Universal Design: How Inclusive Thinking Builds Equality & Accessibility

Shaping Accessible Spaces, Laying Foundations For The Future

Universal design (UD) is both a guiding philosophy and a proactive approach to creating products and environments that are inherently usable by everyone, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. UD aims to remove barriers and build in usability as a default for people of all abilities, ages, and backgrounds. This approach is not limited to the physical environment; it extends to digital spaces, considering the best ways to open up websites, applications, and digital media so that they are accessible to everyone.


In today's increasingly digital world, universal design is a critical component of any strategy for achieving and offering equitable access to information, building in accessibility by default for learning and teaching at all levels of education, entertainment, and social interaction for people with disabilities. By incorporating UD principles in physical and digital spaces, making support for diverse needs integral, we create a more inclusive, accessible landscape for everyone.

 group of diverse people of all ages using a public park with accessible features like ramps and wide pathways (e.g., teens on skateboards, parents with strollers, people with wheelchairs or walkers, etc.)

7 Core Principles of Universal Design

Universal design focuses on making environments, products and systems accessible and intuitive for all users, in both physical and digital spaces. UD can be broken down into seven core principles. These principles are clear, easy to learn as a concept, and in practice can be applied to everything from physical products to educational materials.

Equitable Use
Results of the design should be usable by people with diverse abilities, regardless of their physical, sensory, or cognitive limitations. Designs should be inclusive, providing the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible, equivalent when not. An example of equitable use is ramps instead of stairs.
Flexibility In Use
Multiple methods of use should be provided, serving a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. Among other considerations, this involves providing choice in methods of use, adaptability to the user's pace, and accommodation of left or right-handed access and use.
simplicity intuitivenessSimplicity & Intuitiveness
The design and its products should be easy to understand, navigate, and operate, with clear and predictable interactions. The design or the results of this design should be easy to understand, even for people who have never encountered it before, and regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. This principle emphasizes straightforward and predictable designs that provide the user with smooth orientation and comprehension.
perceptible informationPerceptible Information
Everyone should be able to perceive all the information through whichever of their senses works best, be it sight, hearing, or touch. This could involve offering auditory cues alongside visuals, like voiceovers in presentation videos, or providing tactile signage as well as Braille for visually impaired users. Perceptible Information also emphasizes clear and concise presentation.
tolerance for errorTolerance for Error
This principle acknowledges that mistakes happen, and designs features to minimize their negative consequences. The design should be forgiving of errors. This could be features like auto-correct, undo buttons, or clear warnings before an action is permanent, giving users a chance to double-check their choices before they take action.
low physical effortLow Physical Effort
The design shouldn't require too much physical strength or dexterity to use, so everyone can interact with the design comfortably, regardless of their condition, age, or abilities. This could be things like automatic doors, lever handles instead of knobs, or voice controls.
size space approach useSize and Space for Approach and Use
This principle acknowledges that people come in all shapes and sizes, and their mobility can vary. There should be enough space for everyone to comfortably use a physical space design. This means wide doorways, enough space to maneuver a wheelchair, and controls positioned within easy reach for users of varying heights, whether seated or standing.

Universal Design For Learning & Education

Building on the concept of universal design, educators can create inclusive learning environments by incorporating its principles. This framework, known as Universal Design for Learning (UDL), aims to make learning achievable for all students despite their individual differences. UDL goes beyond providing accommodations after the fact. Instead, educators design flexible materials and activities with varied approaches from the outset, considering the needs of all students, so that they can access and engage with the learning goals.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a powerful systemic application of UD, but Universal Design principles span a wider reach, adding usability and inclusion into the design and development process in many areas. As well as in classrooms, UD principles can apply to the creation of online spaces and digital interfaces. By following these principles, designers can create sites, pages, platforms and applications that work well for a diverse range of users.

Applying Universal Design in Digital Content Creation

When creating and developing web and digital content, the principles of universal design should guide the process from conception to implementation. Content creators, web designers, developers and administrators should focus on making content accessible and navigable for all, including people with disabilities.

A Quick UD How-To By Role & Task

For Content Creators & Front End Designers

  • Use clear and concise language, with proper grammar and structure.
  • Provide alternative text descriptions for images and non-text content.
  • Utilize captions and transcripts for audio and video content.
  • Offer content in various formats, such as text, audio, and video, to provide accessible options for different abilities, and to serve multiple learning styles.
  • Use color contrast effectively to optimize readability for people with visual impairments.
  • Utilize responsive design that adapts to different screen sizes and devices.

