Have you ever felt like you couldn’t use a product because it was too complicated?
For those living with impairments, the pain and frustration from using certain products that weren’t built for people with disabilities in mind can be a constant struggle. But it’s not only the elderly or those with disabilities that face these situations. Some products are so hard to navigate that even the most technically literate person can’t find what they want.
The good news is that a transformative shift is underway: inclusivity in product development. This movement goes beyond the conventional notion of accessibility; it aims for universality, crafting designs that resonate with each and every one of us.
Whether you’ve faced challenges due to impairments or simply encountered poorly designed products, inclusivity in design seeks to bridge these gaps and create solutions that cater to the widest possible audience. In the world of inclusive design, the goal is not just accessibility but a design philosophy that embraces diversity. Let’s dive in!
What is inclusive product design?
Inclusive product design involves designing a product or service to accommodate as many needs as possible.
In a nutshell, it’s about making stuff that everyone can use and enjoy, no matter who they are or what they’re into. Inclusive product design goes beyond just making things accessible – it’s about really thinking about how different people might use a product.
You want your grandma to easily navigate a website or your friend with a disability to have no trouble with a gadget? Inclusive design isn’t just about making things for a few; it’s about making things for everyone. It’s not just a design approach; it’s a mindset that says, “Hey, let’s make stuff that everyone can enjoy!”
What is universal product design?
Universal design promotes inclusivity by creating products and environments that cater to a diverse range of users, irrespective of age, ability, or background. This approach not only ensures that individuals with disabilities can navigate and use products seamlessly but also enhances the overall user experience for everyone.
Universal design is like aiming for a one-size-fits-all solution, creating a singular design that’s supposed to work for everyone. Inclusive design, on the other hand, says, “Hey, let’s make different solutions for different folks.”
Sure, inclusive design might make the design a bit bulkier, but it’s like tailoring a suit to fit everyone in the room. So, while universal design goes for that one-size-fits-all simplicity, inclusive design is all about diversity and making sure no one gets left out.
Universal design vs. inclusive design
Both design methods follow the processes below that are central to enhancing accessibility:
- Rigorous testing of the usability of products across user segments,
- Evaluation of the results; and
- Implementation of necessary changes.
Universal, inclusive, or accessible design exists at two levels:
- Features of the design that improve accessibility,
- The complete design incorporates all these features but becomes more than their sum.
Note that a design is inclusive only if you take universality or accessibility into consideration at the beginning of the design process. If you are returning to change the design of a product to add universality, that is not true inclusivity (and, most of the time, it doesn’t work).
The seven principles of universal design
According to Ronald L. Mace, an architect and one of the pioneers of universal design:
“Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation and specialized design.“
The following seven principles guide universal designs:
Products are equally usable and appealing to people of all ages and abilities. Where identical use is not possible, equivalent use must be there.
Accommodates different user preferences and abilities.
3. Simple and intuitive
Must be simple and easy to use regardless of the user’s literacy or language skills.
Must convey information effectively to all the users with simple and effective communication, regardless of the user’s sensory capacity or surrounding conditions. There must be redundancy, i.e., different modes of communication, such as visual, audio, etc.
5. Tolerance for error
The product must be built to be antifragile, warn about hazards and errors, make hazardous elements difficult to access, and provide options to escape such situations.
6. Low physical effort
It must demand little to no physical effort to use.
7. Size and space
It must be useable regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility.
The benefits of inclusive product design
There are several benefits of inclusive product design. Some are obvious, such as wider market reach, while some are subtle, such as improving the quality of life of individual users. You may divide the benefits of universality in design into three groups:
1. Business benefits
Since the goal of universal or inclusive design is to make products that the maximum possible users can use, it also means that more users will flock to a product that caters to everyone. By making the entrance bigger, you allow more people in, leading to two things:
- Increases the target audience of your products (You can market to more user segments).
- Increases the market reach and penetration
Other benefits of incorporating universality or inclusivity include:
- Increases customer satisfaction,
- Word-of-mouth marketing, and
- Customer retention,
- Positive influence on public opinion and the image of the company.
Say someone who has had trouble using products and services their entire life finds one that is suited to them with your company. They will surely have a high opinion of the company that made said product.
Another reason to go universal is because your consumers may want it actively. Communicating directly with consumer groups can shed light on their requirements. Modern consumers have increased needs and demands, and the companies that fulfill these needs will be the ones to succeed.
2. Individual benefits
Universal design not only helps aged, sick, or otherwise impaired users, but it also improves the ease of use for all product users.
In fact, beyond fringe customization options, many of the ease-of-use features included in inclusive or universal design benefit average users to a great extent.
Improved accessibility makes products easy and intuitive for everyone to use, meaning every individual user benefits from such design choices.
