The Seven Principles of Universal Design, Part 3
Fundamentals of Inclusive Thinking for Product Development
Welcome back to our last chapter in our exploration of the original Seven Principles of Universal Design! First developed by Robert Mace, himself a person with a disability, in 1997 at NCSU, the Seven Principles have formed the basis for much of modern theories of inclusive design. You can check out the first part here, and the second part here.
5. Tolerance For Error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
How many times has this happened to you: you’ve finished reading an email on your smartphone, and decide to reply, so you slide your thumb up to the arrow and… oh no! You hit delete by mistake! Now your email is lost forever, and you’ll never be able to tell your best friend that you’d love to come to her chicken painting party!
Wait… what? Undo? I can un-delete the email? And even if I’m too late to Undo, I can fish it out of my Trash folder within 30 days? I… please excuse me. For about 5 hours.
We take these features for granted on our smartphones, but they’re the result of- whether from original intention or by learning the hard way- careful design decisions that began by recognizing the things that could go wrong and how to mitigate them. But there’s another side to this principle. If you’re like me, you live in a state where you’re allowed to pump your own gas, and if you’re my age, you may remember an ancient time when gas pumps had a little lever to lock the handle in the “on” position, so the pump would continue pumping gas without you needing to squeeze the handle- leaving you free to rest your hand or… walk away and take too long in the convenience store while your gas tank overfilled and you continued spilling an incredibly flammable substance by the gallon all over the pavement.
Part of this design principle seems counterintuitive- take away convenience from processes that are dangerous if they’re done carelessly, repetitively, or inattentively. It’s not a super big deal if we leave the refrigerator door open by mistake; at worst, we’ll have a little more expensive electric bill or our yogurt might spoil, but we’ll probably notice it before we cause a citywide blackout. Dispensing gasoline is something we shouldn’t be allowed to be careless about, even if our hand is a little more tired.
Ask, “Does this design allow users to easily avoid or recover from the most common mistakes made using it, and does it prevent people from using dangerous features without having to pay constant attention while using it?”
A good inclusive design makes all its users lives easier, never harder, and protects us from itself wherever possible.
6. Low Physical Effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
Think about how much time you spend on your smartphone- no, we’re not going to start nagging you about how spending too much time on your devices is unhealthy (although…). What if all that time was spent looking at a screen that looked like this? Yes, it’d be possible- you’d either have to spend the whole time squinting, using a magnifying glass, or zooming in and reading a tiny portion of your screen, which would make the whole thing a LOT slower? Either way, we’re willing to bet you’ll have eye strain or a headache, or a WAY longer work day if you had to read like that.
That’s just an obvious example- and one that clearly only applies to sighted reading- but it’s a good one because it illustrates how the most fundamental element of the object (the text on the screen) is, by default, designed to be accessed without any extra effort beyond simply looking at the screen- and if you happen to have vision challenges that require larger text, virtually every OS and app allow you to change the default size of text rather than expecting you to squint or magnify it yourself.
Ask, “If I used this design as intended, for an intended period of time, would I feel tired, or would a part of my body feel strained or fatigued?”
7. Size and Space for Approach and Use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.
Have you ever gone back and visited your old school, or if you’re a parent, have you gone to a parent-teacher conference or family day in your child’s classroom? For a lot of us in those situations, there often isn’t enough “grown up” seating if there’s multiple adults in the classroom- and usually, the problem is kid-sized desks with attached desktops and chairs, proportioned with space in between them for kid-sized legs and, er, kid-sized abdomens.
Sure, you could make bigger chairs with bigger desktops and bigger space between them, but then you’ve got a desk kids can’t use- maybe not a big problem outside of a children’s school, but what about adults that are different sizes, big and small? No matter what, by creating a bounded range of space between table and chair that can’t be changed by the person using them, you’re greatly restricting the number of possible users capable of using the object normally.
Ask, “Is there any size or shape of human I can imagine that would be unable, or inconvenienced, in using this design as intended?”
This is the fundamental point of this principle- understand that there is a very wide range of body sizes- including width and height– and ability to move the body into various positions. The more you ask of users’ bodies to approach and use your design, the more people you’re potentially excluding- or inconveniencing sufficiently that they’ll look for alternatives to your design or opt out entirely.
We hope you’ve found our exploration of the Seven Principles of Universal Design enlightening and informative, and that you’ve begun to understand the underlying concepts of good inclusive design- making it your goal from the very outset to create an experience available to as many people as possible at the highest quality. The rewards are great and many- the appreciation of a loyal customer base, a wider market share, a principled and caring brand image, and simply better products.
We’d love to help you incorporate these and many other concepts of inclusive design into your next project, brand effort, or even your whole company culture. Contact us to get the conversation started!