What is universal design? Learning how to apply this approach to digital designs


If you’ve heard the term universal design thrown about but haven’t delved into what it truly means, you’re in luck. This article delves into the core principles of universal design, its advantages and simple steps on how you can effectively utilize it in your designs.

What is universal design?

Universal design is a design strategy that ensures your product, environment, communication or service works for everybody. By tailoring your design to everyone’s needs, you eliminate targeting specific users. You take on a liberated approach to simplify their lives through accessible and practical products that are easy to understand.

illustration of a person in a wheelchair and digital devices with symbols for different disabilities
Universal design in digital terms, by OrangeCrush

Universal design uplifts lives. It gives everyone a fair chance by making physical or digital designs accessible to a diverse set of people of all ages, abilities, nationalities. It steers the path of your business towards an ethical route by promoting the concepts of social equity and inclusion and—at the same time—broadens your audience for profits and marketing.

With all its advantages, universal design proves to be a wise decision to take up in your next design project or your company’s next research and development strategy.

The history of universal design

Photo of Ronald Mace in a wheelchair
Father of universal design, Ronald Mace via UDI

Ronald Mace was a director of the Center for Accessible Housing at North Carolina State University.

As a wheelchair user, he promoted universal design when it was still in its nascent stage. This is how he became known as the father of Universal Design.

Mace underlined the idea of making environmental design universal to make many lives simpler.  He recognized the issues with existing architecture.

One example of universal design implemented in architecture was creating a no-step entry to buildings. This eliminated the usage of stairs by using ramps, which could be accessed by everyone.

A house with a ramp instead of stairs at the entrance
No-step accessible entrance of a home via MED+

Universal design is an ethical design practice. Heavily conceptualized and revolutionary, it defines the users by setting them to “all.” It is not specifically aimed towards someone, thus standardizing design. It expands the meaning of ‘normal’ to ensure equal treatment for all users.

The concept of universal design stemmed from architecture and went beyond to other fields, such as education, product design and human-centered design processes. Universal design provides a holistic approach towards adding value to any field.

Mobile and tablet showing clean interface of ABC news app.
Accessible user interface: The ABC news app won Accessible App of the Year in Australian Access Awards 2019 via ABC Australia

Distinguishing universal design from similar design models

Universal design’s model and philosophy tend to overlap and might be confused with other models of design, such as barrier-free or accessible design and inclusive design. While designers often make solutions that have an integration of all the three, it is critical to deeply understand their interrelationship to effectively use and implement them.

1. Universal design vs. barrier-free design

Barrier-free design—also called accessible design—aims to remove any obstacles between its users and its products when in use. This type of design is implemented to create seamless, accessible experiences. Unlike universal design, barrier-free design doesn’t target everyone. Design that is accessible specifically targets people who have difficulties with existing systems and provides specialized solutions to find a work-around or an alternative.

2. Universal design vs. inclusive design

Inclusive design ensures that as broad an audience as possible will be able to access its finished product. Sometimes, it will offer different versions of one design, or a product with certain add ons for certain abilities. Universal design has a similar goal; to offer everyone the same chance to enjoy your product or service, regardless of ability.

Where universal design differs is that it’s not about creating a design with alternate versions according to ability, it’s about creating one design to suit everyone.

Benefits of universal design—to you, your users and to the world

A book with the name “Designing an Inclusive Brand- a Manual for all”
Handbook of Avenue, an inclusive workplace via For The People

Mace’s ‘Cornerstones of Universal Design’

A. Supportive design

It offers people a stress-free and easy design that also provides aid during usage. One way to add this to your visual design is by chunking numbers and adding the right visual hierarchy to reduce cognitive load.

A huge number written with and without breaking it in chunks
Chunking of big numbers to reduce cognitive load is supportive design via Practical Psychology

B. Adaptable design

It ensures that the design caters to a diverse set of people having different needs that could change with time, hence making the design flexible and adaptable.

Interface with language and currency changing options
Providing language and currency switching to cater to different linguistic and geographical groups by Ildiko Gaspar via Dribble

C. Accessible design

An accessible and barrier-free design that decreases issues that inhibit users. This can be done by following Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG), the guidelines of which are discussed later in this article.

D. Safe design

It is a design that lets users make corrections, presents preventive measures for errors and stimulates health and well-being.

E. Other benefits

Universal design is economical and marketable, as the outcome usually goes beyond specialization by setting standards. It also increases the number of consumers and longevity of the product by being useful and useful to people at most ages.

The 7 principles of universal design

These cornerstones of universal design have evolved into seven principles of universal design, laid out by experts at Center of Universal Design at NC State University in the nineties. The following principles are the standard against which environments and products may be assessed.

1. Equitable use

The design is marketable for people with varying abilities; it can be either designed the same for everyone or have alternate versions according to ability.

2. Flexibility in use

The design respects and accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities by focusing on precision in design. It adapts to ≥the user’s pace and provides alternative choices in methods of usage.

Netflix’s audio and subtitle options containing different languages, types of audio and subtitles
Multiple ways to access content offers flexibility via Netflix

3. Simple, intuitive use

The design is easy to understand and use—irrespective of the user’s abilities, experience, knowledge, skills or state of mind. It’s important to keep the design simple, consistent and intuitive when trying to achieve this; small things like using straightforward copy without much technical jargon is brilliant for opening designs up to a wider audience.

