Illustration by Rouba Shabou

Designing a product involves the consideration of many different factors, including functionality, reliability, aesthetics, safety, and more. One of the major goals of product design is to allow users with different abilities to interact with a product effectively. Fortunately, universal design is a framework that allows product creators to design experiences that accommodate all users.

This article will review the concept of universal design, its core principles, and practical tips for making a usable product across audiences and devices.

Universal design works for all users

Universal design is a set of recommendations created to ensure that a product or service works for users with varying physical and mental abilities. A design is considered “universal” when people with differing physical, sensory, mental, or intellectual abilities can use a product without any additional adaptation or modification.

Universal design is beneficial both for users and businesses, as higher user accessibility and satisfaction lead to better user retention. Happy users are more likely to recommend products to their friends and family, leading to an increase in the market reach.

Three common misconceptions about universal design

Although universal design sounds like a simple idea, it’s one of the most misunderstood concepts in the digital world. Let’s review the top three misunderstandings about universal design.

Universal design and accessible design are the same things

After learning what universal design means, you might think it’s a synonym for accessible design. In reality, accessible design—which refers to design that allows users with disabilities to properly access a product or service—is a component of universal design.

Universal design is focused on all people’s needs, including users with disabilities. In other words, universal design aims to make products, services, and environments more accessible for everyone. For example, automatic door openers in supermarkets benefit individuals using wheelchairs, as well as people carrying groceries.

Universal design focuses only on functionality

In order to maximize accessibility and usability of a product, you need to invest time and effort into creating solid product functionality. But well-functioning products might not be enough for user satisfaction. In fact, users often want to have good functionality paired with nice aesthetics—and aesthetics have a direct impact on usability. The aesthetic usability effect states that users tend to find designs more usable if they have a nice visual appearance.

Universal design is a nice add-on to a design approach

This misconception has roots in misunderstanding what universal design really is. Some designers think that it is an outcome, but in reality, it’s a process. Universal design is not a set of guidelines that can be applied at the end of the design process—it is a set of principles that should be integrated into your process from the very beginning. It’s important to practice design collaboration to ensure that everyone on a team shares the same universal design philosophy when creating products, too.

What are the core universal design principles?

A classic example of universal design is a ramp designed for wheelchair users to navigate from street to sidewalk. Image credit Adobe.
A classic example of universal design is a ramp designed for wheelchair users to navigate from street to sidewalk. Image credit Adobe.

The core principles of universal design were established in 1997 by Ronald Mace and a working group of architects and product designers at North Carolina State University. Mace actually coined the phrase “universal design,” and used it to describe the concept of products and environments that are both aesthetically pleasing and usable to everyone, regardless of their abilities.

Initially, universal design was considered primarily for physical products and environments, but later this concept was applied to digital products. The purpose of the universal design principles outlined below is to help today’s digital designers create more human-friendly products and environments.

1. Equitable use

Designers should aim to provide the same means of use for all users. If it’s impossible to offer identical design solutions for people with diverse abilities, product creators should find decent equivalents. For example, when you design a website, you need to make it accessible to everyone—including people that have visual impairments and use screen reader technology.

A visually impaired person using assistive technology to work on a computer.
A visually impaired person using assistive technology to work on a computer. Image credit Adobe.

2. Flexible use

When your design is put to use, it should be flexible enough to adapt to the user’s pace and the ways in which different users prefer to interact with it. For example, when you create a new device, its design should be optimized for right- or left-handed access.

3. Simple and intuitive use

Your design should be simple, intuitive, and consistent with user expectations—and it should be easy for users to understand regardless of their knowledge or previous experiences. Always try to eliminate unnecessary complexity, which includes keeping your visual design as minimalistic as possible, as well as giving users appropriate feedback during and after task completion. Additionally, be sure to communicate with users using simple, easy-to-understand language.

4. Perceptible information

Your design should always communicate necessary information effectively to the user. It’s important to make information available through several modalities to accommodate users with different sensory abilities. For example, when you design a video player, it’s recommended to add a user interface (UI) element that enables subtitles. Subtitles make multimedia content understandable for deaf users, but they can also be useful to non-native speakers.

A screenshot of a YouTube video showcasing subtitles.
A screenshot of a YouTube video showcasing subtitles. Image credit YouTube.

5. Tolerance for error

Your design should minimize the risk of making mistakes. Prevent users from making mistakes by adding an extra layer of protection for potentially dangerous operations, such as irreversible file deletion.

System dialog in Apple macOS that becomes visible when the user attempts to empty Trash.
System dialog in Apple macOS that becomes visible when the user attempts to empty Trash. This dialog informs users that they cannot undo this operation. Image credit Nick Babich.

