Gregg Vanderheiden, Ph.D., Trace R&D Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison Jim Tobias, MA, Inclusive Technologies

As electronic technologies become more integrated into education and employment, the ability to access and use these new technologies becomes critical to people with disabilities (40 million people in the U.S. alone) if they are to be able to participate in these environments. A key strategy for ensuring access to these emerging technologies is the practice of universal design - designing products so that they can be directly used by as many people as possible. Universal design is a practice that depends on the standard, mass-market product manufacturers for its implementation. Although there are key examples of universal design practices in the electronic and communication industries, they do not represent the majority of current practice. Little is known or documented about the reasons why universal design is, or is not, practiced. This paper reports on the first phase of a three-year project to explore the practice of universal design of products, including key factors, motivators, disincentives, and barriers to its practice, as well as what activities external to the company would facilitate (or hinder) practice within companies.



The term "universal design" is often misunderstood. It seems to call for the design of products which can be used by everyone no matter what their disability. In fact, universal design is not so absolute. There are no known "universal designs" due to the extreme range of human abilities and disability. Rather, universal design is a practice of designing products so they can be used by the widest range of users as is practical.

The term "universal design" originated in architecture, and was coined by Ron Mace in the 1970s. Since then, its application has broadened considerably, to include the fields of product design, computers, electronics, telecommunication systems, and more. The definition used by our project is:

Universal design is the process of creating products (devices, environments, systems, and processes) which are usable by people with the widest possible range of abilities, operating within the widest possible range of situations (environments, conditions, and circumstances), as is commercially practical.

Universal design has two major components:

  1. Designing products so that they are flexible enough that they can be directly used (without requiring any assistive technologies or modifications) by people with the widest range of abilities and circumstances as is commercially practical given current materials, technologies, and knowledge; and

  2. Designing products so that they are compatible with the assistive technologies that might be used by those who cannot efficiently access and use the products directly.

Mainstream companies often focus on the core 80% of the mass market, especially for new products. In addition, the products are often designed by engineers and product designers under tight deadlines, where insufficient time is available for enough usability testing with the core market, much less those outside of the core 80%. Human factors professionals, with their strong usability emphasis, are often put in the role of defending improvements in usability for people whose performance characteristics are outside that 80%, especially older consumers or consumers with disabilities. Thus human factors and universal design share a perspective on usability that may not be shared by others involved in the product development process.

Advocates of universal design claim that it can increase market share and can increase usability in general. In light of its claimed ability to address typical business motivations, why is it not more widely practiced? What can be done to encourage or support universal design?


The Universal Design Research Project, a three year study, was designed to understand why and how companies adopt universal design, and what factors are the most important in making this decision. In addition, factors which discourage or impede the adoption and successful practice of universal design are also being identified. A second objective is to determine what those outside of companies can do to support universal design within the companies.


In its initial year, the project conducted extensive interviews with individuals inside a variety of companies. A panel of seventeen experts in universal design, knowledgeable in a variety of industries, assisted with identification of issues and companies for interview, as well as with preliminary evaluation of the results.

A total of 22 companies were selected for interviews.The companies include large and small firms drawn from telecommunications, media and materials, "edutainment," computer, and built environment industry segments. One or more individuals within each company (representing human factors and other internal organizations) were interviewed for approximately one hour over the telephone using an open-ended instrument developed by the project team. The names of the companies and individuals interviewed are confidential, so the interview information has been summarized for analysis purposes.

In the second year of this project, a second round of interviews with the same companies and individuals will be conducted in order to confirm the initial results and to determine the relative importance of the factors and strategies identified.

In the third year, we will evaluate the predictive value of these factors and strategies by applying them to previously untested companies.


The first round of interviews has been completed and analyzed. Certain strong factors are already easily seen. A listing of the factors identified is presented in Figures A and B.

Size. Large companies that have succeeded in implementing UD share some characteristics: support from upper management, use of formal product development processes to institutionalize UD, and the use of cross-functional teams in their product development process. Not all large companies have human factors staffs. Where they do, they are either located centrally so that they review all products, or are distributed throughout the different product lines of the company and are responsible only for . local. products.

Small companies tend to have . UD champions.. They use informal information networks. Their flatter, more "empowered" organization frameworks require less authorization. Size alone does not appear to be predictive of UD adoption. Size does appear to pre-dispose companies to certain styles in their implementation of UD.

