Archived content:

This page is in the archive.

Go back to the homepage.

Universal Design



Who can't read this? Can anyone read it? It's very light grey text on a light grey background, and you know what? I don't care if you can't read it, because you're not the kind of people that visit my website.

This is the kind of attitude we get all the time from designers; people that believe that universal design, that designing for many people, only serves a small minority. So we call this accessibility. So what do I mean when I say accessibility?

Accessibility is far more than just wheelchairs and screen-readers. When people think about accessibility in the physical space, they tend to think about wheelchairs. When they think about it when you're using the screen, they tend to think about screen-readers and how blind people might interact.

Accessibility is actually the degree to which a product is available to as many people as possible. And we call this accessible design, but when a product is designed to include as many people as possible, we don't need to be so specialist about it being accessible to another group; we're talking about it being inclusive to everyone, so it's also know as universal design and inclusive design.

So, who here is a designer? Who here isn't a designer? Now I think actually you are all designers. You're probably everything, because when we're thinking and planning about any part of a product, everything is intertwined; all of the decisions we make are design. Every little problem we solve, that's design, so whether you're a manager, a writer, a speaker, a designer, a developer, a programmer, all of your roles are making decisions about how you represent a product, and all of those decisions dictate how easy a product is to understand and use, so everyone has control over how that product is to the people who have to use it.

And before I get into the meat of accessibility and what we can do, I always wonder, why don't people give that much of a shit about accessibility? Why, when you talk about it, people often just shrug it off and provide you with excuses? No, it's not an exciting tool or technique that we can fawn over, but why does accessibility have to be sexy? Is it because we don't understand who we're trying to help? Is it because we don't know what to do? Is it because it's just too hard; there's too much to think about it, so we just want to put it out of our minds?

I don't have the answers to this, but to me it just seems simply unfair if a product isn't accessible to as many people as possible. And universal design is incredibly important, because by not giving accessible design enough consideration, we're excluding a huge amount of people from using our product. If you're trying to make money, if you're trying to run a business, you're excluding all these people that are going to potentially give you money and help make your business sustainable.

In the UK, there are a huge amount of people, and eleven million people with a long term illness, impairment or disability, and that's a figure just from the beginning of this year. So these are that many people that…so many people that need you to think about designing for them. And we also have temporary impairments that benefit from universal design. So, who wears glasses? If you take them off, then you're temporarily impaired and using a screen is going to be much more difficult. If you have RSI: I get RSI really badly, that's going to make it very difficult; you mind end up having to switch to using keyboard-based navigation; you might not be able to use a mouse. All of these temporary medical impairments, there's no stats about that, but I bet there's a huge amount of people.

And then we also get environmentally impaired. Impaired by the context in which we use things, and so you might be trying to use a device outside in bright sunshine, and you might have a very terrible internet connection. You may have come here from abroad; you may not have any internet connection at all. So, design decisions made in the name of accessibility will largely benefit everyone.

There are four areas of disability that affect our use of the web and digital devices.

There's visual, which covers blindness, low vision, colour blindness also affects people who are struggling to see a screen for some reason, or a poor connection that makes it hard to see; not everything's loaded up on the screen.

There's hearing; deafness, possibly sitting in an office where you're trying to be considerate of those around you, so you don't want to turn the volume up on your computer.

There's motor difficulties; this might affect your ability to use a mouse; it might mean you have a slow response time; it might be because you have RSI.

And there's cognitive disabilities, which might be learning disabilities; distractibility, inability to focus on a large amount of information or for a long amount of time. Or maybe you're just doing many things at once, and so you can't focus exactly on this one thing someone's designed for the entirety of your time. I think that's what most of us are doing most of the time.

And all of these things equate to very simple usability goals. Visual: you want to make it easy to read. Hearing: you want to make it easy to hear. Motor: you want to make it easy to interact; and cognitive; you want to make it easy to understand and focus. So, just considering this accessibility at every point of planning, just having these things in your mind, makes it much easier to create products that include everybody. Accessibility is functionality. It's content hierarchy, it's copy, it's visual design, it's code, it's how you speak to your audience. It's in everything, and so, using accessibility as default is a part of the universal design.

Yes, testing and genuinely tailoring a site for specific needs is also very important, but that is very dependent on your audience, but generally when you're thinking about designing a product, bearing accessibility in mind is a default; it's a really important thing to do.

Accessibility is very easy to consider, once you start caring about it. It's just another constraint that you have. It's just another tool in your tool box.

Thank you.