The UI/UX Patterns You Literally Can’t Use

Exploring design patents from tech companies

This is the spiritual successor to a story that appeared in OneZero in April 2019: “From Like Buttons to Message Bubbles: The UX Designs You Can’t Use

You love thinking big. You love looking at other tech companies to see how they designed their products, or their navigation system, or that one animation transition you love. You aspire to design something like that. You keep bookmarks in your head: If you needed an expanding carousel for your entertainment app, you could take inspiration from Netflix.

Or maybe not. There are in fact some patterns you can’t use.

“W-what do you mean I can’t use?” you ask. “Like it doesn’t fit my situation? What — because I’m not at a tech company?” No, I mean like, you literally cannot use them without getting sued. Just as inventions have their own patents and rights, so do designs, and tech companies are good at protecting their work. Almost all parts of the Netflix carousel — the hover, the expansion — are patented work.

Now you’re thinking with clenched fists like John Locke from Lost: “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” Welp.

If design patents sound familiar, you may have read my article last year, “From Like Buttons to Message Bubbles: The UX Designs You Can’t Use.” I talked in detail about what design patents were, how long they last, what things you can and cannot patent, followed by several examples from tech companies. Just to recap, design patents last 15 years, cost a one-time fee of about $2,000-$3,000, they are all public material, and can be found conveniently on Google Patents. You can patent icons, static screens, animated interactions, and “ornamental” designs to existing functions. You cannot patent something purely for function.

Have you noticed that chat messaging apps that use bubbles all look a bit different? Perhaps that wasn’t “to be unique” but rather they (legally) had to. Companies can claim the visual shape of a message bubble to make them theirs, like Apple’s patent on their iMessage chat tails. But you cannot patent the function of being able to send messages.

I love looking at patents because they reveal a lot of potential work in progress. It almost feels like cheating, but part of the terms of granting patents is for them to become available in the public domain.

Of course, companies are smart and don’t give a lot of written detail about how the design would be used or in what product, since they don’t want to leak pre-releases. The only clues you have are the dotted designs in the black and white diagrams that serve as a contextual environment, and the title, which will tell you if they are talking about an animation or a static design.

Over a year since my last review, let’s look at some of the new patents in play and explore some trending companies.

Lyft

Pickup animation

Lyft’s patent for terminal pick up animation pick up (Left) and drop off example (Right)

When you place a ride on Lyft, specifically at an airport, you can select the terminal and the airline that you want to be picked up at. When you call the ride, there is an animation that zooms in on the pickup location and also shows a timer on how long it’ll take the driver to arrive. The patent here is the zoom-in animation (specifically this), the pin with the location bubble, and the two-column selection UI section. The patent seems to be for pickup, but since I’m not at the airport, the closest real-life example I could provide is a drop-off at the airport, which is slightly different.

Autonomous driving screen (future)

Autonomous driving dashboard screen inside the car.

My favorite part about looking at patents is you can see some designs in the works. I was really excited to see that Lyft is going all out on their autonomous car-hailing solution. Here we can already see some patents on what the dashboard might look like from inside the car. The dashed lines are contextual information that let me know this is for autonomous driving and detection, hence the bicyclist with the box around them. The actual patented piece is the solid lines that form the rounded container, at the bottom where it shows “Arrive in 15 min, 185 Berry St.” The words inside the bubble themselves are dotted, indicating that the words aren’t locked, but rather that the placement of the text and rounded look is what’s important. It seems overly simple, but I can see why Lyft would want to try to patent this. This racetrack/pill/lozenge shape is unique to their company and brand. You might think of the colored, pill-shaped light with the Lyft logo that some drivers have on their dashboard for passengers to easily find their ride. This was a pretty new patent, where Lyft applied at the beginning of 2019, and it was granted at the end of the same year.

Slide to unlock

Unlocking an autonomous ride via a mobile app. The user can swipe to unlock the autonomous vehicle, and the colored arrow shows the words, “Unlocking” as the user swipes.

If you remember from my last article, horizontal slide to unlock was a huge patent from Apple, the first company to coin the concept. Later on, other companies followed suit on the unlocking method but had to continuously come up with creative alternatives, such as vertical swipe to unlock. As long as the swipe to unlock looks significantly different, it won’t go against the patent. There was a big legal case where Samsung had to pay Apple $120 million because their designs were too similar.