Interface of Spotify desktop app with a playlist opened and a song playing
Spotify has one of most simple and intuitive interfaces via Spotify

4. Perceptible information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user regardless of their sensory ability and any external, environmental conditions like lighting, weather or other conditions. This can be done by having multiple ways of presenting data (think imagery, audio clips and tactile information), appropriate visual hierarchy, and increased legibility of information.

5. Tolerance for error

Designs should provide interactions that minimize hazardous and unintended actions, warnings and fail-safe features. This also prevents the adverse consequences of accidents and errors.

Highlight on the undo option in Gmail 
Actions that could have been done by user error can be reverted in Gmail’s design via Tutsplus

6. Low physical effort

The design minimizes the physical effort required to use by allowing the user to comfortably maintain a neutral body position, minimize repetitive actions and limit heavy operating force and physical effort.

An animated preview of a form being auto-filled
Auto-fills for forms can reduce user effort and time by a great amount via Google Developers

7. Size and space for approach and use

The design provides appropriate size and space to every user regardless of their body size, posture and mobility for approach, reach, manipulation, and use. This can be done by giving out information regarding posture during use. The design keeps ergonomics in mind and provides variations in size, and leaves adequate space for assistive devices and support.

For digital designs, ergonomics can relate to visual ease, layouts with structured grids that use Gestalt’s principles and typography that’s legible and readable.

While it’s essential to understand the deeper aspects of universal design, how does one keep all the principles in mind while designing?

The process of designing universally

Design approaches that benefit universal design processes include:

Human-centered design: an approach where the core issues of the user are understood and worked on to find a solution.

Participatory design: an approach involving all stakeholders in the design process through collaborative methods.

An approach to universal design could take the following steps:

1. Finding most opportunities

The word “all users” can be overwhelming at times. While identifying your audience and building personas, concentrate on being more inclusive and include people with varied abilities to allow a bigger range of people. Are you selling to other countries or making something for the tourist sector? Are you introducing a new line of business or trying to follow ethical aspects and working on the company’s reputation?

2. Empathizing and monitoring behaviors and patterns

Ask yourself what the problems are that are faced by everyone in the area you’re looking into. During this process of pain identification, it’s imperative to empathize, constantly innovate and cater to growing needs. This process can involve monitoring of users’ living and interaction patterns and expectations with needs, wants, fulfillment, complaints and contentment.

Graphic of people working together
Co-designing with your users can bring in robust insights and solutions by wildanya

By using ethnographic methods such as interviews, shadowing, focus groups, cultural and environmental mapping and other practices, try to answer questions you’re investigating. Are your users able to navigate efficiently in your interface? Are you able to answer their problems? Does your product provide value to all users? Can they understand your icons? What are the consequences of someone using your product in the wrong way?

Through these questions, you should be able to detect most possibilities that could occur which go against the principles of universal design. It is essential to avoid any prejudice and stereotypes while performing this exercise.

3. Brainstorming ideas and proposing solutions

When bringing in ideas to the table, make sure they follow the principles of universal design by being respectful of diversity, being risk–free and having seamless functionality. The solutions have to be viable, effective and provide an opportunity to your users. Later you may give a budget and figure out other details of how to manage your project.

4. Conducting user tests and re-iterating solution

Just like anything, you must check your solutions before you bring it to reality. To check, invite users to conduct testing to identify pain points. While conducting these tests, avoid social stigmas like stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination. For example, an assumption that elderly people cannot use technology may not always be correct.

Be sincere, honest and receptive to everything that comes out of the testing process. These insights can then be incorporated to improve your solution. Testing is always an iterative process and will never have a final solution. You may choose to stop for a while but keep revising your design over time, or your design can become obsolete.

5. Universal digital  design

There are many ways to make your digital design accessible and understood by everyone. You can focus on aspects like adhering to WCAG guidelines, avoiding multiple iterations of a page for varied visitors and tailoring visual aesthetics to remain usable by everyone.

Black text on white in high contrast website of MoMa
High contrast mode in MoMa’s website that could have been the default design to make it universal via MoMa

A digital design that follows WCAG guidelines has sufficient color contrast with background and text colors and integrates keyboard navigation in interfaces for easy motor access. It will have scalable interfaces that can be easily magnified through external accessibility software without breaking.

creative website example with mint green background with dark blue text on top
High contrast and color- blind friendly combination used in a creative way by deandesign

It is unfortunate to see most digital interfaces still use nested menus, complex navigations and bold graphics which aren’t friendly for colorblindness or limited motor control. Check semantic markups on HTML such as separation of headers, footers and navigation. Ensure every image has an alternative text for visitors who are reliant on text-only descriptions on your webpage.

A last look at universal design

Designers often try to bring heavy attention to specific groups to promote inclusivity. these efforts give counterproductive results by emphasizing more on the differences that exist between one another. This unintentionally adds further discrimination.

To minimize making solutions for people with different needs look as if it costs additional effort, universal design bridges this by making inclusion an obvious matter in designs for the everyday world.

Incorporating universal design practices in the modern-day is necessary. We all need more inclusive spaces and designs that empower individuals and give them an equal opportunity as everyone else so they may utilize designs to their fullest and not feel limited by anything.

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