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Considerations for specifying, incentivizing and implementing Universal Design

Considerations for specifying, incentivizing and implementing Universal Design

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

Many governments attempt to improve levels of accessibility for people with disabilities by regulating and/or incentivising aspects of the design process, or aspects of the end product. The so-called 'carrot' or 'stick' approaches are examined in brief below.

Government obligations to establish and enforce accessibility requirements can be found in building and e-accessibility regulations, anti-discriminations laws and public procurement policies. The 'stick' approach has in many instances effectively worked to enforce compliance with minimum accessibility requirements.

It is feasible to decide lawsuits on whether an accessibility requirement is met, such as whether a building can be accessed by wheelchair, or a website can be interpreted with a screen reader. However, it is much less feasible to decide a lawsuit based on whether the corresponding user experience is sufficiently desirable. Indeed the 'stick' approach can foster a culture of minimum compliance, leading to an over emphasis on ensuring that certain people are able to do certain things, regardless of their corresponding satisfaction or user experience (as discussed in Section 5.2).

Furthermore, accessibility regulations are relatively clear-cut when applied to products, services or environments that should be accessible to, and usable by the entire population; examples include government service websites, public toilets etc. However, it is much more difficult to regulate commercial products, where the natural and appropriate strategy is to target individual products towards specific market segments, to the inevitable exclusion of others. One possible regulatory response would be to consider the extent to which a portfolio of products covers the needs of the entire population.

Many initiatives now try to promote the 7 Principles of Universal Design as a holistic approach to extend beyond accessibility compliance. In 2009 the Council of Europe published, Achieving full participation through Universal Design, as a guide for member states to promote full participation in society for all individuals. It  defines a model for policies and projects to focus on as follows:

  • Adoption and decision on principles;

  • Co-ordination between key actors;

  • Practical implementation;

  • Evaluation and efficient follow-up.

An alternative 'carrot' approach promotes the business case and market potential for designing products than are accessible and usable to a wider range of people, based on global trends associated with ageing and disability, and changing cultural perspectives associated with the 'baby boomer' generation.  

Some businesses have taken the lead, and reaped the benefits for responding to these market drivers through prioritising accessibility and usability throughout their development process. The following are some of the key messages that can raise awareness of the available benefits of Universal Design:

  • The well financed older market is growing, but this market requires require designs can accommodate a much greater diversity of functional capacities;

  • The number of disabled people is increasing, and they are becoming more empowered to assert their full inclusion within society;

  • Universal Design is a user centred approach that appeals to wider markets, resulting in higher levels of user satisfaction and uptake;

  • Universal Design often incorporates flexible and adaptive features that can be profiled according to the specific preferences of users;

  • Costly retrofits or redesigns can be avoided;

  • Universal Design can reduce the incidence of customer returns and customer support costs

  • Accessible designs can reduce the potential for exposure to discrimination claims.

Many companies that have prioritised Universal Design in their work are reporting improved customer satisfaction, lower support costs and improved profitability. According to a BT press release, "Since the launch of the BT Freestyle in July 08 sales have increased 20%. The inclusive design has also minimised product returns thereby improving profitability, despite higher manufacturing costs."

In addition to promoting the benefits of Universal Design, government bodies can further incentivise the design of more accessible products through their own procurement strategies: See the case studies on procurement for examples of governmental strategies from America and Canada. Yet another strategy for increasing the uptake of Universal Design promotes incentive strategies within commercial organisations that reward Universal Design principles; in contrast to the popular approach of measuring employee's performance solely according to project costs prior to launch.

What activities of standards bodies are relevant for Universal Design and accessibility?