The 7 Principles of Universal Design for Coders

UniversalDesignYou can’t please everyone, but you can design software that is considered valuable by the widest possible user base. That’s the idea behind Universal Design (UD), a set of best usability practices created by a coalition of architects, product designers, engineers and academic researchers.

The Center for Universal Design promotes UD for applications in housing, public facilities, outdoor equipment and all commercial products, including enterprise software and apps… Although it doesn’t get a great deal of media coverage, a growing trend among top user experience (UX) designers is the creative application of UD’s Seven Principles to boost app adoption among new user groups.

Examples of excellence in UD for physical objects include:

  • A digital thermometer with flat edges to simplify armpit readings and a large screen display for easier viewing
  • A mobile phone that operates with ergonomic buttons but without on-screen menus
  • A jumbo light switch that can be operated by people with their hands full or by the disabled

Here’s an overview of the seven principles, along with some suggestions on how developers can apply them in original ways.

Principle 1: Equitable Use

The software doesn’t have to be the same for everyone, but the various versions should be equally useful. That’s especially true for issues related to privacy, security and control of personal data.

Principle 2: Flexibility in Use

Consider the left- and right-handedness of your apps. Try to reduce the amount of inputs required by users with suggested responses. Provide options for adapting the speed of the software’s central operations to accommodate users who respond at a slower pace.

Principle 3: Simple and Intuitive Use

This overlaps with the classical UX principle of minimizing the need for instructions. Following this principle, the Apple iPod reduced the need for external input channels to a single button.

Principle 4: Perceptible Information

This refers to communicating with the user along multiple, redundant channels – visual, auditory and tactile. Consider what would be necessary for users with sensory limitations to use the primary functions of the software.

Principle 5: Tolerance for Error

Unintended actions should be treated as common due to the way mobile devices are carried and handled. Look beyond the software itself to how users interact with their devices. Warning messages and fail-safe features should prevent the most common causes of accidental processes and information loss.

Principle 6: Low Physical Effort

In terms of coding, this applies to repetitive actions and the readability index of text. Reduce and refine messages to make them larger, and vary input requirements.

Principle 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use

This principle was meant for architects and creators of tools, but it can apply to augmented reality apps like Pokemon Go, where the outside world is part of the experience. Think ahead to how mobility-impaired users could derive an equivalent experience from the app.

Form Follows Function

Some developers say that the pinnacle of UX design would be making the interface disappear completely; the user simply needs to wish and the software makes it real. Others simply hope to make their software’s interface beautifully intuitive. The Seven Principles of UD turns both around and makes the goal of the developer to be a focus on function over form. These principles inspire creative solutions by developers, and the innovative results can inspire fierce loyalty from a new generation of users.