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Empowering Your Users with Universal Design

Emily Stewart  |  March 09, 2015

There is a parking garage in Chicago that feels like it was created just for me.

I have a tendency to forget where I leave things. I once spent 70 minutes frantically searching for my car in a parking garage. With every minute that passed, my anxiety level increased. It was a miserable 96º that day and I was sleep-deprived from a long week of exams. I could barely focus, let alone recall which level I parked on. Despite knowing that exhaustion and poorly designed signage were a huge contributor to this dilemma, I still blamed myself for not remembering.

That was, until I stumbled upon The Most Perfect Parking Garage. Instead of arbitrarly naming each floor with a color, this garage assigned a different country to each level. Depending on the country, the wayfinding signage was tweaked to show common things associated with that culture.

Photo of parking garage signage

The level I parked on was Australian themed. The signage said “Australia” in large type and had a Koala bear staring back at me. The waiting area by the elevator had photos of Australia plastered to the wall. The intercom was playing a cheesy jingle that repeated something about kangaroos. Even the buttons in the elevator included references to help me remember where I parked. It was magical. I had no problem finding my car that day.

This was made for all abilities. Why can’t every garage be like this?

By addressing multiple senses, patrons in The Most Perfect Parking Garage are more likely to retain where they left their car. They spend less time looking for their vehicle, which means more patrons can park there.


I have to wonder how many people have a similar experience while using apps and websites. Research has found that users blame themselves, not the technology, when they’re unable to complete a goal.

On the other hand, the less friction people have while using products, the more enabled they feel. By creating a green-light effect and removing barriers, we create something that feels like it was designed precisely for them.

Universal design

Universal design is the degree to which something can be used by the greatest number of people without need for accommodations.

Example: August Smart Lock

Recently, I installed an August Smart Lock. The lock (and many of its competitors) includes an Auto-Unlock feature. As soon as I’m in close proximity, the device detects my phone and automatically unlocks the bolt.

Nothing feels more amazing than walking up to my door, hands full of groceries and not having to fumble with my keys.

I can only imagine how beneficial these locks can be for people with disabilities, especially vision or motor impairments.

August is also working on a device bridge that allows you to control the lock from anywhere in the world. The advantages for both people with and without cognitive impairments are tremendous: no more searching for keys, no more wondering if the door is locked, no more copying spare sets for visitors.

This lock was made for everyone.

Example: OXO kitchen products

Another pillar of universal design is the brand OXO. Their kitchenware is designed so that people with motor impairments can use the products with ease.

Myriad of OXO products

Source: Horton, Sarah; Quesenbery, Whitney. 2014. A Web for Everyone. New York: Rosenfeld Media.

Each product is focused on performing one task exceptionally well, instead of falling victim to feature creep. This simplicity allows the company to excel at creating products that are easy to use by everyone.

This potato peeler was made for everyone.

Roadblocks vs. annoyances

Accessible design, which builds on universal design principles, is focused specifically on accommodating people with disabilities.

Imagine a person is driving on a road and there is a giant pothole. In a car, the experience is annoying (“Did I damage the car?”). However, if operating a bicycle or wheelchair, the pothole can be a roadblock. Sure, there are ways around it, but the barrier is much more severe.

Accessibility accommodations help to prevent these “potholes.” By fixing the road so that it’s a smooth path, all parties win.

Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery’s book, A Web for Everyone, does a fantastic job of explaining both the why and the how integrating accessibility into a product will make it better.

Accessibility on the web

Although, accessibility is gaining traction in design and development discourse, I think webs and native apps still have a long way to go.

I’ve found that when a person with a disability encounters a barrier, there seems to be four outcomes:

  1. Give up and try somewhere else
  2. Give up and leave
  3. Figure out a hack around it
  4. Ask someone for help

Built-in assistive technology has definitely helped reduce overall roadblocks, but some design decisions—such as an advertisement overlay—can still trap these users. If unable to progress through the app or site, the users aren’t given much choice but to leave.

Lack of awareness

From a business perspective, losing a customer to a competitor because the product is inaccessible isn’t a wise move. In 2012, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 55 million Americans have a disability of some type. That’s a lot of missed business opportunities.

I don’t believe people are inherently evil, nor do I believe they are excluding users with disabilities for fun. I think the resistance to accessible products is due to a lack of awareness. We think “blind” or “wheelchair” when we hear disability, and fail to understand that disabilities encompass a wide spectrum of people.

In fact, it wasn’t until I was 23 years old that I realized my own father is part of the 55 million.

