Many times, people with disabilities say that the world is not “made for us”, but designed for an “average person”. This is a basic error, because there is no “average person”: there are people with very different sizes, weights, heights and abilities.
Universal design, according to definition of Fernando Alonso López, refers to the conception of products and environments suitable for the use of the greatest number of people without the need for adaptations or specialized design. The pioneers of accessible design already delved into the question in the last century: Ronald L. Mace, founder of the Center for Universal Design, created seven principles in the late 1990s that are as valid today as then.
Universal design pursues that everyone, regardless of their condition, can use an object, product or service. This is the principle of equitable use: that something can be used in the same way by anyone (if it is not possible Same, at least similar), which brings it closer to a large majority. An example of fair use is a ramp that replaces steps. Beyond aesthetics, an equitable use-oriented design makes it more attractive to the user community.
When designing, diversity must be taken into account and therefore the use must not only be equitable, but also flexible. This second principle allows anyone to use something with comfort and precision, and that the object or product adapts to each person; not vice versa.
On the other hand, the simple and intuitive use eliminates all unnecessary complexity. Nobody expects to find a complicated product when purchasing or interacting with it, so this third principle makes our expectations as users come true. The simple design organizes the information or functions according to their importance and provides effective indicators in the process; that is, it guides us. A simple example of use is the life jacket of an airplane or a ship, or the voice assistant of mobile phones.
The fourth principle refers to how universal design presents comprehensible information in different ways (image, verbal, tactile) and distinguishes between essential and non-essential. Also:
- Maximizes its readability (for example, making it possible to regulate contrast or fonts)
- Differentiate the elements that can be described (for example, the ALT texts)
- Makes it easy to give instructions or guidelines (for example, with multilingual options)
- And it makes compatible the use of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations (for example, sound traffic lights)
The following principle of error tolerance implies that the design has to provide for all kinds of possible uses, some of which have to be avoided because they pose risks or cause accidents; for example, a can of preserves whose edges can cause cuts. This can be avoided with the overlap design, which minimizes this risk.
The sixth principle, the law of minimum physical effort, proposes that the less effort involved in using an object, the better designed it will be. A universal design minimizes repetitive actions and prevents excessive fatigue. For example, on a door it is preferable to put a handle because pulling it down requires less effort than turning a knob.
Finally, let’s consider size and space than designed. It is important that the elements look good regardless of whether we are sitting or standing, and that they are comfortable. Universal design will also need to allow for variations in hand size and grip type, as well as allow for adequate clearance for the use of assistive devices. For example, restaurants in an amusement park adapted for people with reduced mobility should not have anchored tables and chairs, which cannot be adjusted to individual needs.
All this must be taken into account when designing products or services because it is the only way to include as many people as possible. These principles are generally not considered because we are not used to questioning the differences or accepting that they simply exist. But no design appears just because; and I think it is worth coming back to this often.