Imagine a world where every individual, regardless of their age, size, ability, or disability, can access and easily use the built environment, products, and services. Imagine a reality where inclusivity is widely recognized, where barriers are broken down for everyone, especially for people with disabilities, to enable them to live independently. This ideal is precisely what Universal Design aims to achieve. But what is the definition of Universal Design? And why do universal design principles matter?  

The Quest for Inclusive Design Principles

The story starts where, in the late 20th century, an architect named Ronald Mace had an idea. Ronald, who was confined to a wheelchair due to polio, faced the challenges of navigating a world not adequately designed to accommodate the wide range of human abilities.

In his quest for a more inclusive world, Ronald explored the concept of accessible design, where environments are open for everyone to access, regardless of their abilities. This was the beginning of Universal Design.

Today, Universal Design stands as a beacon of inclusivity and has now expanded its reach far beyond architecture. Today, universal design principles do not only encompass building ramps or wider doorways, it’s a comprehensive design philosophy spanning public services, digital products and everything in between.

Inclusive by Design: 3 Examples of Digital Accessibility 

As the digital world is such a prominent feature in all of our daily lives, the concept of universal design plays a central role. For example, classic examples of Universal Design and digital accessibility include the provision of alternative text descriptions for images on websites. This benefits visually impaired users who rely on screen readers, and it also aids search engine optimization. 

Another example is voice recognition software. This technology assists individuals with mobility issues and benefits people who prefer using voice commands for multitasking.

Furthermore, incorporating closed captions and transcripts for audio and video content enhances accessibility for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. 

These are just a few examples of how Universal Design principles create a more inclusive and accessible digital world. Let’s take a closer look at how inclusive design principles translate to websites, apps and digital assets.  

The 7 Principles of Universal Design

As our lives become increasingly intertwined with digital technology, it’s imperative that websites, applications, and other digital platforms are created in a manner that everyone can use and navigate with ease. That’s where the 7 principles of Universal Design come into play:

Principle 1: Equitable Use

This means the design caters to people with a wide range of abilities, ages, backgrounds, physical and cognitive abilities. For digital spaces, this means that websites, apps and digital assets can be accessed by everyone. This could involve providing features like text-to-speech for visually impaired users or different font sizes and color contrasts to ensure that text, audio or visuals are presented in multiple ways.

Principle 2: Flexibility in Use

This means the design should be adaptable and accommodate flexibility for the user. In a digital context, this involves designing interfaces that can be used in multiple ways, aligning with user preferences. This could include allowing the customization of text size, color contrast, or the ability to navigate via keyboard or mouse.

Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use

In physical and digital spaces, simple and intuitive use is an important universal design principle. In physical spaces, it means designing environments with clear signage, easy-to-navigate layouts and ergonomic considerations that accommodate diverse users.  Digital designs should be straightforward and intuitive with clear navigation, recognizable icons, and logical flows to help users understand how to interact with the digital space, regardless of their familiarity with technology.

Principle 4: Perceptible Information

The idea behind this principle is for a design to effectively relay critical information to users, taking into account different environmental conditions or individual sensory capabilities. In the context of digital design, this principle translates to ensuring that all types of users can perceive the information, for instance, by providing alternative text for images, captions for videos, or clear contrast between text and background colors.

Principle 5: Tolerance for Error

This principle concerns the reduction of risks and mitigating the negative effects of inadvertent or unintended actions in a design. In the context of digital environments, this could involve providing explicit error alerts, seeking user confirmation prior to executing major tasks (for instance, erasing a file), or facilitating an easy way to ‘revert’ performed actions.

Principle 6: Low Physical Effort

This principle considers aspects of design that reduces the physical strain on users, particularly those with limited mobility or physical disabilities. In digital spaces, this could mean designing interfaces that can be navigated with minimal physical effort, such as keyboard-friendly designs and touch-screen friendly controls.

Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use

This principle demonstrates the necessity for designs to offer suitable dimensions and spatial allowances, i.e. building restroom stalls that accommodate wheelchairs. In terms of a website or application, this might involve creating buttons and other interactive features that are adequately large and spaced apart, facilitating easy clicks or taps regardless of the user’s device or chosen means of input.

By understanding these universal principles of design, we can create physical and digital spaces and products that are more accessible and user-friendly for all users. 

Discover the principles that underpin web accessibility and design.

The Key to Accessible Digital Design 

In our interconnected digital world, it’s wise to remember that the journey isn’t the same for everyone. The seemingly straightforward task of navigating a website, reading an article, or watching a video can be a challenging process for many people.This is where the principles of Universal Design make their most significant impact.

So, ask yourself, how inclusive are the digital spaces you’re creating? Are they accommodating to individuals with disabilities? Can a visually impaired person navigate your website with the same ease as someone without visual impairments? Can a person with hearing loss appreciate the audio-visual content you share, or would they feel left out?

Universal Design isn’t just about checkboxes and legal obligations. It is about empathy, understanding, and the recognition that every person has a right to access and experience the digital world fully. Remember, a website that’s truly designed for everyone, is a website that is truly successful. How will you weave the principles of Universal Design into your digital spaces?

UserWay: Driving Universal Design and Accessibility 

Whether you’re embarking on a new website venture or considering a design update, we encourage you to incorporate universal design principles and use our tips to make your websites accessible and inclusive for everyone, particularly for people with disabilities. You’ll also promote a more equitable world for people, which is what the UserWay mission is all about. Benefit from a friendly consultation or start your free trial with us today.

Common FAQs

What is Universal Design?

Universal Design is a design approach aimed at creating products and environments accessible and usable for all people, regardless of their abilities or circumstances.

Why is Universal Design important? 

Universal Design is crucial as it advocates for inclusivity and accessibility in all spaces and products, promoting a more inclusive world and fostering independence for individuals with disabilities.

How is Universal Design implemented in digital spaces?

Universal Design is implemented in digital spaces through strategies like screen reader compatibility, closed captioning, keyboard navigation, and responsive design, enhancing usability for all users.