Definition and overview

The Disability Act 2005 defines Universal Design, or UD, as:

  1. The design and composition of an environment so that it may be accessed, understood and use
    1. To the greatest possible extent
    2. In the most independent and natural manner possible
    3. In the widest possible range of situations
    4. Without the need for adaptation, modification, assistive devices or specialised solutions, by any persons of any age or size or having any particular physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual ability or disability, and
  2. Means, in relation to electronic systems, any electronics-based process of creating products, services or systems so that they may be used by any person.

Universal Design should incorporate a two level approach:

  1. User-Aware Design: pushing the boundaries of 'mainstream' products, services and environments to include as many people as possible.
  2. Customisable Design: design to minimise the difficulties of adaptation to particular users.

With both levels in mind, it can also be helpful to view universal design at a micro and macro level.

Viewing Universal Design at the Micro Level

A single design feature or a simple product, designed so that it can be used by as many people as possible.

At this level, the designer is not expected to find one design solution that accommodates the needs of 100% of the population, as Universal Design is not one size fits all. Rather, designers are urged to explore design solutions that are more inclusive; those designs that push the boundaries as far out as possible without compromising the integrity or quality of the product.

If more than one option is available for a design feature, choose the more inclusive feature. For example, when installing a handle on a door, it is always better to opt for a lever handle, rather than a door knob, as the lever handle can be opened using the elbow or a closed fist, benefiting people carrying shopping bags as well as people with limited strength in their hands.

See examples of products that incorporate simple or basic design features which are inline which improve the product' s Universal Design.

Viewing Universal Design at the Macro Level

At this level the designer has the opportunity to combine accessible and usable design features, with customisable or adaptable features, alongside more specialised design solutions that deal with the most extreme usability issues (see levels 1-3 above).

By stepping back from the individual features and looking at the product, service or environment as a whole, designers are in a position to investigate alternatives providing equivalent experiences to users.

Examples include a user-friendly website that meets web accessibility initiative's (wai) web content accessibility guidelines 2.0 (wcag 2.0), has a customisable user interface, and is compatible with assistive technologies.

See examples of products that incorporate more sophisticated design features which improve the product's Universal Design.

From micro to macro, Universal Design has implications for the design of any single feature of a product, service or environment, as well as the design of that product, service or environment as a whole.