Universal Design (UD), a term coined by the architect Ronald L. in 1985. Mace, founder of the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University, was defined as (1):

‘‘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’’.

The American architect, forced to live a large part of his life in a wheelchair since he was a child due to polio, fought strongly in the United States for the recognition of the rights of people with disabilities, also participating in the production of national legislation on anti-discrimination and accessibility.
It is now widely accepted that the creation of products, environments and services that are easily accessible and usable by all individuals, regardless of their age, physical characteristics, abilities or disabilities, makes it possible to overcome logics and design solutions now considered exclusionary and stigmatizing (Goffman, et.al 2003).
In 2005, on the occasion of The Disability Act, the definition of UD was reformulated in the following points as:

1. The design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessible, understood and used:

    • 1.1 – as widely as possible
    • 1.2 – as independently and naturally as possible;
    • 1.3 – in the widest possible range of situations;
    • 1.4 – without the need for adaptation, change, or recourse to specialized aids or solutions, by any person with physical, sensory, mental health or intellectual capacity or disability problems;

2.  In relation to electronic systems, any process of creating products, services or systems must be capable of being used by any person.
At the basis of the UD approach, we ideally find two levels, which should be understood as the basis of the approach itself:

    • User-Aware Design: push the boundaries of “traditional” products, services and environments to include as many people as possible.
    • Customisable Design: design to minimize the difficulty of adaptation of certain users.

At the first level, there is the possibility of extending usability to the widest possible number of people. It should be noted, however, that the designer, at this level, can not always develop design solutions that meet the needs of the entire population, rather, will have to validate and apply to the project, the solutions as inclusive as possible.
For example, in the case of the design of a handle for all, we will have to consider all the ways of gripping, the size and spatial location in reference to the user profile identified as children, elderly and disabled people; assuming also the possible conditions of use, or possible physical limitations (think of the elderly who usually have a reduction in sensitivity and strength to the hands, or a woman carrying a child, or even those who use a wheelchair or a crutch).

The Leonardo handle, designed by Fabrizio Bianchetti and produced by Ghidini, is a good example of design for all. The handle goes beyond the simple normative indication, and proposes different grip modes: with the hand with high grip, with the hand with low grip (child, very low adult, wheelchair user, etc.) with the elbow or with other parts of the body (who has motor difficulties or impediments, such as parcels, children in arms).
Source: http://www.ghidini.com

In the second level the designer is required to combine accessible and usable design features with customizable and adaptable features, together with more specialized design solutions that address more extreme usability issues (see levels 1.1 and 1.3).
By referring to the individual features and looking at the product-service-environment system as a whole, designers are therefore able to provide equivalent alternatives and experiences to users.

PANTA REI -the kitchen system intended for social housing. Designer: Jacopo Francesco Montalto. Source: https://www.jfmontalto.com

The UD, focusing on a human-centered approach, supporting design solutions that are as user-friendly as possible, puts the dignity of users, rights and privacy first.
The degree of difficulty people experience when using a product, service or environment may vary, for example:

    • A person who has no major problems but would have appreciated a well-designed, accessible and usable product, service or environment;
    • A person who has little difficulty with all the features;
    • A person who has difficulty with some features;
    • A person who has problems with most features;
    • A person who is not able to use the product at all. The degree of personal benefit will vary accordingly.

Therefore, if a product, service or environment is well designed, respecting the principles of accessibility and usability, all persons belonging to the above categories will be able to benefit.

The focus of universal design is, therefore, shifted in the target, from the average user to the satisfaction of as many people as possible, starting from the specific needs of each and in the methodological approach, from targeted design to holistic and integrated design.

Make it accessible and usarle for multiple users

The design for all is in fact considered a bottom-up approach that provides the expansion of possible solutions to consider the needs of as many users as possible and that reformulates the principles dictated by Human Centred Design in an inclusive perspective. It is a matter of placing the user at the center in its variability, to analyze the plurality of needs and, finally, to actively involve all the actors directly or indirectly interested in the development of a given environment, product, service.

Accessibility – a new vision

Within the UD approach in recent years the very concept of accessibility takes on a new meaning. If commonly (but, as we have seen, also for legislation) it means working to make the basic functions of a product or context usable, for the approach for accessibility is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

It is clear that the UD approach, starting from the assumption that the norm lies in the variability of human characteristics and abilities and not in the standard set by the average or in the specialty of those who are distant from it, is addressed with an expanded view to disability.

It is also capillary oriented to the satisfaction of categories of new needs that contemporary socio-economic models are producing, such as demographic changes and the advent of the Ageing Society both in connection with the progressive extension of human life.

In the literature there is also a clear correlation between the aging of the world population that generates the increase in disability and market development strategies aimed at enlarging the potential group of end users. These factors would explain the location of the universal design approach beyond the sector dedicated solely to disability. But it also deals strategically with issues such as active ageing, equality and social and environmental sustainability of products-systems and services.

With reference to the target of the elderly, as reported in the last World Health Organization’s Report on Disability, older people represent a significant proportion of the disabled population (view data), with higher numbers in low-income countries and among women than among men. Recently, temporary disabilities, maternity rather than the cultural characteristics of peoples, have also been included within this framework.

Proponents of universal design must recognize that products and environments can never be fully usable by every person in the world, but that services, management practices, and policies can benefit from universal design thinking.
Universal design should therefore be considered a process rather than an end state. There is never any end to the quest for improved usability, health, or social participation, so attention to more than just the built environment is needed to achieve these three broad outcomes.
The following table provides some examples of the differences between universal design and accessible design.






Source: (2) Steinfeld and Maisel, 2012, p. 69

In conclusion, the enlargement of the target, as far as the economic aspects are concerned, can mean for the companies the satisfaction of the needs of a greater number of individuals and an enlargement of the market with an investment on the design phases, rather than on the production ones.





Related lessons:

    • Universal Design Process
    • The 7 Principles of Universal Design



Glossary and insights

    • Ageing Society: The aging society is referred to a society whose median age rises due to rising life expectancy and/or declining birthrates. According to the UN standards, the aging society is defined as the country or region in which the share of population aged over 65 exceeds seven percent of the whole population.
    • Assistive Technology (AT) means any technology, system, object or part of it that is used to enhance, maintain or improve the abilities of a disabled individual.
    • Accessibility: is the characteristic of a device, a service, a resource or an environment to be easily usable by any type of user.
      The term is commonly associated with the possibility for people with reduced or impeded sensory, motor, or psychic (i.e. affected by temporary disability, is stable), to access and move independently in physical environments (in which case we speak of physical accessibility), to enjoy and access cultural content (in which case we speak of cultural accessibility) or use computer systems and resources available typically through the use of assistive technologies or through compliance with accessibility requirements of products
    • Usability can be described as the capacity of a system to provide a condition for its users to perform the tasks safely, effectively, and efficiently while enjoying the experience. Usability includes methods of measuring usability, such as needs analysis and the study of the principles behind an object’s perceived efficiency or elegance.
      ISO defines usability as “The extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction in a specified context of use.” The word “usability” also refers to methods for improving ease-of-use during the design process. Usability consultant Jakob Nielsenand computer science professor Ben Shneiderman have written (separately) about a framework of system acceptability, where usability is a part of “usefulness” and is composed of:
      • Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
      • Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
      • Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they re-establish proficiency?
      • Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
      • Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?

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