The Keyword: Accessible and Universal design - what’s the difference?

Bryan Dollery

by Bryan Dollery

You’ve got a brilliant idea that you want to show off to the world – making a website is probably a good place to start. It needs to feature all of the right information, structured well so that visitors can quickly come to grips with just how awesome your idea is. It’s got to look cool, too. 


With all those flashy websites out there, yours doesn’t deserve to get left behind. Things are looking so good that you anticipate vast throngs of visitors after launch, and so you want to ensure that your site is usable for all of them, irrespective of their level of ability. Content, aesthetics, accessibility. These are the three balls that a web designer has to juggle.

The only problem here is that accessibility is last on the list.

It’s only natural to get excited about our own ideas, but when we ride those waves of inspiration, it’s easy to get caught up in how cool your site should look and neglect how easy it should be to use. Discussing accessibility, writes that an accessible website is “designed and developed so that people with disabilities can use them.” While it is true that accessibility is most commonly associated with disabilities, the problem with definitions like this is that it essentially siloes people in to one of two groups: the abled and the disabled. When considering the usability of your website, this categorization is neither fair nor practical.

Impairments to sight, hearing and movement result in certain sets of needs, and it is a good idea to do some research into how to make a website that accommodates those needs. What you are likely to find are two key things. One: accessible design is actually only about doing the minimum to make a website usable to those with disabilities. Two: as also points out, there are some design choices you can make that cater for those needs, but do not solely benefit those with impairments. So, what’s the next step forward? Enter Universal design.

The framework of Universal design comprises of seven principles laid out by a team of architects, product designers, engineers and environmental design researchers at North Carolina State University in 1997. The core idea is that the design choices you make should result in something that is both accessible for everyone and aesthetically pleasing for everyone at the same time. Here is a quick summary of those seven principles:

Equitable use

The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

Users should not be segregated based on their ability. Wherever possible, all users should be able to achieve the same thing with the same means.

Flexibility in use

The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

The users’ preferences and abilities are accommodated for, such as pace, accuracy and precision.

Simple and intuitive use

Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.               

From the IT veteran to the technophobe, everyone should be able to understand how to navigate the website.

Perceptible information

The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.

Make sure that text easy to read and the styling allows for screen readers to make it heard. Regardless of how the information is presented, it should be easy to access and understand.

Tolerance for error

The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

Fail-safes and warning messages help users to avoid committing unintentional actions. It’s about keeping the user in control during those “I didn’t mean to click that!” moments.

Low physical effort

The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

Minimizing effort and the need for repeated actions will go a long way in making your website feel easy to use.

Size and space for approach and use

Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user's body size, posture, or mobility.

For websites, this means finding the right size for your components and allowing enough spacer between them.

These seven points cover a lot of ground, so before diving into your own website design, try using a tool like Visbug to see how your favourite-looking websites fare on the accessibility front. That should give you an idea of how Universal design isn’t about finding a middle-ground between accessibility and aesthetics – it’s about marrying the two. “Accessible” can – and should – be visually appealing in its own right.

“Good-looking” and “easy to use” are not inherently different things with a well-designed website. We might like flashy, but not if flashy gets in our way. Clashing text and background colours make it hard for anyone to read, and poorly structured information can test anyone’s patience. So, we use Universal design and our problems are solved? Well, unsurprisingly, it’s not that simple. These principles provide a framework only and by no means guarantee the usability of your site. No two websites built with Universal design principles look or function the same. Nor should they. But it is within that drive to stand out from the crowd that usability is all too often sacrificed at the altar of flashy-ness. Unless the fusion of accessibility and aesthetics is baked in at the very start of a website’s design, it might still end up only offering the minimum in terms of accessibility.

Regardless of our level of ability, none of us have ever visited the same website twice in the exact same mindset. We all get tired, lazy, over-eager, happy, annoyed, stressed and relaxed. These affect our levels of energy, patience, perception and concentration. Sometimes, we haven’t even had our morning coffee yet. All of these things affect us and how we engage with a website, so that website needs to accommodate for a huge spectrum of moods, personalities, abilities and combinations of the above – and Universal design is about looking damn good while doing it.

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