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When it comes to designing an application, what we want is a product that is usable for everyone. And when we say everyone, who are we referring to?

I am talking about people of all ages, those who have different levels of technical adaptiveness, and people who have varying physical abilities. 

A good design should encompass all these things. This is how a truly universal design works. It is an adaptation or specialized design for all users. 

In this article, What is Universal Design In UX, we will discuss more in detail what a universal design is, what are the things you need to consider to create one, and we will also include the following sub-topics below:

What is universal design in UX?

You should have an idea that designing things for UX is easier said than done. And with so many principles that are included in achieving a better user experience, adding the idea of “taking people’s needs into consideration” is doubly challenging for UX designers. 

A lot of these UX designers use personas to understand their users when it comes to the design process. Rarely you can see designers exploring peoples’ different abilities in design. 

And this is where universal design comes in handy. Universal design is a reminder that age and abilities (both physical and mental) impact our experiences. Whether the design entails voice commands, text magnifiers, or utilizes adaptive technology, UX designers should consider the different needs of their users with the goal of how to improve their overall user experience. 

To begin, let us know what a universal design is. 

Universal design, also known as inclusive design, was first defined by architect Ronald L. Mace describing the concept of designing all products and built environments to be both aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone regardless of the user's age, ability, and status in life. 

In other words, this is a concept of creating an inclusive design. That everyone, including the elderly and disabled, should be able to have access to them. 

By default, the lesser the modifications are needed for more adoption, the more it moves towards being universal in nature. 

It is inclusive design in a way that people do not feel that the design is specific for a user, which promotes an uncomfortable feeling especially for the disabled.

However, we should make it clear that you do not have to do a universal design all the time for your products or services. Some UX designs need to target specific groups and this can be done by creating personas. 

Universality is about two main things: One it is about understanding the diversity in people, and two it is about responding to that diversity with informed UX design decisions. 

Why universal design is important?

Michael Nesmith, Amazon’s Accessibility Designer once said, “Everyone has a disability at some point or the other, whether one has a broken arm, pregnant, being a child, or being older.”

Having said this, we all need to learn how to cope, and the universal design solutions are worth the share, especially when you are a UX designer whose goal is to design products and provide solutions to achieve a better user experience with your UX design.

Universal design examples

Before we move forward to the principles of universal design, let us first take a look at the universal design in the physical world.

Door handles

Door handles, depending on the region one is located, are almost placed at a fixed height. 

The door handle is placed at a height that is not too high for a child to reach, or for a person in a wheelchair. Furthermore, people from a certain region may have lower or higher door handle, depending on what is normal for them in terms of height. 

So let us discuss the physical shape of door handles. A good example of a universal design door handle is an automatic gate, and for obvious reasons, because it lets everyone inside and outside with convenience.

Door entrances

Most home entrances and rooms are kept flat to less or no elevation so people with disabilities can utilize it conveniently just like a person with no disabilities.  

If there is elevation present, then it will require a person with disabilities to exert extra physical effort and it is not intuitive enough to care about this kind of block every time.

In addition, an elevated entrance is also prone to accidents and injuries. 

Wider entrances

Have you noticed that most doors have wider entrances and why it is kept that way even when we do not have to bring in furniture?

The entrance width is kept wider than usual to make it easy and accessible for people with wheelchairs. The wider entrance prevents people from getting hit or injured from the edges and it makes the furniture easier to move around. 

Kitchen cooktops

Another example of a universal design is the kitchen cooktop. The kitchen cooktops are designed in a way that is also accessible to everyone. The rule of thumb for kitchen rooftops is it should not be too high for kids or too low for normal people to reach. 

In addition, kitchen rooftops should not be wider than a person’s reach that no water taps should be inaccessible so both kids and adults can reach and use them anytime and with ease. 

Sidewalks

The sidewalk curb cuts also follow a universal design. These curb cuts are where the sidewalk has been cut that allow ease of access and more movement for people with luggage, moving from the sidewalk to the road. These curb cuts are also slightly sloped like ramps. 

We may all think these little ramps help people with wheelchairs mostly, but more people can benefit from it as well. Walking with heavy luggage or a mom with her baby in the stroller can also benefit from this universal design in the sidewalks. 

If you take the time to look around, you will still find a lot of these universal designs. You can see them from the gates of a metro station to the switches at your home.  

7 principles of universal design

The principles of universal design were first written in 1997 by a committee of 10 under Ronald Mace in the North Carolina State University and they come up with the 7 principles. 

Ten years later, these 7 principles were re-evaluated and with the original authors, they gathered the public for feedback. This is led by Edward Steinfeld who is the director of the Idea Center at the University of Buffalo.

Equitable use

Is the design useful to a wide range of people including those with different physical and mental abilities from the test users? Can this design be marketed to people with different capacities?

