• Universal design
  • Web Design

Universal Design and How Websites are Changing

Written by Craig Slade

I was inspired this week by a Vox video on ‘Dementia Villages’.

These amazing developments are taking key principles of how we design public spaces and ensure that older people with dementia can still enjoy a happy, free and purposeful life.

It got me thinking about universal design within architecture, and how we can apply that thinking to the web.

Universal design is a principle that says that we should create experiences that everyone can use and enjoy, regardless of ability, neurodivergence or any other factor.

It is a set of principles that apply across product design, graphic design, architectural design, and – to a greater extent than ever, website design.

 

The Importance of Digital Accessibility

As the web matures, the world is finally understanding the impact and importance of digital design for accessibility.

We wrote a blog on our approach for Global Accessibility Awareness Day back in May. A building has a disabled access – a website should have accessibility for users with more complex needs built in from the start, as one of the guiding principles of its construction.

But the next 20 (and even the next 10) years will take this much further.

Right now agencies and businesses generally assume that elderly users use the web for their essentials.

That might be using a government website for taxes, looking at some of their utility providers online, maybe looking at their pension.

But generally large companies still assume that this generation will prefer paper communication and that more traditional marketing methods are more effective. After all, this generation grew up without the web.

 

An Aging Digital Citizen: Who are the website users of the future?

Google was founded in 1997, and is a sensible place to put a marker in as the year that widespread use of the internet began in business.

Right now, this means that internet users have been approximately 25 years in their professional lives.

If they’re about to retire, this might mean that the internet started to pervade their day to day lives at around age forty.

Twenty five years on, it’s safe to say that that person is a competent internet user, having had to use websites daily for the majority of their working life.

Right now, if we take an 80 year old as an example, that person may have been 55 when the internet became widespread, and may have been slowing down in their career already.

They may never have adopted a tool for their professional lives that we now all see as ubiquitous.

But what about the 80 year old of 2040?

We will have users of the web in their 80s, who used the internet at an enterprise level through much of their working life.

As they age, some of these users may suffer from dementia. They will still choose to buy products, have experiences, and engage with entertainment online.

So the question is this: are we designing an internet that is suitable for these users? Are we even ready to?

 

Man explaining image on the screen to the group in the room

Where is Accessibility Now: WCAG 2.2 Guidelines

The WCAG 2.2 guidelines on web accessibility is currently in draft stage, with it currently being scheduled to be released in December 2022.

Some of the best designers and digital strategists in the world are working to ensure that the internet of 2025 will be more accessible to a diverse range of users than ever.

At the moment, many digital agencies and companies see accessibility as a ‘have to do’ rather than a ‘want to do’.

The principles of making websites perceivable, operable, understandable and robust are solidly embedded within many website agencies’ workflows – but not all agencies choose to follow them all of the time, despite their relative simplicity.

 

To recap on those key principles – 

 

1. Perceivable

Information and user interface components must be presentable to users in ways they can easily see. For example, someone with sight difficulties may require a larger type, or someone who is deaf may not be able to perceive if key sounds are played over audio.

 

2. Operable 

User interface components and navigation must be possible to operate for a user. So, if key interactions require a mouse (when more and more traffic comes from devices without mice, and some users with accessibility difficulties will be navigating via keyboard) then it could be considered inoperable.

 

3. Understandable 

Information and the operation of the user interface must be easily understood for users. So, a navigation may not be so complex that it is impossible to navigate by users with cognitive difficulties or neurodivergences. 

 

4. Robust 

Content must be robust enough that it can be interpreted reliably by a wide variety of softwares, devices and technologies. That is, it should be possible to use everything from a tablet to a screen reader to interact with a website.

 

What are Web Design Agencies and Brands doing about Accessibility?

But plenty of agencies – even UX-focused digital product agencies – and larger brands flout these principles on a regular basis.

Take this beautiful, experiential website for Hennessy, for example. It’s incredibly creative, but even as a digital strategist I have trouble understanding what this site is about, and why I would be interested in attempting to navigate it.

And actually navigating it? That’s a different story. 

I wouldn’t ever argue in favour of limiting this style of creativity – but there may become a time when it becomes more or less a necessity of a digital experience.

