Inclusive Design vs. Universal Design: What's the Difference?

Cynthia Vinney, contributor to the CareerFoundry blog

Inclusive design and universal design are easily confused, but they don’t have to be! So what’s the difference between these two approaches? Let’s have a look.

As UX designers, our goal is to make digital products as easy to use as possible. Yet, while we work diligently to make that happen by developing personas, testing our designs with users, thinking through use cases, and applying UX best practices, we often fail to take every person who could possibly use our designs into account.

Of course, optimizing a user experience for every possible user would be impossible, but most of the time, we don’t think beyond the needs of the primary and secondary users of a product, dismissing others as edge cases. And if we do account for any of these edge cases, they’re usually cursory nods towards accommodating those with disabilities.

Part of the problem is that historically, most of the people working in technology have been white, cisgender, heterosexual men who have rarely challenged one another to think of users who might not be like them. Luckily, that’s started to change.

So—while the terms accessibility, universal design, and inclusive design have been around for decades—recently, there has been a more concerted push towards making sure these practices are implemented when designing for the web and other digital experiences.

Given the close association between the three terms, however, there’s a considerable amount of confusion about what we mean when we talk about them in the context of UX design. In this article, we’ll tease out the differences. Here’s what we’ll cover:

  1. What is accessibility?
  2. What is universal design?
  3. What is inclusive design?
  4. Universal or inclusive design: Which is best for UX?
  5. Key takeaways

1. What is accessibility?

Accessibility is probably the most well-understood of the three terms we’re exploring here because it’s also been widely used in other contexts. For example, the law in the United States mandates that all buildings must be wheelchair accessible.

Similarly, the idea that the internet should be accessible to those with physical and cognitive disabilities was popularized by the father of the world-wide web, Tim Berners-Lee, in the mid-1990s.

Since then, standards for ensuring an accessible web have been created by the Web Accessibility Initiative, which created the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, the most recent version of which was published in 2021.

While the focus of accessibility has been accommodating disability, the definition offered by many is a bit broader. For example, in an article in Fast Company, Kat Holmes, the author of the book Mismatch defines accessibility as, “1. the qualities that make an experience open to all. 2. a professional discipline aimed at achieving No. 1.”

Thus, accessibility should be a foundation of UX design. However, as Holmes points out, accessibility is an attribute of a design. It’s either there or it’s not.

In fact, in an article for UX Collective, Lee Young observes that standards set by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and other best-practice guidelines create a set of rules that can be easily measured and checked off, such as font sizes, contrast ratios, and the inclusion of alternative text.

But while these guidelines ensure a design will be accessible, they don’t ensure people will want to use it. That’s where universal and inclusive design come in.

A man sitting in a park, working on a tablet

2. What is universal design?

In 1997, The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University offered a definition for universal design that has been used ever since: Universal design is “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 has often been used as a framework for designing for digital products, the initial idea referred to architecture and interior design. Nonetheless, according to a paper by Sheryl Burgstahler of DO-IT at the University of Washington, universal design, whether for digital technology or the built environment, goes beyond accessibility to take into account individual attributes in addition to disability, including age, gender, race and ethnicity, native language, and other diverse characteristics.

As a result, the goal of universal design isn’t simply to ensure a design is accessible, but also that it can accommodate preferences and desires. For example, while closed captioning provided for videos is intended for those who are deaf or hard of hearing, others may turn them on if they are in a loud environment and cannot hear the words being said in the video, or if the words being spoken are too garbled to understand.

Still, universal design leads to a single solution that’s intended to accommodate as many users as possible, which means some will inevitably be left out. The definition also emphasizes the end goal of a design instead of the process of getting there. For a framework that is more concerned with the design process instead of its final product and doesn’t always use a single solution to accommodate different users, we must turn our attention to inclusive design.

Learn more: 7 Universal design principles that will make your UX more inclusive

3. What is inclusive design?

While the terms universal design and inclusive design are sometimes considered synonyms, there are important distinctions.

Unlike universal design, inclusive design was actually introduced as a framework for designing digital products. Yet, while many definitions have been offered there isn’t one that’s generally been agreed upon. Holmes suggests this definition, which was developed with her team at Microsoft: Inclusive design is “a methodology that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity. Most importantly, this means including and learning from people with a range of perspectives.”

That last part of the definition points to an especially important aspect of inclusive design: including a diverse range of people in the design process. As a post on the digital agency Say Yeah!’s blog explains, this means a diverse cross section of individuals who go beyond the average user may be included in user research and testing.

But as Young points out at UX Collective, it should also mean that UX teams are increasingly more diverse and representative of a variety of perspectives. That way, inclusive design can ensure all users, including those who might typically be excluded, will be taken into account throughout the UX design process.

While disabilities are accounted for in inclusive design, other identities and characteristics are also considered in design elements like language and imagery. For example, on web forms that require a user to select a gender, the form may go beyond the binary choices of “Male” and “Female” to include a third choice where a user can write in their preferred gender identity.

Furthermore, in contrast to universal design, inclusive design may make different design solutions available for different groups of people in order to avoid marginalizing anyone.

A group of designers gathered around to discuss design ideas

4. Universal or inclusive design: Which is best for UX?

While each of these three terms is valuable to understand, as the method that was specifically created with digital technology in mind, inclusive design may be the most useful for UX designers.

Moreover, because inclusive design is a framework that can be used to help drive the design process, it may be the most useful for ensuring the experiences UX designers create best take into account the diversity of users.

Always returning to the idea that each user has a range of identities, characteristics, and perspectives helps us account for users we might not otherwise consider in our designs. And as the Say Yeah! Blog notes, this will help our designs reach more users and reduce the possibility of alienating potential users.

5. Key takeaways

Hopefully this article gave you a good understanding of the definitions and differences between accessibility, universal design, and inclusive design, and why they are valuable to understand for UX designers. To sum up:

  • Accessibility focuses on accommodating physical and cognitive disabilities.
  • Standards outlined by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines and others have created rules that can easily be implemented to make a digital product accessible but this doesn’t take subjective experience into account.
  • Universal design is defined 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.”
  • Universal design considers a diverse set of characteristics beyond disability, including age, gender, race and ethnicity, native language, etc., but only yields a single solution that can accommodate as many people as possible, leading some to be left out.
  • A variety of definitions have been offered for inclusive design. One useful definition created by Microsoft is: inclusive design is “a methodology that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity. Most importantly, this means including and learning from people with a range of perspectives.”
  • Inclusive design focuses on the process of designing for diversity, and emphasizes the importance of consulting with a wide range of people representing diverse identities, characteristics, and perspectives during a project.
  • Inclusive design may offer different design solutions in order to avoid excluding anyone from using a given product, helping the product reach more users while reducing the possibility that a user will be alienated.

And of course, don’t forget that as you seek to design for more users, there’s a lot of collaboration to be had between UX and UI designers!

Now that you know about universal and inclusive design, you might want to learn more. If so, you’ll find these articles useful:

And if you’d like to learn more about the design principles and concepts that factor into the best UX design, check out these ones:

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