What Are the Top Universal Design Principles?

Posted on May 4, 2023 | Updated on June 13, 2023

Universal design principles are considered an approach that ensures all digital products and properties are accessible to people with all abilities. Following the standards helps maintain a positive user experience (UX) across different platforms and websites. 

The top conventions in design apply to more than just web design or graphic design. They can be used for architecture, product development and even a store layout. While you should look to fresh and interesting trends to add some uniqueness and depth to your designs, following the universal design principles promises the finished results will provide a positive UX. 

Why Are the Seven Universal Principles of Design Important?

Forbes reports there are around 1.13 billion websites in the world. On an average day, think about how many websites you visit. You might hop on a wide variety of sites, use several apps and interact a few times with companies. Through repetition, people come to expect certain standards, such as how fast a site loads, navigational placement and if they click on a button for it to complete a task. 

While universal design principles work in many cases, there are a few times when they should be abandoned or some of them not followed fully. Some people argue it is more expensive and time intensive to create products that reach a wider range of users. Graphic designers and website creators may argue the aesthetics are more important than the principle in some cases, as long as the design remains functional. 

Benefits of Using Universal Design Principles

Of course, the benefits often far outweigh the disadvantages. You’ll create something inclusive of the widest range of people possible. The design will be accessible to people of all abilities, including those with low vision or auditory challenges. The overall UX will feel familiar and smooth to customers. 

There are also a handful of times when legal requirements insist you make the site accessible to people of varying abilities. Even though you might stray from universal design principles at times for a better appearance, knowing what they are allows you to create a high-functioning website users will appreciate. 

Here are the seven common design principles and how to implement them in your work.

1. Equitable Use

The design should be usable by people of all different abilities. You must consider factors such as people who are colorblind and trying to view the site. If you use varying shades of blue and gray, for example, someone who is colorblind may have a hard time reading the text. Everything could blend together.

You should include alt tags for users tapping into voice readers to visit the page. They’ll know what an image is when the reader spells it out. Your job is to ensure descriptions are accurate and long enough to paint a mental picture for the user.

Don’t forget those who need to use voice commands to navigate a page or those with physical challenges who may need larger call to action (CTA) buttons or varied methods to navigate the site.

2. Flexibility

The ways customers interact and utilize a design can vary widely from one person to the next. One study found 73% of people stated experience is one of the biggest factors determining whether they make a purchase. 

One of the universal design principles people often grow confused over is flexibility. How can you make your site meet the needs of various buyer personas? One solution is to create multiple landing pages to match the interests of different typical buyers.

You might have a home page with funnels to different types of buyers, such as an insurance company offering a grid layout with boxes leading to insurance for homes, corporations and automobiles. Think about the different audiences you serve and choose flexibility for navigating through your sales funnel. 

3. Simple and Intuitive Use

Your design should make sense and be easy to understand. One of the reasons so many designers place the navigation bar in the top horizontal header area is because it’s been done that way for years. Users know to look near the top for a menu.

It’s okay to move your menu to the side, just make sure it’s still near the top so users can intuitively locate it. 

Don’t make the design complicated to the point that users need a manual to figure out their next steps. Many will just bounce away. Have you ever visited a site with a cute theme but it wasn’t clear how to click through to the next page? You likely bounced away from that site never to return. Keep things simple and test them with your trusted customers to see what needs to be refined. 

4. Perceptible Information

Different people perceive information in a number of ways. One person might learn through sound and another through vision. A third might prefer text to fully understand the concept. 

Perceptible information is one of the universal design principles because it reminds creators to present information in multiple ways. Add a relevant image. Create an infographic or visual asset. Write a clear copy. Add a video to cover your bases. The more ways you can send your message, the more likely users will respond. 

5. Error Tolerance

Have you ever visited a site where you clicked on something and it was too close to another actionable link so you went to the wrong page or added the wrong item to your shopping cart? Not only is it frustrating but customers might feel they are being tricked in some way.

Consider how much of a likelihood there is that your design will result in unintended consequences. Test the site on both desktop and mobile devices. 

Around 85% of Americans own smartphones and most use them to get online at least part of the time. If your site isn’t suited for mobile use, then you may miss out on a lot of sales from those visiting via their mobile devices. 

Test your site on different screen sizes. Keep in mind that some people have larger hands and thumbs than others and may have a hard time tapping a small button or text link. 

6. Low Physical Effort

You might think this universal design principle applies more to architecture or products. However, you can apply all of the standards to digital designs as well. Of course, it makes more sense for an item a person physically uses everyday, such as a can opener or vacuum cleaner. 

For digital design, consider how far the CTA is from the video explaining the product or service. How far does the user need to scroll to get to the next action? 

You should also consider how difficult the page is to read physically. Many designers have gone to dark mode design because it’s easier on the human eye, especially if the person spends a lot of time online every day. 

Even small things, such as drop down menus can be made less physical by dropping down on hover. 

7. Appropriate Size and Space

Size and space is another area where digital designers may assume the principle doesn’t apply to them as much. After all, doesn’t it work better for architects who are charged with utilizing building space to the best possible use? 

However, you can apply this principle to website designs and online functions as well. Consider how much white space you’re using. Is the first CTA above the fold? How are users responding? Perhaps you need to shift things around a bit?

Use split testing and multivariate testing to ensure you use the size and space as well as possible, without overwhelming the user. 

Implement Universal Design Principles Today

Using universal design principles creates a more accessible world for everyone, whether through physical products, buildings or digital designs. The benefits of universal design principles typically outweigh potential drawbacks. 

Try implementing the principles outlined above into your next design and see how much better users respond. You can always play around with various aspects of a website, product or blueprint until you hit the perfect mix for your company.

The idea behind universal design is ensuring the end result helps your users. You can only know that through trial and error, but sticking to these principles is a good place to start.

About The Author

Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her exploring the outdoors with her husband and dog in their RV, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or curled up with a good book with her cats Gem and Cali.

You can find more of Eleanor's work at www.eleanorhecks.com.

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