Universal Design Overview

Universal Design (UD) is something we are subjected to thousands of times a day, often without realizing its importance.  Most of the time, a product's utility, provided convenience or cool factor is chalked up to nothing more than simply good product design.  However, the effectiveness of consumer goods, software and even services can be greatly attributed to Universal Design. "UD promotes an expanded goal to make products and environments welcoming and useful to groups that are diverse with respect to many dimensions, including gender, race, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status, ability, veteran status, disability, and learning style" (Burgstahler, 3). 

Universal Design has seven core features:

  • Equitable UseDesigned to be useful to and accessible by people with diverse abilities, using identical means, where possible or equivalent when not.
    Three pictures demonstrating Equitable Use.  The first is sidewalk curb with a cutout flush with the adjacent asphalt and topped with a textured surface. The second is a set of automatic doors at a store entry way. The third is a picnic table with an extended top, for a wheelchair user.
  • Flexibility in Use - Provide choice and adaptability in methods to accommodate a range of individual preferences and abilities.
    A composite image showing three plastic wheels stacked next to one another.  Each wheel has eight rounded cylinders on the outter edge and arrows showing the combined wheel has mobility in all directions.  The second image shows a moving dolly with two sets of three wheels arranged in a triangle, so the dolly can go up stairs.  The last image shows a similar dolly, but with the wheels from the first image.
  • Simple and Intuitive Use - Eliminate unnecessary complexity to accommodate the user's experience, language skills and knowledge.
    The back panel of a computer with different colored ports and icons representing what should plug into each port.
  • Perceptible Information - Instruction is communicated effectively regardless of surrounding conditions or user's sensory abilities.
    A lineup of seven waste bins with different colors, pictures and openings denoting what should go into each container, from paper, plastic bottles, aluminum cans, mixed recycleables, general waste and food waste.
  • Tolerance for Error - Materials anticipate variation in student learning pace and prerequisite skills, while allowing for practice.
    A screenshot of a computer program.  The user has the mouse hovering over the "Undo" command in an open menu.
  • Low Physical Effort - Minimization of non-essential effort or increased time where these are not essential elements.
    Three sensors for opening doors.  All have an icon of a waving hand and the words "wave to open" printed on the face of the sensor.
  • Size and Space for Approach and Use - Attention to the environment for approach, reach, manipulation, line of sight, etc.
    A female wheelchair user is positioned between a microwave oven on her left and a conventional oven on her right, both at an appropriate height for her to transfer cooking to or from each oven.

UD and Accessibility are often thought to be one in the same, but that is like saying that all smart phones are iPhones.  In theory, all universally designed products and services should be accessible, but not all accessible products and services may be thought to be classified as UD.  The goal is to move beyond simply providing accessibility and accommodations for people with disabilities, and take those opportunities to enhance a product or service for all.  



Burgstahler, S. E. (2015). Universal design in higher education from principles to practice (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.


Article ID: 48557
Thu 2/15/18 8:30 AM
Tue 11/13/18 6:35 PM