The idea of Universal Design has been around ever since people began to think about the idea of inclusivity for those with disabilities. So what is Universal Design and why is it important? And how can it help to raise the standard of a product?
Universal Design has been defined as “the process of creating products that are accessible to people with a wide range of abilities, disabilities, and other characteristics”. It’s important because, as the name suggests, it marks an attempt to make products universally accessible and usable. In other words, it champions the idea of inclusivity. This isn’t only about accessibility in the traditional sense, though – making products accessible to people such as those with hearing difficulties or those who are visually impaired – but making them as accessible as possible for everybody.
The Principles of Universal Design
In 1997, seven principles were defined as being essential to the concept of Universal Design by a working group at North Carolina State University. In summary, a product complies with these basic principles of universal design if (a maximum of) people with diverse abilities, characteristics and preferences can both learn to use it and then use it comfortably (both physically and otherwise), efficiently and enjoyably, with the minimum of risk.
There is a set of practical guidelines which lays out specifications that are relevant to the Universal Design of electronic products, called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (CWAG). They contain the following recommendations:
- Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can perceive (Perceivable)
- User interface components and navigation must be operable. (Operable)
- Information and the operation of the user interface must be understandable. (Understandable)
- Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted by a wide variety of user agents, including assistive technologies (Robust)
Quite apart from making a product as user-friendly for as many users as possible, and the implications this has for running a successful business, there is another reason to make a product as ‘universal’ as possible: the law.
The accessibility of goods and services is increasingly becoming a legal requirement. The European Accessibility Act came into effect in 2019, for example, after individual EU member states had begun to introduce legislation incorporating the idea of Universal Design, such as the Disability Act of 2005 in the Republic of Ireland. To paraphrase, this law states that an environment (or product) must be designed and deployed so that it can be accessed, understood and used as independently and naturally as possible to the greatest possible extent and in the widest possible range of situations by people of differing abilities, age and size without the need for adaptation. In the United States there are similar legal stipulations, such as the IT Accessibility Laws (notably Section 508), as well as the Accessibility Conformance Report, which assists buyers and sellers in identifying ICT products and services with accessibility features.
How is it Achieved, and How Does it Improve the Standard of a Product?
Nothing is ever truly universal, of course. The aim of Universal Design is to make a product that can be used (with satisfaction) by the maximum number of users within the confines of its purpose. So what can you do to make your product as accessible as possible to as many as possible? Here are a few ideas for designing a basic process:
- build your product for accessibility from the start (and not as an afterthought)
- follow the accessibility guidelines
- run regular accessibility audits on your product, and evaluate the solution with real users with accessibility needs
- be ready to repeat the process until the result is satisfactory for end users
If you are following the WCAG guidelines, as part of making your product more accessible you’ll be trying to make it perceivable, operable and understandable. To improve your product in these respects, here are some suggestions:
- Perceivable: Improve the contrast to enhance visibility of features, make content more readable and interactions clearer
- Operable: Make input methods flexible: design the user-system interface to enable multiple ways of achieving the same thing, such as using the keyboard, touch, or mouse
- Understandable: make all system interactions and their consequences clearer to understand
Universal Design in the TAO Assessment Platform
At OAT, one of the focusses has been on identifying TAO user groups, including test-takers, authors and agents to name a few, and allowing for their needs. Accessibility tools in TAO include visual aids and text-to-speech tools, so that written content can be presented according to a variety of needs. There are various possibilities for optimizing visual content, for example, as well as presenting content aurally, and the team at OAT are constantly working to improve accessibility by creating Accessibility Conformance Reports for each digital assessment product using the Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT), and acting on the results. The goal is to consider inclusivity in all steps of the design process, and make the test-taking experience as user-friendly as possible to everyone.
OAT’s new assessment products clearly reflect this philosophy. And with inclusivity as a core company pillar, any feedback from assistive technology users to help improve the test-taking experience is always welcome.
Universal Design is a complex topic, but there are two motivating factors that stand out: fairness and ease of use. Inclusivity is probably the main driving force of accessibility considerations, but, at the same time, many of the WCAG guidelines are related to making a product easier to use for everybody, not just for specific groups of users. It seems, then, that the fundamental idea behind the concept of Universal Design is to make a product as easy as possible to use, for anybody who might wish to use it. And if you can achieve that, you will have a better product.