Design guidelines:

  • The design should provide the same means for all users
  • Avoid categorizing or stigmatizing specific users
  • Privacy, security, and safety should be equally available to all users
  • Design should be appealing to all users

Flexible use

Can your design be used in so many different ways? Will your design adapts to a specific user based on differing preferences and abilities or will it be adaptive to the way a person uses it?

Design guidelines:

  • Design should provide choice in methods of use
  • Should accommodate right or left-handed access and use
  • Should facilitate the user’s accuracy and precision
  • Design should be adaptive to the user’s pace

Simple and Intuitive Use

In simple and intuitive use, we ask: is your design easy to use where anyone can start using it immediately without instructions? Is the design easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level? If your design simple and intuitive use that it should be easy to use irrespective of the person’s previous skills, knowledge, experience, and irrespective of the person’s ability to focus for long periods, then your design will be easier for a wide range of users to utilize. This design principle should be easy to understand regardless of experience knowledge language skills.

Design guidelines:

  • Design should eliminate unnecessary challenges
  • Design should be consistent with user expectations and intuition
  • Design should accommodate a wide range of literacy and language skills
  • Should provide efficient prompting and feedback during and after task completion

Perceptible information

Does your design provide enough information to make it the most efficient product for your users? Is the condition true at all times? This design principle is about communicating necessary information to the user regardless of ambient conditions.

Design guidelines

  • Use of different modes such as pictorial, verbal, and tactile for the repeated presentation of important information
  • Adequate contrast between important information and its environment
  • Fully utilize the legibility of important information
  • Able to differentiate elements in ways that they can be described such as east to give instructions and directions
  • Can provide compatibility with different techniques or devices from user's sensory abilities and limitations

Error tolerances (tolerance for error)

When it comes to tolerance for error in design, we ask: Is your design foolproof? This means that no matter how it is used, there should be very minimal errors and minimal consequences for these errors. This is an important element for people with differing preferences and abilities. They can make accidental or unintended actions compared to regular users, but they should not be inconvenient to those mistakes either when it comes to your product design.

Design guidelines

  • Tolerance for error design elements should be arranged with minimal hazards and errors. This means that the most used elements should become accessible, and the hazardous elements are eliminated, isolated, or shielded
  • Should provide warnings of errors
  • Should provide fail-safe features
  • Should provide information to discourage unconscious actions that require vigilance

Minimal physical effect

Is your design minimizing the physical effort that is needed to utilize the product best? Is it trying to keep motions that can cause fatigue in users to a minimum?

Design guidelines

  • Design should have reasonable operating forces
  • Should allow a user to maintain neutral body position
  • Should be able to lessen repetitive actions
  • Should lessen sustained physical effort or provide a low physical effort

Size and space in approach and usage (appropriate size and space)

With size and space principle, we ask: have you thought about the environment that the product will be used in? Think of a design that uses space for approach. Does the design allow the right space for approach for your users to use and manipulate the product? Is the design true for a wheelchair user or someone with a physical disability? This design principle is about appropriate space for approach, reach, manipulation, and use despite of the user's body size, posture, or mobility.

Design guidelines

  • The size and space principle of design should have a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user
  • Should have all components made comfortable for any seated or standing users
  • Should accommodate variations in hand and grip size
  • Should provide enough space for assistive devices or personal assistance

Building a website based on universal design principles

Now that we know the 7 elements of a universal design, we then apply these elements to web development. Below are suggested steps that you can take to start:

Conduct a UX research

When it comes to applying universal design principles to your website, it is a must that you first conduct usability testing with your real users so you can design a website that is fit for all users. 

Creating a website following the universal design principles and guidelines will encourage visitor engagement. So usability testing can help you achieve this by ensuring that all on-screen elements are engaging to the users and giving them the best possible user experience there is.

Perform a web or mobile wireframe

So once you have completed your usability study, then the next important step is your goals. 

Defining your goals will create the skeletal system of your website. You can start creating a prototype or wireframe of your website’s information architecture and navigation flow with all the universal design principles in mind.

Start by building a low-fidelity wireframe tool so you can build up your UX design without switching to a lot of tools. 

Building a mid to high fidelity prototype

The next thing you can do is build a mid to high-fidelity prototype of your UX design. You can start building your visual and interactive web elements. 

Conduct user testing

This is the most important process in your UX design journey, especially when it comes to designing for different types of users. 

When it comes to testing your users, make sure that you have enough users to properly validate your prototype. 

One of the things you should closely observe is how your users interact with your interface and take note of any errors or challenges that they encountered. 

Iterated based on previous design assumptions

Utilize efficiently your users’ feedback since this is an essential step for you to apply the universal design principles to achieve your website’s reach on accommodating different types of users and at the same time to get to your goals and conversions.

Final thoughts

More than ever, a good user experience is highly dependent on how users interact with your website. With this in mind, a human-centered UX design combined with the 7 principles of universal design creates meaningful experiences for all users.

Mary Ann Dalangin

About the author

A content marketing strategist and a UX writer with years of experience in the digital marketing industry.

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