What is the difference between accessible, usable, and universal design

November 16, 2017

What is the difference between accessible, usable, and universal design

The design concepts behind the products we use on a daily basis can be distinguished from one another. Terms commonly used for such concepts are usable design, accessible design, and universal design. Each is a unique approach to design that improves product utility. Such concepts are applicable to customer services, the built environment and even information technologies like software, hardware, websites, multimedia and so on.

A Look at Universal Design

This is a fairly broad concept in which the design of a product and environment that is to be used by all individuals is enhanced to the greatest possible extent. It does not require alterations or a highly specialized design. An example of a universally designed product is a door that opens in an automatic manner. Universally designed products benefit everyone from disabled individuals to those who deliver products, people who push dolly carts etc.

Universal designs consider human characteristics ranging from stature to culture, learning preference and beyond. In the context of information technology, products with a universal design are accessible to those with a wide array of characteristics including the many types of disabilities. Such products are typically designed to reduce or fully eliminate assistive technologies. Yet these products are fully compatible with assistive software and hardware.

Accessible Design

This design process is centered on an approach that considers the needs of those who are disabled. Accessibility often refers to product, service and even facility characteristics that can be independently used by those with an array of disabilities. The public’s awareness of accessibility dramatically increased when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed. The ADA requires all public services and facilities be completely accessible to those with disabilities. A subsequent amendment required that standards for hardware, software, videos, websites and additional information technology be implemented.

Usable Design

Similar to universal design and accessible design, usable design is centered on the creation of products that are highly efficient and easy to use. Usability is best defined as the effectiveness, satisfaction, and efficiency obtained by users with a certain set of tasks in a nuanced environment. Usability engineers gauge the ease at which people learn how to use a product and remember the way it is used when returning to it at a later point in time.

Unfortunately, those with disabilities are not always included in product and service testing for usability. Products that perform up to par in usability tests do not always prove effective for those plagued by disabilities. Thankfully, usability professionals are growing increasingly concerned with universal and accessible design considerations as time progresses.

Usability shares similar aims as universal design and accessible design. Designers in each of these disciplines strive to build products and product features that the user can use and master with ease. Usability engineers key in on aspects of the user experience like consistency, learnability, and efficiency. In regard to efficiency, users must be able to perform the task with minimal effort and still attain their aim(s) without frustration.

In the context of usability design, consistency is a reference to whether product features are labeled in a direct and consistent manner. Learnability refers to whether users can learn to operate the product with ease and return to it after the first use without issue.

Design Concepts are Quite Meaningful

The three design terms described above are fairly similar yet truly unique in multiple ways. Each produces products that provide utility, especially for those who are disabled. Designers who apply the proper design principles while keying in on accessibility for those with physical limitations ultimately make products that much more useful for everyone.