Universal Design

Your constantly-updated definition of Universal Design and collection of videos and articles

What is Universal Design?

‍Universal design is an approach for designers to make products and services accessible and usable for the largest possible audience without the need for adaptation or specialized design. Designers use its seven principles to create a solution that can cater to as many users as possible.

UX content strategist, architect and consultant Katrin Suetterlin explains the philosophy behind universal design in this video.

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Why Does Universal Design Matter?

Universal UX design is rooted in 1970s’ architecture. Ron Mace, who coined the term “universal design,” advocated for the design of environments that all individuals can access, regardless of their abilities. A group at The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University developed the concept further in 1997.

Universal design is closely related to accessibility. The belief that accessibility and usability go hand in hand is the foundation of universal design. Flexibility, adaptability, and simplicity are vital parts of it. As a designer, you can stretch these to the greatest extent in products or services everyone should be able to access and use. The question of the users’ ability and background shouldn’t matter.

Architectural design of steps with zig-zag ramp built in to represent universal design.

An example of Universal Design in architecture. Note how the diagonally-cut gradient of the ramp affords a gentle slope for wheelchair users and anyone else who may need it, such as someone with a suitcase on wheels.

© Spire Digital, Fair Use

Universal Design, Inclusive Design, and Design for All: What’s the Difference?

Universal design, inclusive design, and design for all share common ground. Universal design and inclusive design are often confused. In universal design, you create a single solution to accommodate a wide range of users, including many factors to satisfy the most users possible. Additionally, you incorporate insights about the users’ physical and cognitive abilities, age, gender, race, and ethnicity into the design of one experience. This will be a product or service that they all can access, use and enjoy.

In design for all, you build accessible features into your design from early in the design process. It’s an approach that considers the needs of all users and allows for variations of one design so as to reach them all. By including users with disabilities early on, you ensure you consider their needs and cater to them in full, rather than revisit them later with adjustments to your initial release.

On the other hand, inclusive design goes further. In inclusive design, you go the extra mile to target the needs and experiences of groups that “mainstream” design often marginalizes or excludes. When you set out to create an inclusive design, you especially account for the diverse perspectives and backgrounds of your users. In your design process, you include users from different ethnicities, genders, and/or with cultural differences, varying language abilities and preferences, and more. Inclusive design results in products and services that all users find accessible, usable, culturally sensitive, and welcoming. However, you may provide multiple design solutionsnot just one—per project to cater to different user groups. 

The 7 Principles of Universal Design and How to Apply Them

The seven principles of Universal Design.

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

  1. Equitable Use: Design products and services that people of all ages, sizes, and abilities can use.

Screenshot of Bluetooth.com's homepage.

Bluetooth’s homepage has an option to select the language (world icon, top right). The equitable use is that users can enjoy the experience on the site even if they do not speak English.

© Bluetooth, Fair Use

  1. Flexibility in Use: Design products and services that users can use in multiple ways to accommodate different user preferences and abilities.

Screenshot of Evernote's pricing page.

Evernote’s homepage offers flexibility in use via options to select. Users can approach Evernote in different contexts, for personal projects or for professional, team-based ones.

© Evernote, Fair Use

  1. Simple and Intuitive Use: Design products and services with an intuitive interface that users find easy to understand and use.

Screenshot of Uber.com's Request a ride now page.

Uber’s ultra-easy Ride section offers users the quick convenience of pickup location and destination.

© Uber, Fair Use

  1. Perceptible Information: Design products and services with clear communication to ensure users have the information they need to use the product successfully.

Screenshot of Trello webpage.

Trello clearly informs users what to do to get started.

© Trello, Fair Use

5. Tolerance for Error: Design products and services with built-in safeguards. Help prevent users from making mistakes or encountering unexpected results.

Screenshot of Google’s Gmail feature that offers an Undo option.

Google’s Gmail offers an Undo feature; for a few seconds, users can recall messages.

© Google, Fair Use

In this video, Senior UX consultant Vitaly Friedman shares tips on how to minimize errors by maximizing clarity.

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  1. Low Physical Effort: Design products and services that demand minimal physical effort to use.

Screenshot of Google Sheets option page, showing some Computer PC shortcuts for common actions.

Google Docs offers Keyboard shortcuts for users to work with Google Sheets more efficiently.

© Google, Fair Use

  1. Size and Space for Approach and Use: Design products and services with enough size, space, reach range, or manipulation area for a variety of user needs and abilities.

