Adapting universal design rules into web design

Universal design is a technique used to create an environment — physical or digital — that’s accessible and understood by the greatest number of people.

History of universal design

In the early 1970s, American architect Ronald Mace coined the term universal design, an idea that he used primarily in reference to building design — describing the process of creating buildings that were not only aesthetically pleasing but also accessible to a wide range of people. Mace was an advocate for accessibility in building design, as he wanted everyone to enjoy and use his buildings, regardless of any limitation or disability.

Mace’s concept of universal design was incorporated into key accessibility legislation, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. He also founded what is now known as the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University (though it’s currently inactive due to lack of funding.) Mace helped the center develop seven core principles that represent universal design.

Principles of universal design

Creating designs that are accessible, without the need for adaptations or modifications, is one of the primary goals of universal design, explains Robert Kingett, an accessibility consultant and author of the Blind Journalist blog.

The following seven principles of design, outlined by the Center for Universal Design, have that goal in mind:

  • Equitable use: Does everyone have an equal opportunity to use and access the design features?
  • Flexibility in use: Can a wide range of people interact with the design and use it in the way it was intended?
  • Simple and intuitive: Is the design easy to use and understand?
  • Perceptible information: Does the design properly convey the necessary information?
  • Tolerance for error: Does the design minimize the risk of user mistakes and errors?
  • Low physical effort: Is it physically easy and comfortable for the majority of users to interact with the product?
  • Size and space for approach and use: Does the design take into account the different body sizes, postures, and mobility of its users? 

Applying universal design to the web

Though these design principles were developed for the physical world, as the internet became more prevalent, they began to be applied to the online space as well.

Web designers started incorporating them into their website designs to ensure the greatest number of visitors could access and interact with the content. After all, if you’re designing a webpage, you want it to be simple to use and have a high tolerance for error, which is essentially the purpose of universal design in the first place.

Damien Martin, marketing executive at Shufti Pro, says, “A universal web design takes into account all factors that broaden usability. Visual design, white space, and text placement on a page are carefully planned and placed in order to get better impressions and improve conversions.”

Integrating protocols to help web users avoid inadvertently triggering unintended actions (such as a purchase) is one example of applying the “tolerance for error” principle, explains John Moss, CEO at English Blinds. The design “should incorporate safeguards to prevent errors and also enable users to identify and undo them without consequence.”

Another example is using high contrast on a web page, which would fall under the “equitable use” principle. Incorporating high contrast throughout a site makes it easier for everyone to view the content, especially those with impaired vision.

As for the principle of “flexibility in use,” this covers features such as resizable text. Without altering or compromising the design, users can easily enlarge the text to better suit their needs.

There are many ways to interpret and apply universal design to the web. The more diligent you are about incorporating these principles into your own website’s design, the more likely users are to engage, trust, and return to your content. This may lead to an increase in brand loyalty, traffic, and even conversions for your site.

For related information regarding accessibility laws and compliance, review our in-depth guide on Section 508 compliance.

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