Cost. Virtually all interviewees mentioned cost as an element in their company. s decisions. External UD advocates sometimes portray it as cost-free . "It. s just good design that expands the potential market." Although this is consistent with a conventional human factors approach, many interviewees saw UD as having some additional costs in design resources or manufacturing that were hard to justify, both internally in the struggle for resources and externally in the market. Would consumers see enough difference in value to pay an additional price? Even the perception of additional cost was important for them to manage. This tension between quality of design and cost should be familiar to human factors professionals in industry.

Regulation. Companies that are regulated are more sensitive to UD and tend to adopt it as part of their regulatory and stakeholder strategies. This is also true of companies that are attempting to avoid becoming regulated. This additional motivation, coming as it does from a part of the company not associated with product design, can both add additional resources or motivation and complicate the management of the issue. However, human factors staff should recognize that UD, if it is mandated, can be a strong argument in favor of increased human factors resources.

Sources of these mandates can be found in the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Telecommunications Act. This legislative and regulatory impact is likely to increase over the next few years as the regulations are promulgated and examples of compliant products reach the market.

Research and Development. Almost all interviewees wanted closer ties to organizations performing research and development in UD or accessibility. Specific comments were directed toward making research results easier to find, improved market research, and industry participation in the research agenda so that more economically viable products would result. Human factors researchers in academia and elsewhere should note this interest.

Support from Outside. Almost all interviewees had strong opinions on what people outside their company could do (or stop doing!) that would support their own efforts to implement UD. This finding supports the project. s second objective of identifying specific outside support activities and piloting projects that address them.


These factors include both major . show stoppers. as well as other smaller factors which help or hinder. During the second phase of the research, these factors will each be rated by the various industry interviewees, and the results will be compiled. The interviewees will also be asked to rate how each of these factors relates to companies like theirs.

Phase Three of the project will focus on evaluating the predictive value of these data as it relates both to the success of companies practicing universal design and the utility of identified external strategies for facilitating universal design.


If universal design is to be adopted across a broad range of mainstream companies, it must . graduate. from a design approach which is in . uneven. practice in a relatively small number of companies or by a small unit within a company , into a constellation of effective usability practices. For both market and mandatory reasons, universal design is an emerging trend. Human factors professionals are the natural participants (both within companies and externally) in developing and refining strategies and practices that would support universal design. In addition, the core focus of universal design is extending the usability of products to all users, and directly reinforces many of the current efforts of human factors professionals. In many cases, the mandatory or regulatory nature also helps to bring new focus on the involvement of human factors and usability testing in general with new products.


More information about the Universal Design Research Project is available at the URL cited at the end of this paper. In addition to the data collection activities, the project also has developed a database on universal design that is intended to be a industry resource. This database currently contains over 250 entries and includes books, reports, articles in journals, trade publications, and popular periodicals, and other media.The project. s research team is currently in the process of obtaining electronic versions of as many public domain resources as possible related to universal design of products, and is also expanding the listing to include media and materials which, although not directly about universal design, would be useful to people working inside companies to promote or implement universal design.

Both the Universal Design Resource Database and other results of the Universal Design Research Project may be found on the Center's web site, at the URL cited at the end of this paper.


This project is funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the Department of Education under Grant #H133A60030. The opinions contained in this publication are those of the grantee and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Education.

Gregg Vanderheiden
Trace R&D Center
Department of Industrial Engineering
College of Engineering
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madison, WI 53706

Jim Tobias
Inclusive Technologies, Inc.
334 Main Street, Suite 141
Matawan, NJ 07747

The URL for the web site on this project is:

Figure A:
List of Internal Factors Impacting the Adoption and Successful Practice Of Universal Design by Consumer Product Manufacturers

Motivators (positive influences)

Marketing and Management

Product Designers and Human Factors Resources

Barriers (negative influences)


Inadequate Training or Resources

Lack of Interest


Figure B:
List of Strategies For Facilitating the Adoption and Successful Practice Of Universal Design by Consumer Product Manufacturers

To Improve Awareness of Universal Design

Design Tools and Procedures (for specific product types and industry segments)

Statistical / Market Data

Training / Education


Regulation / Requirements

Consultants / Experts
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