Evaluating Products Using Universal Design Principles: Pass or Fail

Brick wall with sign that says accessible entry
Photo by Daniel Ali on Unsplash

As a UX Designer by trade, I am concerned with usability and accessibility of the products I work on. That is a given. This concern doesn’t end with my working hours, rather, it infiltrates every waking hour. I joke with colleagues that none of us can simply enjoy products or experiences like we did before we entered the design industry. It is a lighthearted joke, because we understand that a slight annoyance for one person can be an insurmountable wall for someone else.

As a UX designer who works mostly in screen-based technology, most of my knowledge about accessibility pertains to the W3C’s Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. As I prepare for the IAAP CPACC exam (International Association of Accessibility Professionals- Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies), I’ve been learning more about accessibility as it applies to physical products and environments. Universal design is an area where I wanted to focus my studies, so I took each principle (there are 7) and found real examples of products/spaces that would “pass” or “fail”.

This article is adapted from a UX Skills presentation I gave to the UX Design team at Q2 in the summer of 2021.

What is universal design?

Principle 1: Equitable Use

Grocery store aisle with marked area on the highest and lowest shelves
Grocery store aisle with high shelves. Image is overlaid with red textured area on the highest and lowest shelves- areas wheelchair users wouldn’t be able to reach.

Failures of Equitable Use

The pandemic may have put a silver lining on this failure. The pandemic caused a surge in demand for ordering groceries through apps and online for delivery. Though the demand isn’t limited the differently abled, the resulting increase in functional apps for ordering groceries may have a positive impact on their livelihoods. Making accessible websites/apps for ordering groceries expands access to those who are physically limited when shopping in person.

tactile paving on a down ram into a parking lot
Image (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Truncated_domes.jpg) from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tactile_paving

Successful examples of Equitable Use

Key take-away— everyone benefits from universal design.

Principle 2: Flexibility in Use

Large metal drinking fountain that takes up a lot of vertical space
Large metal drinking fountain that takes up a lot of vertical space on a wall.

Failures of Flexibility in Use

Two wall mounted water fountains of varying heights that have space underneath
Two wall mounted water fountains of varying heights that have space underneath.

Successful examples of Flexibility in Use

height adjustable work desk
An adjustable work desk, or standing desk.

Standup desks aren’t just a tech fad. By their nature, they allow flexibility in use, and allow users to work either from seated or standing position.

Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use

Remote controls with tape over buttons
TV remote controls covered with tape over confusing buttons that don’t need to be used.

Failures of Simple and Intuitive Use

Step by step picture instructions
Pictographic step-by-step instructions for how to assemble a “Billy” bookcase from Ikea.

Successful examples of Simple and Intuitive Use

Principle 4: Perceptible Information

microwave with buttons that are all the same shape and size
A microwave with flat buttons that would all feel the same to a blind user.

Failures of Perceptible Information

This trailer for the movie Frozen has an audio description that helps make content without dialogue perceptible to the widest audience.

Successful examples of Perceptible Information

Principle 5: Tolerance for Error

car dashboard with row of similar size and shape of buttons
The dashboard buttons in the now recalled 2015 Lincoln MKZ (read the article for more button failures https://uxdesign.cc/3-button-designs-from-3-different-decades-that-almost-results-in-catastrophe-9ac65498c9c4)

Failures of Tolerance for Error

graphic showing an iron that shuts off when it is not being used
Graphic describing an iron that shuts off automatically when not in use.

Successful examples of Tolerance for Error

Principle 6: Low Physical Effort

Video of how to use a lever-type can opener. Spoiler, it takes effort.

Failures of Low Physical Effort

electric can opener
A Cuisinart motorized can opener.

Successful examples of Low Physical Effort

Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use

subway turnstyles with curved metal gates
Terrifying turnstyles. Image https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=191306&picture=subway

Failures of Size and Space for Approach and Use

accessible toilet with safety rails
An accessible toilet.

Successful examples of Size and Space for Approach and Use

There’s more…