For Web, Digital & Software Developers

  • Build in and test for keyboard accessibility for all interactive elements.
  • Implement clear and consistent navigation structures.
  • Incorporate compatibility and support for screen readers.
  • Offer customizable text sizes everywhere.
  • Allow for flexibility in all user interfaces.

For Web Administrators

  • Update often for all tech and accessibility options.
  • Maintain accessible website templates and content management systems (CMS).
  • Monitor website accessibility through regular automated and hands-on testing, including accessibility testing tools.
  • Address any accessibility issues promptly to provide continuous service for the user experience.

For Business Management and Team Leadership

  • Prioritize UD principles in design and development processes.
  • Provide training and resources on universal design for all team members.
  • Integrate accessibility testing into your development workflow.
Business management offering UD training sessions to employees.

The Impact Of Universal Design On Web Accessibility

Universal Design (UD) plays a transformative role in web accessibility. By considering UD principles from the outset of web development, we can create websites and digital content that are accessible by default: that is, inherently accessible to a broad range of users with diverse abilities. This proactive approach eliminates the need for retrofitting websites with accessibility features later, resulting in a more efficient and cost-effective development process.

Do follow the recommendations and technical standards of the WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines), currently in the 2.2 release and with WCAG 3.0 in development, as one important and comprehensive way to incorporate accessibility in your UD approach to inclusive web and digital design. Developed within the WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative) by the independent W3C standards body, the WCAG have been used as the foundation for web and digital accessibility law around the world. 

5 Top Tips To Incorporate UD Into Web Development

While we’ve gone through this by task and role above, these important tips apply anywhere, to all contributors:

  1. Design Responsively
    Prioritize responsive design so websites automatically adapt to different screen sizes and devices. This flexibility allows users with varying motor skills to navigate and interact with the website effectively.
  2. Implement Keyboard Navigability
    Make sure all interactive elements on the website, including menus, buttons, and links, are fully functional using just a keyboard. This is crucial for users who rely on assistive technologies like screen readers, or for people with limited dexterity who cannot use a mouse.
  3. Add Alternative Text
    Provide clear and concise alternative text descriptions (alt text)  for all images and non-text content. This conveys the meaning of the image to users who cannot see it, including people with visual impairments and people using screen readers.
  4. Boost Color Contrast
    Emphasize text readability by setting strong color contrasts between text and background elements. This considers the needs of people with visual impairments, including those with low vision or color blindness.
  5. Use Clear and Simple Language
    In all text content, keep to plain language that is easy to understand. Avoid overly complex sentence structures and technical jargon. This benefits users with cognitive disabilities and those with limited literacy skills. It also keeps people from getting lost in your information or on your page, and that applies to the general public as well.

Graphic Suggestion: A team of designers and developers discussing a project, mapping out a process or plan on a whiteboard.

Assistive Technologies Bridging the Digital Divide

Universal Design (UD) principles are the gold standard for creating inherently accessible websites and digital content. However, in the real world, many existing websites are not yet fully UD or accessibility compliant. This is where accessibility overlays and assistive technologies come in, working to empower users with disabilities.

Accessibility Overlays: Stepping Into The Gap

These browser extensions or widgets offer a quick solution that can improve accessibility for some users. When enabled, overlays offer users a way to adjust elements like color contrast, font size, and text spacing, making websites more readable for people with visual impairments. They can also add or improve features like keyboard navigation and screen reader compatibility, temporarily bypassing website design limitations. Overlays may not fully address all accessibility issues at the root cause, but they can be a valuable stopgap measure, especially for users who need to use a non-compliant website right away. These end users have no control over the design or coding of a website, and no way to fix the accessibility problems they encounter, but overlays can be an interim solution until the accessibility issues are thoroughly fixed at the source. For users with disabilities, this means having the power to adjust web content to their needs, making digital spaces more navigable and readable in real-time. Accessibility overlays can significantly contribute to making digital content more immediately accessible and user-friendly for individuals with disabilities.

Assistive Technologies

Also known as adaptive tools and technologies, assistive tech includes an array of helpful and specialized software and hardware tools that can in certain cases provide real, long-term solutions for users with disabilities. Some popular examples include:

  • Screen Readers
    Used extensively by blind and visually impaired individuals, these programs convert text on a screen to spoken audio.
  • On-Screen Magnifiers
    Bundled with operating systems on many devices, these tools enlarge on-screen content, making it easier for users with low vision to see details.
  • Voice Recognition Software
    This technology empowers users with mobility limitations to control their computers and interact with digital interfaces using voice commands.