6. Minimal physical effort

Your design should minimize the physical effort required to get the best use of a product. It should have good ergonomics, feature minimal repetitive actions, and feature interactions that are comfortable for the user. Travelators—mechanisms typically found in airports that help people with a wide variety of physical abilities move faster—demonstrates the application of this principle.

A person using a travelator in an airport to move faster.
A person using a travelator in an airport to move faster. Image credit Adobe.

7. Size and space for approach and use

People should be able to use a product, regardless of their body size, posture, or mobility. For example, when we design a new mobile device, we need to be sure that it accommodates variations in hand and grip size. For many projects, it’s possible to use UI kits to get well-crafted UI elements optimized for various conditions. 

How to apply universal design for learning?

As we mentioned earlier, universal design is not a list of strict guidelines; it’s an approach to design that considers the diverse abilities of users. The goal of universal design is not to create a one-size-fits-all solution (it’s rarely possible to find such a solution), but to explore different design solutions and select the ones that are more inclusive and promote accessibility, usability, and education. Since every product is different, implementing a universal design approach can vary from organization to organization. Below are a few general recommendations that are applicable to almost any project.

1. Conduct user research to understand your users

Knowing your users is the most crucial aspect of product design—but if you want to practice universal design, you should also know the diversity of your users. User research plays a key role in the design process because it directly impacts what we design. That’s why the first step in any design process should be gathering user requirements. Aim to understand what users need, how they act, and what they think when they interact with your product.

As you conduct user research, you should:

  1. Identify your target audience.
  2. Find the right representatives of your target audience.
  3. Interview representatives to gain valuable insights about user preferences and behavior.

It’s extremely important to achieve user diversity in this process, which means you should interview people of different ages, mental abilities, and physical abilities within your targeted user group. It will help you design and develop a robust UI that’s accessible to all different types of users. At the end of this phase, you should understand the nature of your users, their goals, and the tasks they want to complete using your product.

2. Create mental models

Based on the user research you collected in step one, it’s time to create user mental models. These models describe what users know (or think they know) about a system, which allows you to understand the perspective with which a specific person views a situation. It’s also important to consider disabilities as part of a person’s mental model. For example, when aligning product design for a colorblind user, ensure that color isn’t used as the only way to communicate status.

3. Analyze user flows

User flow analysis is one of the most valuable user experience (UX) design methods. User flows show how a user interacts with a product—including the steps the user goes through to achieve a goal and the actions or interactions that occur each step along the way. A user flow analysis gives designers the opportunity to understand the context of different interactions.

When performing a user flow analysis, it’s recommended to have a scale that allows you to properly evaluate user interactions:

  • Level 1. No significant problems while interacting with a product
  • Level 2. Difficulty with particular product features
  • Level 3. Difficulty with most product features
  • Level 4. Unable to use the product

At the end of this step, you will understand the level of complexity of your product. This information will help you specify product requirements in terms of user effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction.

Design tip: Use an empathy map to make your user flow analysis easier. When you consider what users see, think, and feel while using your product, it can help your team build empathy towards users.

4. Practice iterative prototyping

Prototyping is a process that allows design teams to put initial concepts into tangible forms, such as drawing on a piece of paper (low fidelity) or creating a functional design mockup (high fidelity). Practicing iterative prototyping is great for exploration and testing sessions, as prototypes allow users to provide rich information on solutions before launch. It also allows key project stakeholders or partners to envision what the future system will look like.

While prototyping is an important part of the universal design process, it’s important to minimize the time required to build a prototype. Product designers can rely on UI kits for expedited prototyping.

5. Conduct usability tests

At this stage, it’s vital to ensure that your users no longer experience any troubles with your product—and usability testing is the perfect technique to do so. Usability testing allows you to observe your targeted users interacting with your product firsthand. It can be a direct (moderated usability testing) or remote observation. Usability testing allows designers to step back from individual features and look at the product, service, or environment as a whole. The goal of usability testing is to evaluate your current design and identify opportunities for improvement.

6. Integrate a user feedback loop into your design process

Universal design requires active involvement from your users, as you will need their input to ensure your design is functioning properly. This means it should be easy for your users to share their feedback with you at any moment of their experience. By integrating feedback loop mechanisms—such as forms for sharing questions, concerns, and opinions of your product—you can design products that more closely match user expectations and needs.

Design should be appealing to all users

Universal design aspires to benefit anyone because it promotes accessible and usable products. By considering the needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, it’s possible to create a product that will genuinely meet the needs of people who wish to use it. Universal design is good design.