updated: July 13th, 2011 / Ross Johnson / 7 Comments

My Beef With “Universal Design”

I have been a web accessibility advocate since as early as 2005. Since then I have done presentations on its importance, written articles about it, co-hosted a podcast on the subject and even included it in my upcoming book. Recently discussion has arisen around how the practice of accessibility should be better encouraged. One of the concerns, is how accessibility is described. The argument being that the term “accessibility” is technical, uninviting and non-descriptive. It has been suggested that instead we should use terms like “Universal Design” and “Design for All.” While initially I loved the concept, further reflection has me worried.

Describing the Impossible

I wholeheartedly agree that we could find a better way to describe accessibility. I also have no question as to the importance of accessibility. My problem is that both “universal design,” and “design for all” describe the impossible. The term universal design has always been focused on accessibility, Wikipedia defining it as a “…broad-spectrum [of] ideas meant to produce buildings, products and environments that are inherently accessible to both people without disabilities and people with disabilities.”

The coined definition is no different from accessible design, it is just a fancier way of saying it. At face value this isn’t cause of great concern, until you consider the definition of “universal.” Webster’s defines universal as “Including or covering all or a whole collectively or distributively without limit or exception.” Thus Universal Design means creating something, quite literally, for everyone. This is absolutely impossible, there is no way to design a single thing that addresses everyone’s needs.

Why You Can’t Design Universally

The diverse nature of the human race means that everyone who accesses your site does so with different circumstances. Their goals, experiences, genetics and environment are all different. The more you can tailor a design to the person who uses it the more effective it becomes. If I were to design a website specifically to improve your life productivity with no intention of addressing anyone else’s needs, we would result in the most effective design for that need as possible. Specific design is the most effective design.

As you start addressing more people’s needs the design becomes less effective. Designing a site to fit teenagers needs is one thing, but designing that same site to also address baby-boomers is another. To be most effective, the design has to match the users in every way. All the way from visual presentation, through user experience, into content and finally how it is built. The design must address how the person perceives the world (ie: their mental model), the experiences they have and haven’t had and their personality. The closer the design matches the user the more the better it will serve them.

So designing to a specific group is difficult enough, designing for everyone is literally impossible. You will never design something that everyone likes. To do so would be to find the perfect design, which doesn’t exist… even when dealing with niche groups.

Accessibility Still Works

I realize that “Universal Design” isn’t supposed to mean design that appeases everyone, but it implies that. Accessibility, while technical is more semantically correct. Accessibility is equal access to a site, not equal priority in design. Everyone should be able to access a site, afterwards they can hate the site and that’s OK. The important element here is equal opportunity to access (and then hate) the content on a site. Universal design doesn’t describe access, it describes to purpose and appeal.

I am still open to a friendlier description of accessibility, just something that doesn’t imply the practice as something it is not. It really does a disservice to both design and accessibility and could hinder both. In my upcoming book, I describe accessibility as reliable design. Design that functions reliably regardless of platform or available technology. It isn’t perfect, but it is better. I am open to suggestions, what is yours?

7 thoughts My Beef With “Universal Design”

  1. My Beef With "Universal Design" « Web Design Marketing Podcast & Blog Web Design Marketing Podcast.. http://bit.ly/qjaqn4

  2. My Beef with "Universal Design" by Web Axe co-host @3pointross – http://bit.ly/qdnQPW

  3. Ross,
    I agree that universal design and design for all are ideals which can potentially mislead. Personally I like the term inclusive design as it encompasses the idea that design, technology and procurement decisions during a product’s creation can each include or exclude people from different disability groups (or elderly people) from being able to use the product. It doesn’t mislead people into thinking that creating totally inclusive products is possible or cheap, and hints at the business case behind accessibility – that you would want to include as many audience groups in being able to use your product as makes sense for you to afford.

    It’s this business sense of things that I think is the real shift which is happening in accessibility, and not before time.

    Our new standard BS8878 is based around this thinking. Check out a summary at http://bitly.com/gtRYSg.

  4. Hey Jonathan,

    “Inclusive design” is a much better way to describe it, I haven’t herd that term before. I also agree that the business aspect of accessibility is a good way to frame discussions, especially with those who are new to the topic. It is easy to get into an altruistic mindset of “equal access to all people,” but not everyone is convinced by arguments of moral benefit for man kind.

    Interesting slides on the BS8878, thanks for sharing!


    Ross Johnson
  5. ‘Universal Design’ doesn’t mean ‘Universal Target audience’!
    Its about having ‘ONE WEB’. It is frustrating to go on to a page on my phone an get redirected to a mobile version, or even worse a ‘Download our App’ page.

    Like all web pages should be accessible to ppl with disabilitys, the same should be of device, screen size etc.
    You page should be the same (html) and change according to who is using it (using CSS media queries etc.)

    Universal design is the best way to look at design, but it should be refereed to as ONE WEB and should work accordingly.

  6. Matthew, I think you misunderstood the point of the post. There are several different definitions for “universal design” but the term universal implies the wrong thing (even if the definition is different.) There are better ways to describe accessibile design or responsive design.

    I would also remember that your preference may be to have all sites be the same but are displayed differently based on context and device (media queries, etc…) but that preference is not shared by all people. Some prefer mobile specific pages and applications. This is a shortcoming of responsive design and why the practice is not suited for all situations.

    Ross Johnson

Comments are closed.