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The following section contains subjective comments about the system that represent our editor's opinions, and should not be viewed as fact. Editor's opinions include positive and negative judgments about the product written in consideration of wider context, including related products and the industry at large.
PatBase has been designed with the patent search professional in mind, providing a flexible, customizable search interface and a multitude of extra tools (see the Other Features section for examples). Regarding usability, all these customizable options and extra bells and whistles may present somewhat of a challenge to the new user. However, the vendor’s willingness to provide live programs for the uninitiated, as well as the user-friendly simple search form page, can provide the necessary stepping-stones for new users to get their bearings.
New users should find the general interface design fairly navigable. The “main menu” that appears after log-on is a well-organized page that presents all of the system options under various tabs, the floating toolbar on every page also provides easy access to all system options, and tabbed easy-reference menus (including general information and shortcuts tabs) are available on the right-hand side of every screen (except the Folder screen). Some icons in the viewing windows are not easily understood, but definitions appear when the cursor is held over them (except for the folder icons, which don't display any labels or definitions even when moused over). For the most part, links are represented with words or phrases to make the meaning clear (i.e. “full-text” links to the full-text viewing window).
PatBase is designed for any user to get started using the simple search form, with no training required. However, sophisticated text searching requires the use of the command line interface, which does require the user to know PatBase’s command language. Learning about and incorporating special commands (like the “super class” command) into the search routine will likely be an ongoing process for most novices.
Another obstacle to usability for PatBase is that its patent data is organized into families: this organization, while ultimately beneficial to the searcher, introduces the need for a relatively complex interface. For example, when running a search in Thomson Innovation or TotalPatent, the search results represent individual documents, and a review is conducted by simply clicking from one full text document to the next. In PatBase, the record is presented to the user (depending on the selected display type) as a bibliographic record with aggregated data fields, possibly containing selections of text from multiple family members. From here, the user will usually need to open one or more secondary windows to conduct a thorough review of the family: the Family Explorer, the Full Text view, the Legal Status chart, or the Citation Search window.
This contrast is exaggerated by PatBase’s decision to create family records using a more generous version of the INPADOC algorithm. Since families routinely include dozens of members when defined this way, a single family hit in PatBase represents a potentially huge conglomeration of data. New users may be overwhelmed by the options presented to them for review, and may need experience with the system before they can quickly discover relevant members within the family. The option to divide very large extended families into simple families may help users become less overwhelmed by lengthy family records.
To mitigate adding complexity onto the review process, PatBase developers incorporated flexibility into their interface by creating a number of different display options, and even allowing the user to design his or her own display formats and custom user fields. Although this feature will also ultimately be advantageous to the user, the multitude of options may also be unsettling to the new user, who may feel that they don’t have a grasp of “best practices” when it comes to using PatBase.
For reference, PatBase does provide a searchable PDF user manual, a quick reference sheet, and a searchable online help file; the help file is available by clicking the “help” button that appears prominently on the floating toolbar, while the manual and quick-guide are accessible under the "information" tab in the side-menu (on all pages except the search history page) and are probably intended as printable desktop references. The online help file is about on par with the user manual, since both are fairly detailed and include many tips and search examples. It is useful that the help file is keyword searchable, and important help sections are directly accessible from the floating toolbar "help" drop-down menu.
Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox are officially supported browsers for PatBase use. Google Chrome is not officially supported, but most features function correctly.
Finally, live help is available via the Minesoft helpdesk, by telephone or e-mail. The help service is located in London, however, making time zone issues a concern for those located in other parts of the world. Local sales representatives are responsive and happy to be of assistance whenever they can, although their expertise (understandably) may not extend to more complex technical questions. (Note: the editors dealt only with local sales representatives in the US).