universal web design

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A survey of Web accessibility and usability

Universal Design

The overall concept of Universal Design (as opposed to universal Web design, as I have used to describe my project) refers to a school of thought and practice in which products are designed to accomodate all users and fulfill their varying needs. Often in the field of accessibility, special considerations are made to enable someone with a disability to use a product. The unfortunate side effect is often an attitude in which the designer picks out and isolates a certain category of individuals and creates something especially for their needs; to some people, this is discrimination in another form. Someone who is blind or deaf may not want to use a big, bulky piece of equipment that suits his or her needs because it highlights and exaggerates the characteristic he or she is attempting to diminish. This often leads to someone using the "normal" product, even though it is much harder to use, because it does not draw attention to the disability. In the realm of the Internet, this trend is often seen in text-only versions of websites (and quite regularly these separate versions are not kept up-to-date).

Table of contents:

  1. Universal Design Overview
  2. UD Principles: Analogs to Web Design
  3. Additional Resources


Proponents of Universal Design advocate designing a single product that can be used and enjoyed by all people. As defined by the Center for Universal Design, "Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. (Ron Mace)"

The intent of universal design is to simplify life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities.

Generally speaking, most of the focus of Universal Design has been on housing, public and commercial facilities, and related structural products. My project attempts to apply the princples of Unviersal Design to the Web.

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Analogs to Web Design

A group of authors, architects, product designers, engineers, and environment design researchers collaborated to develop the seven core principles of Universal Design. In this section I will list each principle as defined by the Center for Universal Design and then attempt to apply the principle to Web design in the bullets below each principle.

  1. Equitable Use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
    • Same means of use for all
    • No text-only versions
    • Make the site appealing and easy to use for target audience
    • Do not discriminate by designing only for what you think is your sighted target audience
  2. Flexibility in Use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
    • Accommodates user-defined style sheets (such as the high-contrast text style that an individual with weak eyesight would use)
    • Acceptable to the user's mode of understanding and processing information
  3. Simple and Intuitive: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
    • Avoid unneccessary complexity (DHTHL hierarchical menus, for example)
    • Clear document structure
  4. Perceptible Information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.
    • Allow text to be scaled
    • Multiple ways of presenting info that is contained in images, graphs, audio, video, or other forms of media that are largely focused on one form of sensory perception.
  5. Tolerance for Error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
    • Site structure is such that the visitor can always determine where he/she is in the site even if "lost"
    • No pop-up windows, which often crash screen readers or confuse a non-sighted user who is unable to discern what just popped up and where the main page went
    • No dead links
  6. Low Physical Effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.
    • Easy tab progression to allow for quick and smooth navigation
    • Minimize the number of links or the amount of accessory content that the user must get through in order to find the primary content
    • Steer away from moving parts, such as Flash-based navigation menus that have links that move around and force you to chase them with a mouse to click on them
    • Allow the user to disable time-sensitive events that may require a high level of physical dexterity
  7. Size and Space Appropriate for Approach and Use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility.
    • Allow any user agent to view the site
    • Page is relatively scalable and can be viewed on small monitors, cell phone browsers, etc.

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Additional Resources

Center for Universal Design: Based at NC State University, the Center for Universal Design is a national research, information, and technical assistance center that evaluates, develops, and promotes universal design in housing, public and commercial facilities, and related products. Their core principles offer excellent insight into universal Web design that goes beyond the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.

Trace Center: The Trace Research and Development Center is part of the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Its mission is To prevent the barriers and capitalize on the opportunities presented by current and emerging information and telecommunication technologies, in order to create a world that is as accessible and usable as possible for as many people as possible.

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Author: Greg Lanier
This site was originally created as a course project for Comp190 Enabling Technologies, given by Professor Gary Bishop at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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