Technology is often heralded as both the great equalizer and the great emancipator. It opens the marketplace to would-be entrepreneurs in every corner of the globe. Also, it extends the light of education into the most remote regions of the world. It connects the historically marginalized to the community. Finally, it is a source of access, and through that access, it is also a source of power.
However, the tremendous emancipatory potential of technology has yet to be realized by all. Unfortunately, it’s often those who could benefit most from the power of technology who are excluded from it due to a physical, cognitive, or sensory impairment. The principles of universal design, though, offer tremendous potential in achieving the equity and access for which technology is designed.
This article examines the issue of universal design and how it relates to user experience (UX).
What is universal design?
Universal design refers to principles of construction and creation that may be applied both to physical and digital environments. The central concern of universal design is to ensure full accessibility and functionality for all users, regardless of their physical or cognitive capabilities. This includes ensuring a digital user experience (UX) that is equivalent to that of “typical” end users, those without impairments or special design needs.
The interplay of universal design and UX
Perhaps not surprisingly, universal design and user experience (UX) are inextricably linked. Indeed, how a product, environment, or technology is designed, including whether or not universal design principles are followed, directly determines the UX.
For example, technology users with dyslexia may find it difficult or impossible to navigate the internet without universal design principles in place. On the other hand, when web designers deploy universal design strategies, techniques such as the use of larger and more specialized fonts can help those with dyslexia experience internet technologies in a manner equivalent to the experience of those without dyslexia.
Similarly, web designers using universal design principles must consider sensory differences which may impact accessibility. End users with color blindness, for example, may have difficulty navigating some webpages, or their experience of the content on these pages may be undermined due to their sensory differences.
An end user with red/green color blindness who visits a museum website, for example, may have difficulty appreciating the nuances of the artwork unless the web designer has embedded display capabilities that can correct for the visitor’s vision impairment in the web page display.
Likewise, for visitors who have low vision or blindness, the integration of screen reader capabilities can help ensure equitable access.
Universal design, UX, and user interface (UI)
Universal design in technology doesn’t just relate to how web content is consumed or experienced, however. Just as important is how the end user interfaces with the technology. For example, end users with mobility impairments may find themselves unable to key in passwords or manipulate on-screen cursors.
When a user interface (UI) is not designed to accommodate the particular needs of the end user, then the user experience will inevitably be compromised. However, when universal design principles are incorporated to build an interface that accommodates various ways of moving, perceiving, and engaging with the technology, then the end user will feel empowered.
The user experience, in other words, will be greatly enhanced by a user interface that is built using universal design principles.
Why it matters
Universal design as a function of UX and UI is more than simply an ideal to aspire to when building your technology. For technologists and content creators alike, universal design is a key component of professional success insofar as it enables you to reach a far wider audience than would be possible without it.
Ultimately, this links to higher conversion rates because, when end users visit your site and find there a page that is engaging, easy-to-use, and highly functional, they are far more likely to linger on that page and return to it often. This also increases the likelihood that audiences will convert from interested site visitors to paying customers. After all, you’re not going to make a sale or win a loyal client if the interface is too confusing or laborious for them to use.
Technology has truly opened up the world for end users around the globe. However, persons with special needs have too often been left behind, even in the democratic space of the digital domain. Nevertheless, through the application of universal design principles, end users can enjoy a truly exceptional experience that keeps them coming back to your site, increasing the likelihood that prospects will become loyal customers. The key is to develop an interface based on universal design strategies that will ensure an equitable, and optimal, experience every time and for every end user. This includes ensuring that end users with cognitive, sensory, or mobility impairments enjoy full access and an experience equivalent to that of “typical” end users.