Screenshot of WordPress.com's homepage.

WordPress’s homepage offers users generous amounts of space to access desired dropdowns (at the top of the webpage).

© WordPress, Fair Use

Pros and Cons of Universal Design

Like any design approach, universal design has its pros and cons:

Advantages of Universal Design

  • Increased Accessibility: Products and services become accessible to an extremely wide range of users. These include people with disabilities, but also others who can enjoy your design’s benefits—for example, video subtitles help hard-of-hearing users as well as viewers whose first language isn’t English or users in noisy environments.

  • Broader User Base: Universal design can expand the potential user base and reach a larger audience. That’s because it considers such diverse user needs.

  • Improved User Experience: Universal design principles promote usability, simplicity, and flexibility. The result is a better overall user experience for all users.

  • Legal Compliance: As universal design follows accessibility standards and guidelines, your design can comply with legal requirements.

  • Future-Proofing: You design with flexibility and adaptability in mind. So, your design will be able to meet evolving user needs and technological advancements.

Screenshots of Google in Dark Mode, featuring the setting of it on the left inset screen and the homepage in Dark Mode on the right.

Google’s iconic website is an example of universal functionality that accommodates an extremely wide user base with such customizable options as Dark Mode. It can suit users who prefer it because it may be easier on the eye for them, or “just because” (it’s more to their taste).

© Google, Fair Use

Challenges of Universal Design

  • Design Complexity: It can be hard to design for a broad range of users in a single design. It also may call for more effort and resources to maintain it.

  • Balancing Trade-Offs: Universal design often involves trade-offs between catering to different user needs. That can be a delicate balance to achieve. One risk can be a one-size-fits-all product that may be difficult to market to people.

  • Education and Awareness: You need to teach designers and stakeholders about the principles and benefits of universal design.

  • Testing and Validation: You may need to do extensive user testing. This may be more than the usual to identify potential usability issues and validate a truly universal design.

How to Start with Universal Design

6 steps to start with Universal Design

© Interaction Design Foundation, CC BY-SA 4.0

Here are steps you can follow to build the Universal Design principles into your designs:

  1. Conduct User Research

Include semi-structured interviews and usability testing in your in-depth UX research. Be sure to involve individuals from different backgrounds, abilities, and cultures. That way, you’ll gain deep insights into their diverse needs and experiences. With a comprehensive understanding of these user needs, you can start to build towards your design. You’ll be able to accommodate a broad range of experience, knowledge, language, and skills.

  1. Define Inclusive Personas

Create personas that represent as diverse a range of users as possible. Consider factors such as age, ability, gender, race, ethnicity, and language preferences. Make sure your personas reflect an extremely wide user base. You should be able to empathize with different user perspectives and design accordingly with them.

  1. Prioritize Accessibility

Follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) to make sure your design is up to standard. For example:

  • Provide alt text for multimedia content.

  • Ensure assistive technologies can use your design.

  • Ensure proper color contrast.

  • Use clear and concise language to communicate necessary information.

  • Design for keyboard accessibility.

Accessibility is also about the contexts of use. Users of all ability levels will face challenges in certain environments. These could be busy, highly distracting, or even potentially dangerous situations. For example, consider a car navigation app. How much information should you include in your interface? It should be appropriate to communicate effectively, and safely. So, keep in mind your users’ concentration level, fatigue, and other factors.

  1. Design for Flexibility and Adaptability

Flexibility and adaptability are fundamental universal design principles. So, aim to create an interface that accommodates different user preferences and abilities. These can include features such as adjustable font sizes, customizable color themes, and multiple navigation options. This is where those UX design principles and design patterns come in. So, create handy features, nice-to-haves, and redundant ways of achieving goals. Make sure you do it effectively to the users, though, so that these are obvious. When you provide flexibility and high discoverability, you empower your users. They’ll be able to personalize their experiences based on their unique needs.

  1. Test with Diverse User Groups

Test your design with individuals with different abilities, cultural backgrounds, and perspectives. That way, you can gather valuable feedback and identify potential usability issues. For example, does your design communicate necessary information effectively? Does it prevent accidental or unintended actions? What skills or current concentration do users need? Do users who find your design difficult share common characteristics? (For example, do they not speak English as a first language?) Does your design account for potential hazards and adverse conditions, which some users may find themselves in? Can they achieve their goals with a minimum of fatigue? Does your design minimize hazards? You can then use this feedback to refine and improve things until the design is easy to use for everyone.

