7 Principles of Universal Design to Make Your UX Inclusive

Cynthia Vinney

In an ideal world, the web and other digital tools would be equally available to everyone. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Projects for digital products tend to focus on primary and secondary users instead of all users.

As a result many users, especially so-called edge-cases such as those with disabilities, are often overlooked and therefore can’t use these products as easily or effectively as the users they’re specifically built for.

However, one way UX designers can contribute to ensuring more inclusivity in their designs is to create user experiences that can be used by the widest number of people possible regardless of factors like disability, race, gender, language or other characteristics.

Creating user experiences that are inclusive should be an important objective of every project, and one way to ensure this happens is by using the seven principles of universal design to guide the design process. 

Universal design is one of several approaches to ensuring a design is usable for the widest set of users. However, universal design is unique in that it provides a set of specific principles that can be used to help steer a project from its earliest inception and can be used to evaluate design ideas at each stage of development. In this article, we’ll define universal design and lay out its seven core principles and how they apply to digital experiences. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  1. What is universal design?
  2. Universal design vs. inclusive design
  3. The 7 principles of universal design
  4. Key takeaways

A young girl sitting at a desk, working on a computer

1. What is universal design?

Universal design was first defined in 1997 by “a working group of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers” at The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University as: “The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”

This definition is still the standard for universal design today. Despite universal design’s origins in the built environment, it has since branched out and been applied to other kinds of design such as learning and digital technology. 

2. Universal design vs. inclusive design

Universal design is often mentioned (or confused) with related concepts like accessibility and inclusive design. While accessibility refers to designs that specifically accommodate those with physical and cognitive disabilities, universal and inclusive design go beyond that. They are both concerned with meeting the needs of as many people as possible no matter their characteristics or identities. 

Yet, while the two terms are often used interchangeably, they aren’t synonymous. On the one hand, the goal of universal design is to serve as many people as possible by arriving at a single design solution—a goal that inevitably leaves out some users. On the other, the goal of inclusive design is to create designs that won’t exclude or marginalize anyone, which means sometimes more than one solution will be provided to accommodate different users. 

In addition, universal design provides a set of principles that can be used to steer a design toward specific objectives, while inclusive design is a method that calls for a diverse set of individuals to participate in the design process. As a result, universal and inclusive design go about creating designs for diverse users in different ways.

Man sitting at a desktop computer, working on tasks

3. The 7 principles of universal design

The seven principles of universal design were outlined in the same academic paper in which universal design was defined. Thus, these principles have been around for over two decades and are still considered a useful foundation to apply to any design to ensure it will serve as many people as possible. 

Here, the definition of each principle as explained by the original working group is provided, along with a more detailed explanation and an example of the use of the principle that is relevant to UX design.

Equitable use

The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.”

Anyone should be able to use a design regardless of who they are and what they’re capable of, no one should be excluded. Perhaps most importantly today, all users should  feel like their privacy, safety and security will not be compromised if they use a design.

For example, high contrast should be used in digital designs in order to ensure color-blind users can see all the content on a screen. 

Flexibility in use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.”

This principle calls for a design to provide choices that can accommodate or appeal to the most possible users. Users should be able to go at their own pace and accurately complete tasks no matter what their preferred method of doing so.

For example, in addition to audio, closed-captioned subtitles should be available for users who want to read instead of listen to what is said in a video. This is, of course, a necessity for deaf users, but also accommodates the preferences of users who are not deaf.

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.”

This principle should sound especially familiar to UX designers. Designs shouldn’t be needlessly complex, instead they should work with users’ expectations while also providing messaging at every stage of a task to ensure a user knows they are on the right track.

For example, when a user goes to the website or app for a streaming service, they should immediately understand how to navigate to the video they want. This may mean that the most popular titles are easily accessible at the top of the home page, or if the user is looking for something more obscure, the search button is large enough to notice and access.  

Perceptible information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.”

Important information should be presented in multiple ways—say through both pictures and words—and designs should be compatible with devices that are used by people with physical limitations.

For example, text in digital designs should never be presented in a long, overwhelming block. Instead, this information should be broken up so the most important information is at the top. Bullet points or other methods may also be used to further divide the information. In addition, images should be used to emphasize a body of text’s most important points and to illustrate what the written information is conveying.

Tolerance for error

The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.”

Designs should eliminate or de-emphasize anything that could lead to issues during use. When errors do occur, warnings or other safeguards should ensure a user can undo them or stop the error before it happens. 

For example, if you’re browsing a store’s mobile website and accidentally tap the “Buy” button, an overlay could pop up confirming you intended to add the item to your cart. That overlay would also provide the option to undo the action and remove the item.

Low physical effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

While on first glance this principle seems most relevant to architecture where Universal design’s roots lie, it can be useful for designing for digital technology as well. Using a computer all day is fatiguing, so designs should minimize effort by making sure users don’t have to constantly move their cursor around a page to complete a task or make a task overly complicated.

For example, relevant navigation should be anchored at the top of a webpage, so the user doesn’t have to scroll to the top whenever they wish to go to a different part of a website.

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.”

This is another principle that comes out of universal design’s origins in the built environment. Nonetheless, for UX designers, it’s a call to take into account the way the elements of a design are presented on a screen. These elements should be laid out and sized in a way that enables all users to touch, click or manipulate them.

For example, we regularly interact with screens that range from very small to very large, but the same website or app shouldn’t be presented in the same way on a large computer screen as it is on a small mobile phone screen. 

In both cases, relevant buttons should be large enough for the user to touch or click them, but in the case of the computer, they shouldn’t be so small that we overlook them, and in the case of the mobile phone,they shouldn’t be so large that they make it impossible to comfortably see any other part of the screen.

4. Key takeaways

You should now have a good understanding of universal design and the seven principles it outlines. To sum up:

  • The definition of universal design: “The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.”
  • While universal design is often mentioned along with related concepts like accessibility and inclusive design, universal design can be distinguished by its goal of creating a single design solution that can serve as large a diversity of users as possible.
  • The seven principles of universal design are: Equitable use, flexibility in use, simple and intuitive use, perceptible information, tolerance for error, low physical effort, and size and space for approach and use.

Now that you know the seven principles of universal design, you might want to learn more. If so, you’ll find the following articles useful:

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