Guest blog — IP Australia’s award-winning search tool

Rob Wills

Trade marks help us protect our brands, but making sure a trade mark isn’t too similar to others can be challenging. Product manager Rob Wills walks us through IP Australia’s live trade mark search service.

A group of men and women in business attire standing and sitting in front of a wall covered in flowering plants.
Caption: IP Australia’s multi-disciplinary team in our agile environment

In November 2017, led by our Director General, Patricia Kelly, we stepped on stage to accept an award. A motley group — a small team from Australia’s intellectual property agency and an Aussie start up — had just won the Prime Minister’s silver award for “excellence in public sector management”.

The award and the live assessment we’ve passed since was for Australian Trade Mark Search, our online search tool for trade marks, which used Australia’s digital service standard as its guide.

Overhauling our trade mark search tool – “Don’t mess it up!”

IP Australia built a system in the mid-1990s for searching trade marks online. It was well respected by the experts in the intellectual property industry but more than half of the 70,000 trade mark applications made each year come from applicants representing themselves. Usually small and medium sized businesses, these people are experts in their own fields, not experts in trade mark searches. We learned the people who don’t work with trade marks as part of their day job found our old search tool unwieldy and difficult to use. Our system needed to evolve but its age held it back. It was clear from our user research we had to start again, building on the success of the previous system for expert users and breaking down barriers for experts in other fields.

The warning from our experts came in no uncertain terms — “Don’t mess it up!”

Opting in to the Digital Service Standard

At the time we started, we had made inroads into agile delivery but were finding the shift from waterfall challenging.

I had been watching the digital service standard in the UK and the messages about product (or service) centred delivery, user research and continuous improvement made so much sense for us.

When the Australian digital service standard was formally established in May 2016, we were already on our way to delivering our trade mark search service and meeting its criteria. The value of the standard was very clear to us and the standard’s language became part of our daily work.

We learned so many great lessons through this process. There’s no such thing as perfection, but the principles in the standard gave us confidence in what we were doing. It was far more than a compliance activity.

How we had to change

The standard was a communication tool that helped our organisation make a change. My senior leadership, right up to our Director General Patricia Kelly, acknowledged the guidance in it and gave us the opportunity to work in a more contemporary way.

To start, we formed a brand new multidisciplinary team, including experts in different domains (including technology, business analysis, user research, change management and trade marks) and a clear split between product ownership and project management. And we focussed on the people who use our service. The team adopted an agile way of working, rather than a specific methodology.

We had never been able to make systems available to end-users while they were being developed. In this delivery, we used any approach we could to get screens, features and the system in front of users as early and as often as possible. Our expert delivery partner and cloud hosting helped make it possible and the feedback we got directly shaped the tool.

What we delivered

Australia’s new trade mark search tool was launched in February 2017.

Based on the vastly different needs for the expert and non-expert users, we built two distinct modes:

  • Quick search” for convenient lookups using a single search bar.
  • Advanced search” for experts, building on successful elements of the existing system and introducing new features.

The project saw many firsts for our organisation — our first use of the standard, our first delivery on the cloud and our first time with a digital start up as an expert delivery partner.

We had shared multiple prototypes through the different delivery stages including Discovery and Alpha, a private Beta to a very engaged subscriber list, and a public Beta two months before going Live.

The work hasn’t stopped there. We knew we’d get feedback once the system was live so we set up mechanisms to collect it and planned for the time and resources we’d need to keep making improvements.

In the first six months we deployed 15 system updates, mostly driven by user feedback. Each month the tool sees more than a million page views and 50,000 users.

Reaction from the people we designed it for

Feedback from the experts has been great. At the opening of an industry conference, a senior member of the profession promoted our “big improvement” to the “beloved” trade mark search system from the stage.

Small business says the new system is “much better” and “so much more user friendly”. Call centre data shows 54% less calls relating to trade mark searches, a drop in the number switching from the website and a saving of time and money for business and government.

Over a third of the people that use our trade mark search are first-timers who may have a very short-term or one-off interaction.

We knew we’d have more work to do with these users and feedback confirms it. This group can still find trade marks difficult subject matter and can be unsure of the relevance of the results they find.

Ultimately, our trade mark search has been designed as a platform we keep building on so we’ll keep working with non-experts to make improvements.

Rob is product owner for search and discovery tools at IP Australia.