  1. Iterate and Improve

Universal design is an iterative process. So, continuously gather feedback, evaluate your design’s effectiveness, and make improvements based on user insights. Keep a user-centered approach and be open to feedback. That way, you can create more inclusive and user-friendly experiences over time.

Tips and Best Practices to Implement Universal Design

  1. Prioritize Clear and Concise Communication

Use plain and concise language. Information needs to be easily understandable for all users. Avoid jargon, complex terminology, and ambiguous instructions. Provide clear and concise labels, headings, and instructions to guide users through the interface.

  1. Collaborate with Accessibility Experts

Work closely with accessibility experts and consultants. They can ensure that your designs meet accessibility standards and guidelines. They can also provide valuable insights and guidance throughout the design process.

  1. Educate and Advocate for Universal Design

Promote the importance of universal design within your organization and industry. Teach stakeholders, colleagues, and clients about the benefits and principles of universal design. You can drive positive change and create a more inclusive design culture with universal design.

Remember, you’ll need continuous iteration, user feedback, collaboration and more to make a truly effective universal design. But it’s worth it. As technology continues to evolve, the need for universal design will only grow. What’s more, the continued rise of voice interfaces, augmented reality, and virtual reality presents new opportunities—and challenges—for creating universally appealing experiences.

Learn More about Universal Design

Watch the How to Design for Neurodiversity: Inclusive Content and UX Master Class webinar by UX Content Strategist, Architect and Consultant Katrin Suetterlin.

Read our piece, Learn to Create Accessible Websites with Universal Design.

Watch Vitaly Friedman’s Master Class webinar on Complex UI Design: Practical Techniques.

Explore more of the Universal Design vs. Inclusive Design aspect in this insightful article by Genís Frigola Universal design, inclusive design, and equity-focused design.

Find further insights in this thought-provoking piece, What is the Difference Between Universal Design, Inclusive Design, and Equity-Focused Design? by Tarun Bhasin.

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Literature on Universal Design

Here’s the entire UX literature on Universal Design by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Universal Design

Take a deep dive into Universal Design with our course Accessibility: How to Design for All .

Good accessibility is crucial to making your website or app a success. Not only is designing for accessibility required by law in many countries—if you fail to consider accessibility, you are excluding millions of people from using your product. The UN estimates that more than 1 billion people around the world live with some form of disability and as populations age over the coming years, that number is expected to rise rapidly. Add to that the 10 percent of people who suffer from color blindness, and you start to get an idea of why accessibility is so important—not just for moral and legal reasons, but also so that your products can reach their full potential. You need to design for accessibility!

So… what is a proven and pain-free way to well-executed accessibility? If you’ve ever tried to optimize your site or app for accessibility, you’ll know it can be a complex and intimidating task… and it can therefore be very tempting to leave it until last or, worse still, avoid it altogether. By understanding that accessibility is about more than just optimizing your code, you’ll find you can build it into your design process. This will ensure you are taking a disability advocacy approach, and keeping the focus on your users throughout the development process.

This course will help you achieve exactly that—from handling images to getting the most out of ARIA markup, you’ll learn how to approach accessibility from all angles. You’ll gain practical, hands-on skills that’ll enable you to assess and optimize for common accessibility issues, as well as show you how to place an emphasis on the quality of the user experience by avoiding classic mistakes. Whats more, you’ll also come away with the knowledge to conduct effective accessibility testing through working with users with disabilities.

The course includes interviews with an accessibility specialist and blind user, as well as multiple real-world examples of websites and apps where you can demonstrate your skills through analysis and accessibility tests. Not only will this give you a more practical view of accessibility, but you’ll also be able to optimize your websites and mobile apps in an expert manner—avoiding key mistakes that are commonly made when designing for accessibility.

You will be taught by Frank Spillers, CEO of the award-winning UX firm Experience Dynamics, and will be able to leverage his experience from two decades of working with accessibility. Given that, you will be able to learn from, and avoid, the mistakes he’s come across, and apply the best practices he’s developed over time in order to truly make your accessibility efforts shine. Upon completing the course, you will have the skills required to adhere to accessibility guidelines while growing your awareness of accessibility, and ensuring your organization’s maturity grows alongside your own.

All open-source articles on Universal Design

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