The seven principles of universal design: fundamentals of inclusive thinking for product development, part 1
Inclusive design is sometimes called “universal design”- as in, universally for everyone. We like that. It’s important to make this connection, because taken together, inclusive/universal design is NOT new- a team of architects, engineers, and designers led by Robert Mace at NCSU in 1997.
Whatever you call it, the theory of universal design is based on seven principles Mace and his colleagues developed, which have since been codified and embraced by universities, nonprofits and NGOs, and of course inclusive designers of physical and digital products and services everywhere.
We’re going to begin an in-depth look at the nuances of these seven principles. You can see the original list as Mace’s team wrote them here.
1. Equitable Use: “The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.”
This principle is #1 for a reason! Note the adjective, “marketable,” in there- you won’t get very far if your products bring no returns and have no market. But the “useful” is important, too. This principle doesn’t just mean, “it has to function properly,” it means that the design, while being inclusive, needs to be broadly usable and desirable. Aesthetics matter to everyone in just about every sector of what we buy; so does comfort and popular appeal. Everyone wants something they use every day to look cool. We like this adaptation of the old design credo: function follows human needs, form follows human behavior.
Ask, “is everyone who might want to do the thing my design does able to use it to do that thing, and feel equally good about the experience?”
This is the most essential question of inclusive design- if you stopped here, you’d still be doing some pretty good design that was probably broadly inclusive. But stay with us- there’s nuance here, and as we’ve said before, planning a design thoroughly through the lens of inclusion is more successful, and less expensive, than retrofitting an accessibility solution.
2. Flexibility in Use: “The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.”
I’m left-handed. I have clear memories of kindergarten through about second grade, where most of what we did seemed to involve arts and crafts. (This was a really long time ago when television existed but was steam-powered and libraries mainly loaned books.) One ritual I remember especially clearly was the distribution of “safety scissors”- round tipped little guys that barely did the job but made it hard for us to chop our own fingers off- which included giving ME the ONE pair of different-colored scissors with “LEFTY” stamped across them for all to see. Thanks, Ms. Harmonstein. My self-esteem is definitely healthy enough to stand out even more now.
What’s the big deal? In this case, it wasn’t a HUGE deal- I actually learned to take some pride in my quirky, unique accessories. But, let’s be fair- it’s only because being left-handed, itself, wasn’t a huge deal- I didn’t face social stigma or exclusion. (This wasn’t always true.) Also- can’t the same society that invented Netflix make scissors that work equally well for everyone? (My green lefty scissors were from before Netflix. Movies actually came on books that we had to flip through really fast to make the pictures move, and our friends would have to stand behind us and do the character voices. It was fun, but tiring entertainment.)
Ask, “could a large group of different users, each with their own preferences and level of skill or aptitude, successfully use this design to perform its desired function without having to improvise or adapt their own behavior?”
This is why real designers, whether they make websites, ATMs, playground equipment, or cars, have product testing- and this is also where these otherwise well-intentioned designers often make their first mistake: not having a sufficiently diverse population of testers. This is where diversity and inclusion overlap! You can’t know you’ve created a great inclusive design unless you know you’ve considered the very wide range of human experience.
In Part 2, we’ll discuss the principles that add further nuance: Simple and Intuitive Use and Perceptible Information. In the meantime, we’d love to discuss how inclusive design can improve your bottom line, increase your competitiveness, and help you stand out in the market for quality. (Contact Us) to see what an inclusive design studio can do for you!