I absolutely love this design by Lyft because there’s a lot of accessibility features that make it so much clearer. You see the call to action “Slide to unlock car,” and as you are swiping, a colored bar confirms that you are “Unlocking” in the same area. Another part of this patent is the addition of the rounded box above the unlock that contains information about the robotaxi that is parked out for you. Autonomous riding… man that is cool!

Autonomous vehicle notification system

Car displaying signs on windshields for people outside of the car.

Oh my god, this is so cool. One of the concerns with autonomous vehicles is not knowing when they “see” pedestrians. Lyft has considered these very real issues and one of their solutions is to light up the car with signs on the windshield. The examples shown in the patent are “Lydia’s Car” when the user is looking for their vehicle, “Yielding” when at a stoplight for other cars, “Safe to cross” for pedestrians when at a crosswalk, and “Safe to pass,” for a bicyclist. And aha! That pill-shaped light I was talking about is on the dashboard in Figure 5! This patent was granted in March of 2020.

Robinhood

Patent diagram of share price bubble in Robinhood’s call/puts feature (left) and live example (right).

So… apart from the whole GME fiasco… Robinhood has been “up and coming” for a couple of years now and continues to catch people’s attention. Their simple design for investing, a rather complex category, is quite inspirational. I wasn’t a heavy investor before, but their design is so good that it made me want to invest more. This patent was granted just two months ago.

This is actually the only design patent that I found. It’s displayed when you are browsing calls and puts on their app. As you’re scrolling through, the position of share price changes from a sticky top to in-line to sticky bottom. All three of these states and their transitions are part of Robinhood’s patent. I think it’s a clever design to show directionally where the current share price is.

Amazon

Dash button

Patent diagram (left) and actual dash buttons (right). Image from Business Insider

Remember this? The Dash Button was a great success when it came out. Consumers could get a physical button from Amazon to reorder frequently made purchases. For example, if you always bought the same paper towels, you could press this physical button to instantly place an order for more paper towels without going into the app. Heck, even if you didn’t order anything, you might have been tempted to try it because it was fun and Amazon was giving the device out for free. I just found out that they patented the design of the physical device. I actually still have mine at home.

Google

Autopilot

Patent diagrams possibly of Google’s auto-driving display.

Lyft isn’t the only one going hard on autonomous driving tech. Google has been at it for quite a while, especially with Waymo, and I was surprised that this patent has been active since 2015. I personally haven’t seen this being used before. It looks to be a display that would appear on the driver’s side windshield display. It could also be a new type of dashboard or an external device that you attach to a car to change between manual and autopilot driving.

Autopilot dashboard

Patent diagram (left) and Waymo dashboard (right).

At first glance, I really thought this patent was for Google Maps navigation. I was just about to paste a screenshot of directions to the nearest Whole Foods when I realized that’s not what this is showing. The broken ring around the arrow is not the same as the solid transparent ring in Maps navigation, and there is a solid line that goes through cars in front of you. What’s more, there is a speed limit shown in the top right of this patent diagram, but in Maps, it’s on the bottom left. That made me realize, this is probably an autopilot UI. Tesla’s autopilot is similar in that it shows the lanes and cars around you, and there is a guided line directly in front of the car that shows where it’s going. It seems that this display is what you would see as the driver using autopilot technology, and the published example I found uses the same flat rectangles for other nearly detected cars. However, I actually think it’s possible what we’re seeing is a separate product from Waymo. This could be a thing where a user can install some kind of add-on device to utilize autopilot. This is an educated guess because if they were to patent the robotaxi screen (shown in the example), I feel like they would have made the big arrow a car instead.

Split-screen messaging

Patent diagram for a messaging app from Google.

Okay, so, whoa. This looks like a new app in the works from Google. I can tell you it’s not Google Voice and it’s not Google Hangouts because the shape of those message bubbles is different from both of them, and this app seems to handle group messaging. What we’re seeing is a split-screen experience where you can chat and view a page at the same time. You change the screen ratio by pulling the handle up or down, and when you pull the messaging all the way up, the link seems to minimize into a tappable bubble at the top. What’s unclear about this is whether or not everyone can see the same screen at the same time. I don’t have all the context of the use and purpose of this app, but it’s differentiated from other messaging apps for sure. Android users might think this is the split-screen feature on Android devices, and although it certainly seems like it, the solid lines for the message bubbles are the telltale signs that this highlighting a chat app. This patent was granted in 2018 and I would love to see this experience come to life.

