A Universal Design Approach

The case for making our society more universally accessible and usable to all is compelling on many fronts. Universal Design proposes a progressive and evolving approach to the development of inclusive environments that can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible. Not only does Universal Design make good business sense, it also has many compelling social and legal drivers.

Benefits to the Individual

The human-centred approach to design that Universal Design supports is user-friendly and convenient, but is also respectful of user dignity, rights and privacy.

The degree of difficulty that people experience when using a product, service or environment can vary, such as:

  • A person who has no significant problems but who would appreciate a well-designed accessible and usable product, service or environment
  • A person who has little difficulty with all features
  • A person who has difficulty with some features
  • A person who has trouble with most features
  • A person who is unable to use the product/service at all.

The degree of personal benefit will vary accordingly. Therefore, if a product, service or environment is well designed, with accessibility and usability in mind, all of the people in the categories above will benefit.

The Social Benefits of Universal Design for a Changing World

The age-distribution of the world's population is changing dramatically. People are living longer as a result of medical innovations and healthier lifestyle changes.

The following key statistics show some of the demographic changes that are expected in the next 30 years.

  • In 2022 National Census found the number of people over 80 years of age increased by 25% since the 2016 census.
  • in the 2022 national census Percentage of persons with disabilities was 22% up from 15% in 2016 census
  • Projected number of people aged 65+ doubling to almost 1.6 million in Ireland by 2051
  • Its projected that children born today will live to 100 years

Within the coming decades in Europe and Ireland, the number of people who are available and capable of assisting and caring for older people will decrease considerably. While the number of people living with physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual and neuro diverse conditions is increasing, as is the life expectancy of people with particularly severe or multiple impairments.

Independent Living

Universal Design creates inclusive design solutions and promotes accessibility and usability, allowing people with all levels of ability to live independently. The ability of a person to remain as independent as possible can be influenced by how accessible and usable products, services and environments are. Factors that promote independent living, such as universal design, have a key role to play in dealing with this global phenomenon.

Ability as a Continuum

Universal Design assumes that the range of human ability is ordinary, not special.

Elaine Ostroff, 2001

No two people are the same and no two people have exactly the same ability. The considerable variation that exists between people can be influenced by both external and internal factors. Ability can vary according to the type of activity in which a person is participating or the environment in which that person is carrying out the activity.

Every person experiences reduced functioning at some stage during his or her lifetime. For example, "noisy environments can impair a person’s hearing; dimly lit rooms can impair a person’s vision; and having the flu can reduce a person’s stamina"

A Universal Design approach therefore requires an appreciation of the varied abilities of every person and to design in such a way that the resulting product, service or environment can be accessed, understood and used by everyone regardless of age, size, ability or disability.

Participation in Society

In this technological age, the skills required to participate in society are becoming increasingly complex. As each technological innovation is adopted, the risks to people who cannot or do not adopt, of being excluded from accessing a whole range of financial, state, social, cultural services or amenities increases. Technology is increasingly embedded into the built environment and products so that the lines of what is specifically product, ICT or building design have become blurred.

In order to facilitate people with differing abilities, of differing ages and sizes within society, systems and buildings must be designed with the user at the centre of the design process, from the very beginning, throughout the whole process and not just at user trials. A universally designed environment promotes equality and makes life easier and safer for everyone.

Business Benefits for a Changing Market

The benefits to business of adopting a universal design approach vary from an increase in market reach to increased customer satisfaction.

Increased Market Reach

Universal Design aims to provide a design which is accessible to, usable by and appealing to as many people as possible. One implication of this is an increase in the market reach. Not only could a product, service or environment become available to a higher number of potential customers, but also to a wider range of potential customers as well.

Enhanced Customer Satisfaction and Retention

A satisfied customer will tell other people about the product, service or environment, increasing awareness and potentially attracting new customers.

Market Crossover Success

Products that are aimed at a specific target group can sometimes generate interest and demand from unforeseen markets. The OXO good grips range is a well cited case study of how a specialised product design (designed with older people with arthritis in mind) can generate widespread demand.

Positive Public Image

A business that positively contributes to society by incorporating a universal design approach is likely to receive a reputation for having a high level of corporate social responsibility.

Increased Consumer Expectations

In recent decades, the voice of the general public has become more prominent and more influential. People are more confident to speak up when they have a complaint and information and communication technologies (ICT) and social media have made this increasingly easier to do. Direct pressure from consumer groups as well as direct engagement with their customers have encouraged many companies to evolve their design process and improve their customer services to accommodate a wider range of people. Universal Design enables companies to design products and service and environments that more closely match consumer expectations and needs.

Acceptance at First Use

A consumer forms an opinion about a product at first use, or even first sight. A recent study suggested that internet users take less than 50 milliseconds (one twentieth of a second) to judge the visual appeal of a website they have visited.

If a first impression is negative, a consumer is unlikely to pay for a product. However, if a product is simple, clear, easy to access and easy to use, a consumer will be more likely to proceed with the transaction.

Compliance with Legislation and Standards

Standards and guidelines provide practical guidance on how to comply with legislation. The specifications and minimum requirements provided in standards and guidelines often include accessibility and usability recommendations. So, with regard to the design of a product, service or environment, Universal Design is an approach that not only promotes compliance but has much wider potential for improving accessibility and usability, beyond the minimum requirements enforced by law.