The Power of Universal Design

The Power of Universal Design

In his book Change by Design, Tim Brown wrote that we’re frequently so accustomed to compensating for the deficiencies in the technology we already have, it is difficult for us to imagine a form of technology that would be better adapted to us.

An estimated 21 million people in the United States alone have some sort of temporary, situational, or permanent disability. A parent might only have situational use of one arm while carrying a baby. A bartender might not be able to adequately hear an order in a noisy bar. A deaf person may not be able to hear the sound of an insulin pump.

Universal design is about making technology better for everyone. Unlike focusing on specific demographics, ages, or genders, universal design accommodates many people in different contexts, abilities and access.  Universal design is the idea that products, buildings and environments ought to be created to make them accessible to all people, regardless of age, ability or other individuating features.

Creating technology that can be used one-handed, without visual feedback, without auditory feedback, without touch or without focused attention enables your product to be used more widely, in more circumstances, and under more conditions across the spectrum of humanity.

In the first five decades after their invention, tin cans needed to be hammered open to access the food inside. And as Ben Wilson writes in her book Consider the Fork, “We cannot know that we are missing a technology until it is invented, and until then, we simply make do.”

Universal Design and Calm Technology

How do we apply principles of universal design to Calm Technology? The first stage of design should require looking at how much information needs to be delivered to the user. The next stage should consider how to deliver that information unobtrusively.

No matter what sense the technology starts with, the notification style should be able to be changed into another sense. We can’t predict what sense someone will need for their environment, but we can give them the choice of how the product alerts them. Allowing the alert to be changed into a different sense can help people have more autonomy in how they live alongside their technology.

Translating senses into others

When translating between senses, the ideal, is not to simply map from one sense into another, but to create the equivalent experience.

Audio to Visual

Myles de Bastion is a deaf musician and sound designer who develops technology and art installations that enables sound to be experienced as light and vibration. His work has appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live!. He has built large format installations for music festivals and Grammy-award winning jazz artist Esperanza Spalding.

In 2012 Myles founded CymaSpace, a non-profit that facilitates arts and cultural events that are inclusive of the deaf and hard-of-hearing, and in 2015 founded Audiolux Devices, a technology company that now produces professional products featuring the synergy of light and sound. They also create lights for emergency response, such as LED strips that can be used for visual directions in the event of an emergency, lighting up the most important information and directing people along the most efficient path.

Language can require too much concentrated attention at times, and sound can be intrusive. Often, spoken commands can be converted to tones, and tones can often be converted into lights or haptics. We can take inspiration from interaction models like Morse code and push them into the future. Morse-code-like haptics could allow someone to identify who is calling without needing to look at the phone.

Visual to Audio

So many of our products rely on the visual sense, which means that we must look at them in order to receive information. Consider adding tones in place of light, haptics instead of alarms, or tones in place of spoken language.

Sound is far more stimulating to the imagination than visuals. “Radio is like television,” some have quipped, “except the pictures are better.” Consider what translating visual into auditory could mean — not simply for people who are blind, but for everyone out there who prefers auditory learning.

Roughly 25%-30% of the population state a preference for auditory learning, with about 30% reporting a preference for mixed auditory, visual and kinesthetic stimulus. Combined, this represents the majority of the population.

The popularity of podcasts may underscore a widespread interest in auditory learning or a natural spillover of information into a channel of perception that is less overburdened. In 2018, about 44% of Americans reported listening to podcasts at one time or another. Over a quarter of the population — and a full third of those between the ages of 24 and 55 — listened to podcasts monthly.

Japanese engineers pioneered the use of musical phrases with individual meanings in automobile factories. Any worker can pull chords to halt production, playing a music phrase unique to their unit. All employees would know the location of the stoppage and could use their resources to improve the situation.

And we may find that many of our user interfaces are more complex than they need to be and that simpler solutions work better. Instead of driving directions conveyed exclusively in spoken language, perhaps tones could help indicate the distance of an approaching turn. The direction of a turn could be indicated by a vibration in your chair — a vibration on the left side means turn left, and a vibration on the right side meaning turn right. Although street names may need to remain spoken, the direction of turns may be more seamlessly intuitive if integrated into physical sensations, and tones may be a more discrete reminder of the distance to an upcoming turn.

Universal Design is the future

Technology is used by the world, and the world is filled with different kinds of people. However, humans are tied together by specific universals, and by focusing on those core, human needs, we can make better technology at scale, both for now and for the long term.

Universal design means designing to include the widest spectrum of humanity, which is a simply good design. If we become more skilled at creating technology that works seamlessly with us — without so much compensation and adaptation — it will make all of our lives more effective.

By widening our concept of who can be helped by technology, we can open up the work of design to conquer new challenges. When a survey about technology includes difficulties due to any cause, including arthritis, dyslexia, and any other limitation, only 21% of working age adults report being entirely free from challenges in working with technology. Our concepts of “Dis-Ability” and “Fully-Able” have been misleading us. Most of us struggle with technology in one way or another.

It is important for technology to be appropriated into new, positive, creative uses because this is another key stage in the evolution of technology.  Companies can do good in the world and increase the size and creativity of their markets by helping to eradicate stigma against disability. One billion people worldwide experience some noticeable limitation to function, and this field is where much innovation is set to occur in the decades to come.

Amber Case photo

I am a thought leader, author and entrepreneur with extensive management, leadership and speaking experience. I study the interaction between humans and computers, and how our relationship with information is changing the way cultures think, act, and understand their worlds. My goal is to reduce the friction between humans and computers, through exceptional, world class, design.