Disability on a spectrum

When I was in graduate school, a classmate once asked me why I chose to focus on accessible design.

“You just seem very passionate about the subject. Does someone in your family have a disability or something?”

Actually, yes. The year I was born, a work accident left my father completely blind in his left eye.

However, up until my classmate asked, I never considered my dad as being disabled. I never knew him differently and his blindness was totally normal to my family.

It’s not that we didn’t talk about it. When I was 8 years old, I remember my mom explaining that my dad was going to get an artificial eye. I asked her if this meant he’d be able to see out of that eye again or if it was a “fake eye.” She told me it was aesthetic only, and although I was disappointed, I accepted it.

Navigating barriers

I now realize what are commonly referred to as “accommodations” were just my family’s way of adapting to the situation.

At restaurants, we’d wait to sit down until after my dad chose his seat. We knew he needed good lighting to see the menu and preferred the wait staff to always be on his right-hand side.

If the menu was in a legible typeface and the ambient lighting was bright enough, he’d be able to order with ease. If not, he’d ask my mom to clarify.

Those menus were not designed for him.

Curious to simulate his experience, my sister and I used to walk around the house while covering one eye. In our teenage years, we learned the limits of his peripheral vision: we knew exactly how to position ourselves so we could roll our eyes without him noticing (we were terrible children). Regardless of intent, this was our way of understanding his world.

As a computer engineer, adjustable text sizes and display settings made writing code easier for him. But these were the days before Stack Overflow, and looking up help was limited to physical media, where text was a fixed size.

Shelf of old tech reference manuals

Taking after his love for technology, I’d often accompany him when setting up new household electronics. We’d get halfway through installation process and need to reference the manual. The manual would be in tiny, unreadable type and would reference pressing X button, which was also indistinguishably tiny. My dad would then grumble and ask me to read it. Despite being ecstatic to help, I remember wondering why the product had to be so difficult to set up.

This product was clearly not made for people like him.

Accessibility settings benefit all

Thankfully, technology has made major strides in supporting universal design. By increasing the font size using Dynamic Type, my dad is able to comfortably read text on his iPhone 6 Plus.

This iPhone was made just for him.

For webpages that aren’t mobile optimized (or apps that don’t support Dynamic Type) he uses the Zoom feature. This same accessibility setting provides people with perfect vision a way to dim their iOS devices for nighttime reading.

This iPhone was made just for them.

Situational disabilities

Several people have written about these benefits of these settings for people experiencing situationally-induced disabilities. These are scenarios where a person might not typically have a disability, but is experiencing symptoms of it because of barriers in their environment.

For instance, after I dropped my iPod Touch and broke the sleep/wake button, I relied on AssistiveTouch to lock the device. Although I do not have a motor impairment, I was able to benefit from the accommodations designed for those who do.

Or, imagine a person is moving apartments and they need to bring a cart upstairs. Unless the complex has an elevator, they’re stuck. Normally, they don’t require elevator access, but in this situation, they do.

Building on universal design principles, we can assume that by creating barrier-free products for people with disabilities, we create an even better experience for users without disabilities.

Fostering universal design

Many well-meaning designers and developers strictly follow accommodation guidelines and think they've met accessibility needs. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 is an excellent starting point, but observing how people with impairments interact with your product is critical.

I fear that if we focus too much on checking off accommodation guidelines, we’ll miss the opportunity to innovate. That we will become so obsessed with meeting a specific criteria, that we’ll forget to evaluate whether that approach is even effective.

For example, maybe users of a video player would rather development efforts be focused on creating interactive transcripts than improving the player’s scrubber controls.

Avoid retrofitting

As early as possible, users with disabilities should be included in the conversation and in the testing process. When people with different ability levels are involved from the beginning, you're designing for them, not just retroactively solving problems you've created for yourself and your users. Squeezing accessibility into the QA Testing phase will be clear to users that it was an afterthought. Especially when they are unable to use the product.

Accessible Restroom Outside signage

This restroom was not made for people with strollers, wheelchairs, small children, suitcases or broken limbs. That restroom is outside.

If anything, it seems like an ill-advised business decision to deny your product to a consumer-hungry sector that is willing to pay for it.

By addressing accessibility from the beginning, losses are kept to a minimum: the end product will appeal to a wider audience, the experience will be more enjoyable for all users, and innovative solutions are bound to arise.

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About the author:

Web designer for UserTesting with a passion for accessibility. Native Arkansan who can be found in either the candy aisle or mentally reorganizing things.