3. Societal benefits
Universality benefits society by promoting the inclusion of different identities and self-reliance. For example, Modern medicine has increased the lifespan of most populations. The median life expectancy is rising steadily. Businesses create product designs that are not just accessible to the elderly but universal, so:
- Anyone can use the product (regardless of their age)
- Elderly (or other people) don’t need to depend on anyone to use the product
Similar to the case of the elderly, modern medicines are also helping individuals with severe impairments and handicaps to live longer lives. Universal product designs ensure they can live just like their more privileged counterparts, without discrimination.
How to implement inclusive product design
While the philosophy of universality aims high, making inclusion concrete requires diligence. Designers must look beyond superficial “checks” to proactively implement solutions that are:
- Equitable, and
- Accommodating to the full human experience.
Implementing universality in design can be done using the following steps:
Step 1: User research
Implementation starts with knowing all your users. For this, you must conduct lots and lots of user research. The more data you have about the different groups of users and their needs and challenges, the better the implementation of universality will be. Cover individuals from different:
- abilities, and
- age groups.
The broader your knowledge of their experiences is, the better your product will be.
Step 2: Personas
Don’t just create an ideal user persona. Instead, have a diverse range of personas corresponding to your user base (which should be diverse, too!)
The extensive user research you conducted in Step 1 will help you here. Design your product to cater to all of these personas. Perform usability testing to improve your design further.
Step 3: Accessibility
Accessibility is a part of universality. Your product must be accessible to the broadest consumer base possible. Make design decisions that make accessibility a priority.
Step 4: Principles of universal design
Apply the seven universal design principles mentioned above to your design process one after the other. You may include or modify different features in your design to fulfill each principle.
Step 5: More testing
Test the design with various user groups to gain insights about what works and doesn’t. Welcome comments from users about what could be improved.
Step 6: Reiterate
Use the feedback from your usability testing to make changes to your design. Get feedback again and evaluate if your new design fits the user’s needs. Universal design is more a journey than a destination. It will involve lots of iterations to get the desired outcome.
You might think universal design is a novel concept, but that’s not the case. There’s universality and inclusivity in several things that we use daily. Here are three commonly used universal designs that you might have seen but wouldn’t have noticed:
This is probably the most obvious yet overlooked example of universal design. If you are designing a space for the public, whether by free entry or admission, you must provide a wheelchair ramp for wheelchair users. Otherwise, you are essentially creating a wall keeping people with disabilities out.
Height adjustable tables
People come in all shapes and sizes; however, most tables come in only a few standard heights. Such tables may be too high for children or adults with shorter heights or too low for taller people. Height-adjustable tables solve this problem.
Custom clothing can be a boon for people for whom most clothing designs don’t fit their identity. You can design custom hoodies or make your own t-shirt with unique designs to suit your body and tastes.
Common trends in inclusive design
More products are becoming accessible by incorporating universal and inclusive design. Consumer expectations are also changing accordingly; even accessibility standards and guidelines are becoming a part of policymaking. Here are some trends to watch out for:
As globalization and life expectancies rise, populations are aging and growing more culturally and neurologically, welcoming gender inclusivity and socioeconomic diversity. The design will need to flex accordingly without limitations.
New interfaces integrating augmented reality, virtual spaces, and personalized technology need more intuitive customization than ever before. Ensuring information equity adds complexity that requires planning and diligence.
Changes in workforce mindset
Training designers, developers, and executives require investments to foster empathy, equity-based problem solving, continuous education, and institutional embracing of diverse perspectives.
Demand for data privacy
Accommodating variability while respecting autonomy introduces privacy challenges, especially for marginalized groups. Consent-based involvement respecting confidentiality is paramount for maintaining trust and regulations.
Common challenges in inclusive design
Designers must consider all of these trends when designing for universality today. In addition to changing trends, they may also plan to face these common challenges:
Considering different personas makes the design process itself longer. However, making a product with universality takes much testing and reiteration. But know that the result comes out as a superior product.
For similar reasons, the development and design of a universally designed product is also higher. It may increase the product’s price or the project’s cost.
One major apprehension when designing a universal product is that when creating a product for everyone, you water it down so much it becomes suitable for no one. Remember that designing with universality does not mean watering down a product to make it one size fits all. Instead, it is about creating a product catering to diverse user needs.
Lack of awareness
In a world of products and services designed for the “typical” user, your target audience may be unaware of universal design. You must educate your potential user base about the advantages of a universally designed product.
From breaking down barriers to fostering empathy in design, the impact of inclusivity resonates far beyond the product itself – it shapes experiences, cultivates brand loyalty, and drives positive societal change.
The shift from a one-size-fits-all mentality to a tailored, user-centric approach reflects not just a design philosophy but a commitment to recognizing and celebrating the diversity that defines our world. It is a call to action for designers, developers, and industries at large to prioritize empathy, consider every user’s journey, and pioneer solutions that elevate the human experience for all.
In embracing inclusive product design, we not only future-proof our innovations but contribute to a world where accessibility is not an afterthought but an inherent quality of every creation.
Linda Gagaine is a partnership specialist at Printify, a transparent print-on-demand and dropshipping platform designed to help online merchants make more money in a simple and easy way.