ through implementing better functionality, to tweaks that would encourage users to be more involved in the site’s community aspects.

Process Map for Patents Opposition database


Review of other sites

There’s no point in reinventing the wheel. Médecins Sans Frontiers had already identified the possible benefits of collating information from other sources, like the World Intellectual Property Organisation site.

We took the time to make a detailed analysis of where this kind of collaboration would be of most benefit, and we also looked at ways in which MSF could save money by integrating existing technology such as PDF annotation tools, and embeddable widgets such as Disqus to allow discussion on a webpage.

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Our recommendations

We presented our findings in the shape of a clear, in-depth report, which identified three main potential areas of improvement. Each of these were subdivided further, with five recommendations in each.

These were firmly based on what we had learned by speaking to users: for example, all agreed that their main need was in finding prior patent oppositions to use when gathering art and arguments for new oppositions. On the current site, this could be frustrating.

Our recommended approach of a page for every patent and every opposition, as well as enhanced user journeys through the site and links between drugs and patents pages, would all increase the ease with which these resources can be found.

Many of our recommendations were simple, though. For example, when creating a community space for users to meet and discuss patent oppositions, the easiest, cheapest and most effective solution is to use an existing platform such as Google Groups.

Once our report was handed over, MSF could have used it to provide guidance to any contractor they employed. As it happens, they chose to go ahead and use mySociety’s development team to implement the changes we’d suggested. After all, no-one now knew the aims and logistics of the job as well as we did.

Getting to the bottom of things

MSF had had a good idea of why their site wasn’t enjoying the kind of take-up they’d hoped for, and in that initial phase we were able to confirm this through research.

As we talked directly to a number of the site’s users, and gave the site a rigorous analysis ourselves, we found some recurring frustrations:

  • It was difficult to find content
  • While there was patent information from a variety of sources, linking it together was a chore
  • People weren’t contributing to the site because it took too long to do so
  • There was no feeling of community, so users didn’t feel a strong compulsion to help one another

And that pretty much brings you up to speed with where we were last time we blogged this project. Since then, we’ve been beavering away on making improvements.

How do you encourage community?

People tend to look at community as a nebulous concept: all the more so with online communities, where success is often seen as a coincidental factor rather than one that you can foster.

But for this project, it was clear what to do. And the site has the odds stacked in its favour: visitors have a very strong motivation to contribute, so we just needed to make that as simple as possible.

We worked on two broad areas: the site’s design, and some new core functionality.

New design that removes barriers

  • The first thing to do was to ensure the site met modern standards, breaking down any impediments to participation. It’s now responsive (ie it displays well on any size of screen), clear, and accessible.
  • Then we made sure that, when visiting the homepage, it was obvious what to do next. This was achieved with a prominent search function, and some clearly signposted ‘next steps’.
Patent Oppositions Database homepage: before (left) and after (right)

Homepage: before (left) and after (right)

  • We wanted to reward people and organisations for playing an active part, so we created profile pages which highlight their activity.
  • Documents are the mainstay of the site, so they’re now highlighted as the main resource on any pages where they’re relevant. We also tidied up the way they were being stored, so they’re consistent across the board.
  • We tackled that user frustration and made sure that patent data from sources such as WIPO and EPO were cross-referenced and brought together.

New functionality that fosters participation

  • Users can now view and mark up documents right on the site, and then share what they’ve discovered with other users, thanks to the ‘add an annotation’ function.
What an annotation looks like on the Patent Oppositions Database

Making annotations is really simple

  • We created an email alerts service, drawing on our experience running TheyWorkForYou, which sends out thousands of alerts to people tracking topics in Parliament. This kind of alerting system is great for bringing people back to the site at their own convenience. So now, when there’s a new case concerning a specific drug, anyone with an interest in that drug will receive an email. If someone leaves a note on one of your annotations, you’ll know about it too.
  • Search is absolutely crucial to the site, so we implemented a powerful new search facility which can look through not just the site’s own pages, but the documents it hosts, too. We added filtering tools to give the user more control over what they see.
Patents Opposition Database search before and after

Search, before (left) and after (right)

  • Advanced users can also obtain search results in a standardised csv format for download, so they can be used for their own reporting, or even as a data source for other sites.
  • We created a new ‘call for help’ service, so users can ask the community to contribute to a patent opposition. These become touchpoints across the site, where users are urged to help if they can.
A call for help on the Patent Opposition Database

Need some help? Put the call out.


Our improvements were presented at the AIPPI (International Association for the Protection of Intellectual Property) World Congress, and the new site is now live at

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Image: Procsilas Moscas (cc)