Evaluating Products Using Universal Design Principles: Pass or Fail
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?
Universal design, a term created by architect Ronald Mace, is the concept of designing products and spaces to be accessible, understandable, and usable to as many people as possible. Mace also went on to found The Center for Universal Design, and developed core tenants known as Principles of Universal Design.
Principle 1: Equitable Use
The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
Failures of Equitable Use
Retail grocery stores with high shelves. A wheelchair user in a grocery store aisle will not be able to reach items on the lowest or highest shelves. only a small range of shelf area is accessible to wheelchair users (or shorter shoppers).
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.
Successful examples of Equitable Use
Sidewalks that are wheelchair accessible with curb cuts and textured areas that communicate to the visually impaired that they are approaching a street. These sidewalks allow wheelchair users mobility, orient people who are blind, assist people with motor disabilities, and are more usable for able-bodied people pulling carts or pushing strollers.
Key take-away— everyone benefits from universal design.
Principle 2: Flexibility in Use
The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
Failures of Flexibility in Use
Those giant wall-mounted drinking fountains. It is impossible for wheelchair users to fit their wheels underneath this fountain in order to position themselves over the spigot, if they can even reach it while seated. This fountain also requires users to press a button for water, which only works for people with full use of their hands. Able bodied children wouldn’t be able to use this fountain because of it’s height.
Successful examples of Flexibility in Use
Drinking fountains at varying heights accommodate people of different heights so they can drink comfortably.
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
Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
Failures of Simple and Intuitive Use
Complicated remote controls with far too many buttons. The bane of satellite and cable TV users in the 2000s. These remotes (and interfaces in general) could have benefited from usability testing with a sample of their user demographic.
Successful examples of Simple and Intuitive Use
Step-by-step instructions that use clear visual aids and avoid lengthy text descriptions. Ikea does this well, which may be in part to not wanting to translate text instructions for it’s worldwide market.
Principle 4: Perceptible Information
The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
Failures of Perceptible Information
Microwaves with touchscreen controls or flat buttons that are the same size and shape. These types of microwaves don’t have a tactile interface for blind or visually impaired users to sense what they mean.
Successful examples of Perceptible Information
Video content with audio descriptions. This trailer for Frozen has barely any dialogue. If it were only closed captioned, it wouldn’t be enough to describe the complexity of the scene. This audio description is fantastic at conveying what is happening in a format perceptible to the visually impaired.
Principle 5: Tolerance for Error
The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
Failures of Tolerance for Error
Dashboards with ambiguous button layout like in the example above, borrowed from this great article in UX Collective caused drivers to mistakenly turn off the car engine while traveling at full-speed.
Successful examples of Tolerance for Error
Automatic shut-off appliances that turn off after a few minutes of inactivity. As someone who still has melted plastic residue on their iron (don’t ask), I am certainly in the market for an iron that has auto power off.
Principle 6: Low Physical Effort
The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
Failures of Low Physical Effort
Lever-type can openers are as hard to use as they are terrifying. They require full use of both hands, full manual dexterity, and probably decent eyesight so you don’t accidentally stab yourself.
Successful examples of Low Physical Effort
Electric can openers are much easier to operate for a range of users — from children to people with arthritis or hand tremors. I know everyone gushes about the OXO line of kitchen appliances, but they don’t currently make a can opener that could be used by as many people as an electric one.
Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use
Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.
Failures of Size and Space for Approach and Use
Turnstyles with limited size and space for use. The example above, besides evoking a very carceral vibe, could trap someone inside or cause an injury. A wheelchair user or a person using another mobility aid would not be able to fit through the opening.
Successful examples of Size and Space for Approach and Use
Bathrooms that provide sufficient space for wheelchair users to maneuver. This example of a bathroom stall provides much more room than a regular stall so that wheelchair and other assistive device users can move about safely. It is also just nice for regular people to not feel constricted while going to the bathroom.
There are too many examples of things that fail each of these principles to list out. Inaccessible and unusable things are pervasive in our everyday lives. As designers it is our job to do better, so take this as a rallying call to designers in all fields to use the Universal Design Principles in their work.