The brand and agency behind an experience like the above would say that their target audience isn’t the elderly or the neurodiverse, so they should be able to create whatever web experience they would choose.

But that fails to factor in people’s right to access when it comes to the web. That’s fictional right now, but unless you’re creating a paid members club, shouldn’t everyone have a right to be able to experience their preferred brand’s online experience, regardless of whether they fit into the target market or if the site is ‘designed for them’? 

 

Where will change in Accessibility be driven from?

There’s a question as to where this sort of development will be led from.

In terms of legislation, accessibility requirements have been in place in the UK since 1995 with the Disability Discrimination Act, and in the 2010 Equalities Act they were greatly expanded.

In the USA, any operator that creates a ‘place of public accommodation’ has been required since the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act to make it ADA compliant for accessibility – and in the era of the web, (while the Act still doesn’t explicitly describe websites) this has been taken to mean websites need to be as accessible as public spaces.

But none of this legislation takes into account future principles that we may come to think of as commonplace, and it is rare that sites like the Hennessy one above come under any scrutiny.

So maybe the shift will be industry led.

We can’t yet know what the WCAG may include in its future ‘3.0’ guidelines – these are purely speculative at this point. But we can make some guesses.

Ireland’s National Disability Authority gives us some clues as to what some future web guidelines may look like.

Will Consistency become a key guideline for web providers, with all pages required to look similar in order to help neurodiverse users?

Will Interaction Feedback become a requirement?

Will Responsive Design, the buzzword of 2010-2015 in web design, become a requirement for all websites in order to stay compliant?

Some of these aspects have only become possible with modern web design CSS and tools so only the future will tell whether these principles will pervade the entire sector.

 

The Principles of Universal Design

Universal Design takes the design of most experiences to the next level. The principles of Universal Design say experiences should be:

 

Equitable

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

 

Flexible in use

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

 

Simple and intuitive to use

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

 

Have a high margin of error for incorrect use

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

 

Be fully perceptible for all users

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

 

Have low physical effort

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

 

Have a size and space that is appropriate for use

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

 

While there are industry trends towards these principles, and leading UX designers will be accommodating as many of them as possible, we are still a long way from applying all of these principles to websites.

One might argue that ‘low physical effort’ is being embraced with UX principles such as the Thumb Zone, which aims to minimise the amount of physical effort that users of smartphones need to make to interact with items on their screen.

However, what is ‘a size and space that is appropriate for use’ in terms of websites? Will we be thinking about website page load size, for example?

Or perhaps users’ postures when using websites while laying in bed, or walking down the street?

As a digital agency in London, this particular principle regularly applies to our work. A recent website design of ours called for a design that was operable specifically while walking through the streets, which we sent our designers to physically test to ensure they had the best possible understanding of what this would entail.

 

Web Accessibility as a Human Right?

As time goes on, and we progress our thinking on the web in terms of Universal Design, perhaps creativity and the style of experience that Hennessy has given above will go down.

After all, it’s important that even users who are accessing their devices using adaptive computer equipment are still able to interact with the internet.

As the world continues to trend towards access to the internet becoming considered a human right, with the UN having declared as early as 2011 that “the Internet is a catalyst for the enjoyment of human rights”, who are brands and agencies to declare that certain types of users should not be able to access and enjoy their websites?

 

Where will the Future of Accessibility take Digital Experiences?

We like to think of it differently.

Already web designers and the best agencies in London – and around the world – are operating more and more like architects in their day to day work.

An architecture practice that is consultative would work on a project for a hospital or a care home taking into account bespoke requirements for that buildings’ users.

A web agency is no different – Crucible would always get to know the requirements for an organisation’s website in depth, based on its users’ requirements first and foremost.

With most companies (as we are sure it is for architects as well) this is a highly in depth process that requires a great deal of research.

So, just as it sounds crazy to design an eight storey building without any elevators, in future it may well sound crazy to design a website without a full and comprehensive navigation, or a high contrast accessible version, or explanatory text for every element on the page.

Sites like the Hennessy experience above may be relegated to the past. Or, maybe, within these wider guidelines, perhaps the best web design agencies will look to explore new means of creativity, and the nature of web design as a practice will become more nuanced and consultative than ever.