Universal Design: An Introduction for Digital Content Creators

March 7, 2022

Is your content designed for everyone — or for a small subset of your real-life users? 

Universal Design refers to the process of designing products, services, and environments to be used by people with the widest possible range of abilities, cultural backgrounds, and other characteristics. This is distinct from accessible design, which focuses on making products more useful for people with disabilities. However, designers can (and should) observe the principles of accessibility and universal design simultaneously.

In this article, we’ll explain the basic principles of universal design and provide tips for incorporating these principles into your design process. 

Why is universal design important?

Imagine that you’re developing a website or a mobile application, and you’re ready to launch. You’ve tested your content thoroughly, but when real people start using your product, they point out problems: 

  • The website’s text isn’t readable in bright sunlight. 
  • Your touch controls are too sensitive for people with larger fingers. 
  • The text is difficult to understand, particularly for people who speak English as a second language.
  • When images fail to load, users can’t figure out how to navigate the content.

You failed to think about the different ways that people would use your product — and as a result, your product won’t reach the widest possible audience.

Unfortunately, this is an extremely common scenario, but it’s entirely avoidable. Universal design has revolutionized the way that creators approach their projects: Instead of considering an “ideal case" user, designers can understand the diversity of the human experience. That includes folks with disabilities, along with people who encounter situational disabilities (such as using a mobile device in bright sunlight or with the sound muted) and temporary disabilities (such as a broken hand or temporary vision loss). 

Needless to say, brands that prioritize real users will see long-term benefits. Universal design improves the experiences of everyone, not a select group of individuals.

Is universal design the same concept as inclusive design?

Today, the terms inclusive design and universal design are sometimes used interchangeably, but the philosophies are distinct in several ways.

Universal design was originally introduced to make architecture (namely, educational facilities) more useful for everyone; over time, the principles of universal design were successfully applied to products, systems, and services. The goal of universal design is to provide a single solution that addresses the broad needs of a large group of people.

Inclusive design shares the principles of universal design, but allows for accommodations for certain users. For example, a website might offer rich content via JavaScript while providing an alternative version of the content for people who prefer a simpler presentation.

Related: Inclusive Design Vs. Accessible Design: Understanding the Differences

What are the principles of universal design?

In 1997, a working group at North Carolina State University defined seven key principles of universal design:

  1. Equitable Use - The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  2. Flexibility in Use - The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  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.
  4. Perceptible Information - The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.
  5. Tolerance for Error - The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  6. Low Physical Effort - The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
  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.

These principles overlap with the core concepts of web accessibility as defined by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C): Content must be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Adopting both of these sets of principles can make your content more inclusive. 

Universal Design and Digital Content: Tips for Getting Started

Designing digital products that work well for every type of person isn’t easy, but with the right approach, it’s a worthwhile effort. Here are a few ways to incorporate the principles of universal design into your process.

  • Develop personas for different types of users. User personas are fictional users whose characteristics represent your real-life users. Writing out a few personas (including at least one persona with disabilities) can help your team find features and functionality that improves your product.
  • Wherever possible, provide options. For example, some people enjoy multimedia — others would prefer transcripts. If your website provides both options, you’ll avoid prioritizing one group of users over the other.
  • Don’t treat accessibility as an extra. Remember, accessibility improvements usually benefit every user, so prioritize users with disabilities throughout development.
  • Use the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Developed by the W3C, WCAG is the consensus standard for digital accessibility and contains important guidance for creating products that work for everyone.

For more guidance, download Developing the Accessibility Mindset, our free eBook. To discuss your digital accessibility goals, contact our team for a consultation.

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