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?

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.

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.

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.

tactile paving on a down ram into a parking lot
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

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.

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.

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.

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

Drinking fountains at varying heights accommodate people of different heights so they can drink comfortably.

height adjustable work desk
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

Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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)

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.

graphic showing an iron that shuts off when it is not being used
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.

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.

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

electric can opener
electric can opener
A Cuisinart motorized can opener.

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.

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

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.

accessible toilet with safety rails
accessible toilet with safety rails
An accessible toilet.

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’s more…

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.

UX Designer