ByteDance/TikTok

Bytedance has so many patents that I can’t go through them all, so I’m just going to pick the ones I think are relevant to TikTok. Part of the struggle is that ByteDance has so many other companies, it’s hard to tell what is what and which might be new features. According to Digiday, ByteDance owns TikTok, Helo (an Indian social media app), Vigo Video, Douyin (the Chinese version of TikTok), BaBe (an Indonesian news and content app), and Huoshan (a Chinese short-form video app).

User profile

Patent diagram (left), user profile page (middle), and discover page (right).

This is either a different app, or it’s an updated future version of TikTok’s profile page. The bottom navigation and positioning of icons look similar to the current state, although the second menu item has two heads instead of a search icon for “Discover.” What might be coming soon are segmented rows for different types of content the user has. We also know from the Discover page that TikTok uses carousels that display four thumbnails at this similar ratio, which is what makes me think this could be a future state for TikTok. The patent looks like a mesh between the current profile screen and discover screen, and I hypothesize it’s the future state of the profile screen.

Bottom sheet messaging with liked hearts

TikTok’s bottom sheet messaging patent.

Again, this could possibly be a different app since some of the contextual clues don’t make sense quite yet. But if this is an update to TikTok, I hypothesize that this is the patent for the bottom sheet design where you see user messages. The hearts on the right resemble the placement of current messages, so the patent here would be the profile icon placement on the left and the heart icon on the right. I think it’s interesting that the video area also shrinks down a bit. One benefit is you can see more of the video as you read messages, or I wonder if they are doing that to add more buttons around.

Spotify

Sticky CTA

Spotify’s “Shuffle Play” button is patented in its half-header style.

I’ve been using Spotify all this time and I never knew this was patented — the sticky green call to action at the top when you scroll through a playlist. What’s special about this ornamental design is that it floats halfway between the header instead of having a full background, which allows you to see a bit more behind the button as you’re scrolling.

Paypal/Venmo

Split purchase experience

Venmo’s split purchase feature appears as side by side buttons and a screen to add a description after splitting with a user. Images screenshotted from Venmo’s Youtube video.

Honestly, I didn’t know this feature existed until I saw this patent. In the Venmo app when you make online purchases at a business you can later split that payment or share with friends, which pulls up a screen with lots of icons to choose from along with a description. The patent shown here shows that businesses are square-shaped while individual users are circle-shaped. Below the purchase, there’s side by side buttons for split and share. In the video released by Venmo (shown in the example), it looks like they actually changed the description box to be at the top instead of the bottom.

Cover flow icons

Animated screen of patent diagrams stitched together to show a perspective moving grid.

Wow, I have no idea what this is, but it’s so trippy and interesting. It’s an animation of what seems to be a user dragging on a screen to get to different cover icons, and the surrounding icons shift in perspective. I looked around and I don’t see PayPal currently using this, but I thought it was interesting to show nonetheless. What’s more is that this patent belonged to eBay at first in 2013, and was later assigned to PayPal in 2015.

Takeaways

Based on my audit on current active patents and following the news, one trend is design focused on autonomous driving and robotaxis. I’ve been hearing more and more about this topic the last few years, and given the competitive market, it makes sense that companies are trying to patent their work as soon as possible. We saw some designs from Lyft and Google’s Waymo, but don’t forget that Tesla is still in the race, and so many more. Amazon had also just recently announced their autonomous driving efforts, Apple is rumored to be working toward this, and Uber had been in it but actually just dropped out.

I also think we need to watch the space that TikTok is growing in… because they are growing at a speed that can’t be ignored. There’s already a lot of competition in the social media market so it will be interesting to see how other companies adapt to compete with TikTok, and moreover how TikTok will defend their designs. Again, having a design patent doesn’t mean someone else can’t make another app that does the same thing, it just means they have to look significantly different.

As a designer, it’s also a good idea to familiarize yourself with existing patents so you don’t accidentally copy someone else’s patented design — because once you get into the legal battle, it doesn’t matter if you were aware of the patent or not.

Oh yo

If you missed it, here is part one of the design patent series: From Like Buttons to Message Bubbles: The UX Designs You Can’t Use, where I looked at Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, Snapchat, Samsung, Netflix, Airbnb, and Tinder.

If you’re interested in keeping up with design patents, follow me so we can keep in touch. I’ll be following up to see what’s new!

Product Designer. Jury at Awwwards. eSports enthusiast. Bonafide nerd. Ketogenic foodie. Sarcastic and crass INTJ.

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