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?