By combining universal design principles with assistive and bridge technologies, we can create a more inclusive digital landscape that is accessible to everyone. In this way, users with disabilities can access, interact with, and benefit from digital content with independence and ease.

Universal Design: A Win for Everyone

When composing or refreshing digital and web products and services, it is highly advisable to take the values and guiding truths of universal design to best determine direction, design, development and modifications, and then run with that knowledge to integrate it in accordance with current web accessibility standards and regulations.

The universal design + accessibility methodology has transformative positive outcomes which include:

  • Improved Usability
    Accessible design principles prioritize clarity, consistency, and logical structure, and provide more precise labeling, more intuitive navigation, and additional input options. This makes navigation and information access natural and efficient for everyone, regardless of technical expertise, experience, or abilities.
  • Diverse Needs Accommodated
    Accessibility features like keyboard navigation, alternative text tags, and captions are designed to serve users with motor or visual impairments. However, everyone utilizes these features at times, for example using voice commands while driving, or reading video captions in noisy environments.
  • Improved SEO and Reach
    Accessible websites with clear structure and descriptive elements rank higher in search engine results, increasing visibility for everyone seeking information, and boosting organizational recognition.
  • Reduced Friction and Errors
    Accessible design, equally to universal design, corrects confusing interfaces and minimizes unclear or missing error messages, creating a smoother and more positive experience for all users.
  • Future-Proofing
    Web accessibility aligns with shifting and maturing technologies and assistive devices, thus offering all users, including those who may develop impairments in the future, seamless access to information.
  • Cognitive Accessibility
    Beyond physical limitations, both the principles of universal design and the principles and practice of accessibility recognize and factor in cognitive diversity. Clear language, logical layout, and alternative format availability all benefit users with learning disabilities, and users who process information differently.
  • Value Engineering
    Designing for accessibility from the outset avoids costly retrofits later, eliminating waste and inefficiency, and paying off in long-term cost savings. It also eliminates maintenance nightmares and technical debt.
  • Innovation Catalyst
    Frequently requiring creative problem-solving, the process of integrating accessibility and following universal design principles could result in unexpected breakthroughs and new product features that support all users.
  • Increased Brand Loyalty
    Everyone appreciates a user-friendly and inclusive experience. And in a crowded market, superior user satisfaction genuinely differentiates your offerings, attracting and retaining customers and reducing churn.

Last but not least, the result of universal design that takes all users into account often leads to:

  • The Satisfaction Loop
    Happy users are more likely to provide valuable feedback that can inform product development, marketing strategies, and operational processes, leading to continuous improvement and efficiency gains. This in turn lead to more satisfied users.

    This type of positive repeating cycle measurably impacts key metrics like revenue, cost, brand perception, and employee morale, driving sustainable growth and long-term success.

In short, improving the overall user experience is never a bad idea. As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats, or to decode the metaphor, making digital environments more usable for people with disabilities accrues collateral benefits for everyone.

A smiling person in a wheelchair browsing a large text menu on a tablet, sitting at a cafe table.

Designing Better By Designing For Everyone

Implementing UD can present challenges. Some may worry about increased costs or design complexities. However, research shows that implementing UD principles can often lead to cost savings in the long run by streamlining design processes and creating products usable by a wider audience. The reality is that making environments accessible and inclusive often involves minimal additional cost and effort. Addressing these challenges starts with debunking myths and educating stakeholders about the simplicity and feasibility of universal design. The real challenge lies in shifting mindsets and prioritizing UD from the start of the design process.

Universal design is, at its core, the concept of recognizing the vast spectrum of human experience and extrapolating from that knowledge to create products, services, and spaces that are inherently usable by everyone, regardless of ability. This means creating smart and innovative solutions that consider diverse needs. Ultimately, UD benefits everyone. By creating inclusive experiences, we tap into a wider range of talents and perspectives, building, maintaining and encouraging the development of a more engaged and productive society. This collective problem-solving approach is how we achieve greater progress on a larger scale.


What makes universal design different from standard design practices?

Universal design intentionally and proactively incorporates elements that meet a wide range of abilities and preferences. Rather than creating separate solutions for people with disabilities, UD means making one solution that works for everyone.

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