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Using Universal Design to improve product accessibility

Using Universal Design to improve product accessibility

Authors: Dr. Sam Waller, University of Cambridge, Engineering Design Centre and Prof. P John Clarkson, University of Cambridge, Engineering Design Centre. Edited by James Hubbard, Senior Design Advisor, Products and Services, Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, NDA; Dónal Rice, Senior Design Advisor, ICT, Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, NDA

Understanding Universal Design
Universal Design has emerged as a result of new technological possibilities, together with new social priorities to promote inclusion and prevent discrimination. In Article 2 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Universal Design is defined:

"the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. "Universal Design" shall not exclude assistive devices for particular groups of persons with disabilities where this is needed."

Within Article 4(f), state parties are obliged to promote the research and development of universally designed goods, services, equipment and facilities. Universal Design has been included in policy and legislation in many counties such as Ireland, Norway, Spain, and Japan, and has been adopted by the Council of Europe in their Disability Action Plan.

More closely associated with product development, the Trace Research and Development Centre provides a particularly useful description for Universal Design of products, which includes two major components:

  1. Designing products so that they are flexible enough that they can be directly used (without requiring any assistive technologies or modifications) by people with the widest range of abilities and circumstances as is commercially practical given current materials, technologies, and knowledge

  2. Designing products so that they are compatible with the assistive technologies that might be used by those who cannot efficiently access and use the products directly.

Unlike other descriptions of Universal Design, the Trace Centre specifically mentions commercial practicality, which is particularly relevant for product design as commercially impractical solutions will not be likely to yield any real improvement to the extent to which people can live independently and participate equally in society. However, particular caution is needed when setting a target of "as is commercially practical", because this threshold may not be any better than the status quo, and people may not be aware of the potential commercial benefits for a more accessible design.

Universal Design is user centred and business focused, and yields products that are usable by and useful to the widest possible range of people. Universal Design adds flexibility, which improves the product experience for a diverse range of people, in a greater variety of environment or situations.

Universal Design is not simply a stage that can be added to a design process, and it's not adequately covered by a requirement that the product should be easy to use and/or accessible. Furthermore, Universal Design is not solely about designing for disability, and it does not imply that it is always possible to design one product to address the needs of the entire population. However, satisfying the diverse needs of different users or markets can often be achieved by developing a corresponding range of products.

Introduction to Universal Design process:

Successful Universal Design requires getting it right at the concept stage, because changes made later on in the development process may be prohibitively difficult and expensive. The process of concept generation is described here according to the core activities of exploration, creativity and evaluation. These core activities answer the three fundamental questions of problem-solving, which are:

  • Explore: What are the needs?

  • Create: How can the needs be met?

  • Evaluate: How well are the needs being met?

The specific focus for Universal Design is on understanding the true diversity of user needs, and applying this knowledge to better inform design decisions taken throughout the development process. However, problem-solving forms the foundation of any good design process, so exploration, creativity and evaluation should typically be identifiable within any model of any design process (examples include engineering design, systems design, product design, interface design and software design). Describing the generic problem solving activities within Universal Design enables convenient integration within existing end-to-end development processes.

Design activities need to determine both what the problem is, and what the solution is. Breaking this "chicken and egg" style deadlock requires a flexible approach, where successive cycles of exploration, creativity and evaluation should result in an improved understanding of the real user and business needs, and improved solutions to these. However, for simplicity the activities are now presented as a simple set of steps.

Explore: What are the needs?               

Exploratory activities aim to discover the requirements for a product that will meet the targets of utility, usability, accessibility, desirability, affordability, viability and compatibility, as described in Section 5.2. As a starting point, consider the role descriptions of the people who have something to gain, or something to lose from the design project: these people are the stakeholders whose needs the project must satisfy. Stakeholders will likely include:

  • User related stakeholders, such as the purchaser and end user

  • Business related stakeholders, such as the shareholders, project manager, designers, manufacturers,

  • Other stakeholders, such as standards bodies and legal entities.

Bringing the stakeholders to life helps to understand their needs, and develop and evaluate solutions. The diversity of user related stakeholders may be understood through market research and user data, and represented through personas. The needs of the stakeholders are typically captured within a comprehensive and categorised list, or requirements specification.

A photo storyboard or task analysis may be used to describe the activities that are related to the use of the product, which helps to provide cues ensuring that the needs of all stakeholders are captured, together with relevant issues associated with different usage environments.

The requirements associated with developing a solution that is feasible to manufacture and deliver form part of the business needs. However, the process described here refers to concept generation, so the subsequent activities associated with delivering a solution are outside of the scope of this section.

Create: How can the needs be met?

Creative activities generate conceptual solutions that satisfy the needs of the users and the business. Creativity can be stimulated by setting up a culture where ideas can flow freely, which involves

  • Challenging initial assumptions

  • Breaking out of established ways of thinking

  • Suspending critical evaluation

  • Encouraging all ideas, especially the wacky ones

Having generated large numbers of ideas, these can be grouped, combined, and worked up into a smaller number of concepts. Physical or virtual prototypes of these concepts can investigate their feasibility, while also enabling further evaluation and refinement. It is particularly important to evaluate concepts before the critical decisions are made, which requires an emphasis on early-stage "paper prototypes".

Evaluate: How well are the needs being met?
Evaluative activities provide evidence on how well the concepts meet the needs of the users and the business, and help to plan the next steps. The criteria for evaluating concepts should reflect a summarised version of the needs list, or requirements specification: these criteria will likely include cost, performance, feasibility etc. Typical evaluation activities include expert appraisal, role-playing, simulation and user involvement. Deciding the next steps should be based on the evidence collated from previous activities, and the current level of confidence. The next steps might be to plan more exploration, more creativity, more evaluation, or move on to detailed design.

Where does it all go wrong?
Common pitfalls for Universal Design are:

  • User needs not sufficiently explored, understood, or communicated

  • Fixation with existing solutions inhibits creativity

  • Evaluation occurs after all the important decisions have been made

  • Communication difficulties that occur due to the diverse range of backgrounds amongst members of the design team

The next section examines issues associated with specifying, incentivising and implementing Universal Design of products, in order to improve the accessibility of a society.

How can Universal Design be incentivized and implemented at a policy level?