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Universal Design of Consumer Products: Current Industry Practice and Perceptions

Gregg Vanderheiden, Ph.D.
Director, Trace R&D Center
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Jim Tobias
President, Inclusive Technologies
Matawan, New Jersey

How and why do some companies successfully practice universal design of their products?  Why do other companies not practice universal design, and what might motivate them to adopt it?  What are the most effective things that can be done by those on the outside to increase the number of companies successfully practicing universal design?  This paper reports results from a three-year study of the practice of universal design in companies providing consumer products and services, which was undertaken to discover the answers to these questions.  The study included extensive interviews, a comprehensive survey, and the monitoring of the effects of many of the key facilitation strategies.  The key external strategy, although controversial, is that of government regulation requiring the accessibility of products and services.  Other important strategies include training and educational programs in universal design and development of market data.


The term “universal design” originated in architecture, coined by Ron Mace in the 1970s.  Its application has broadened to the fields of consumer products, including information technologies and telecommunications.  In this project, the following definition is used.

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.

In Europe, the term “design for all” is most often used.  Groups within the European Community have been engaged in efforts to promote this practice in the areas of information technology and telecommunication, with a particular view towards developing appropriate policies.1  There is concern in Europe, and even more in Japan, about the need to meet the needs of their rapidly aging populations. A study commissioned by the EC and performed by the Dutch technical consultancy organization, TNO STB, in 1998 included in-depth, face-to-face interviews with high-level managers and designers from 68 European information and communication technology companies.  This study found "low awareness of the Design for All approach," and almost no support for the "idea that the Design for All concept could enrich the ICT industry's working definitions and proven practices."2  The barriers and strategies identified in this study are consistent with those found in our project.

It is important to note that there are no “universal designs” or “universally-designed products.”  Universal design is a process, not an end product.  In fact, the goals and results of universal design are a natural extension of good human factors.

A number of companies have efforts directed at issues of disability access and/or compliance with regulations requiring some degree of accessibility of their products.  Others simply place a high value on designing products with an easy-to-use human interface.  Most do not term these efforts “universal design,” but many are consistent with the definition given, at least to a limited degree.

This project’s purpose is to look beyond terminology to determine what the current practices and perceptions are, and what might be done to increase the successful adoption of what we are calling universal design.


The Universal Design Research Project was a three-year study undertaken to understand why and how companies adopt universal design, and what factors are the most important in bringing this about.  A large part of this project was the identification of key internal motivators (positive influences) and barriers (negative influences), as well as things that might be done by those outside a company (i.e., researchers, educators, advocates, consumers, and government) to assist companies interested in doing universal design.


In its initial year, the project team conducted extensive interviews with individuals inside 26 companies.  The companies were drawn from telecommunications, media and materials, "edutainment," computer, and built environment industry segments.  One or more individuals within each company were interviewed for approximately one hour over the telephone using an open-ended instrument developed by the project team.  These interviews elicited the internal factors and external strategies impacting the practice of universal design in their companies.  The interviewees included technical design or human factors professionals, individuals who are charged with responsibility for disability access or regulatory compliance, product managers and marketing professionals, and customer service professionals.  Most were in middle management positions, although a few executives were interviewed in some of the smaller 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.3 

In the second year, a comprehensive survey instrument (based on Year 1 results) was sent to the same companies and individuals in order to confirm the initial results and to determine the relative importance of the factors and strategies identified.  The survey instrument covered 13 topics, with 4 to 18 questions per topic.  A total of 29 individual survey responses were received, representing 21 of the original 26 companies.  Upon receipt of the completed surveys, follow-up interviews were conducted by telephone to resolve any questions or inconsistencies and to gather additional detailed information. 


The surveys have been tabulated and highlighted results are shown in Figure A.  Key findings from the survey and interview data are discussed below. 

Concerns and Negative Perceptions.  Universal design is perceived by most companies as a special interest (i.e., people with disabilities).  Common concerns about adopting universal design or even improving disability access are that it will slow down the time to market, and increase design, manufacturing, and customer support costs.

Market Motivations.  There are three aspects to market motivation that have been observed over the course of the studies:  (1) sales to individuals who have disabilities, (2) the impact on sales to individuals who do not have disabilities, and (3) entering new markets.  Sales to individuals with disabilities has not emerged as a strong motivation for most companies, particularly around their major product line.  The strategy for most major companies is to target their primary products toward the middle of the market and allow other smaller companies to target any specialty application markets (which is the closest thing they have in their models for people with disabilities).  They lack good demographic statistics in these areas, and the general statistics for specific sub-populations indicate numbers too small to provide major marketing motivation.

A larger motivation would be the increase in ease of use of products by the general population, including people who are older but who do not have disabilities.  However, no data are available in this important area, although anecdotal information is often reported from the universal design community

The third area deals with companies entering new markets where there is accessibility regulation.  Here the regulations serve as the motivation. 

Government Regulation.  This is an area of some controversy.  Although industry eschews regulation, over the course of this study it has been found to be the most effective factor which resulted in significant systematic consideration of people with disabilities in the design of mainstream products.  Industry is split, with some people feeling that regulation was necessary and appropriate to have products which would be accessible, while others feeling it was inappropriate.  All agreed, however, that it was very important that regulations be written properly, or they could inhibit innovation.  It is most effective to specify what industry must accomplish, but not how to accomplish it.  This leaves room for industry to create new technologies and new strategies for addressing accessibility.

Some argued that setting regulations would simply cause industry to use those regulations as a minimum and a maximum effort.  That is, setting specific targets would cause industry to stop at exactly those targets.  Observation, however, indicates that the targets being suggested are far above what any but one or two companies have ever done voluntarily (and even those companies only did it in specific areas and not across the board).  Thus, although it is true that many companies would treat regulations as a minima and a maxima (and limit their universal design to compliance), this would be far above standard practice.  It should be noted that when industries practice universal design and discover that it is indeed beneficial, they do move beyond minima and incorporate the features as standard features. 

Industry has also differentiated between "push" and "pull" regulations.  "Push" regulations (such as Section 255 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996) require industry to consider accessibility.  "Pull" legislation (such as Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act) requires that the government purchase accessible products, but does not require that industry produce them.  This provides a market pull to industry.  Industry prefers pull over push.  The success of market pull, however, is heavily dependent on enforcement of the regulations at the government level (the original Section 508 legislation was implemented in such a way that there was very little compliance and it had little effect).  A revised Section 508 is due for release early in 2000.  The jury is still out on how well it will be enforced within the government, but the effect of the anticipated regulations has already been significant.  The regulations implementing Section 255 of the Telecommunication Act (which are a push) were just announced in mid-1999, and they are having a profound impact on both the telecommunication and information technology industries (due to convergence).  A recent example is the new TTY-compatible cell phone announced by Lucent.4

Human Factors.  Because the core focus of universal design is extending the usability of products to a larger spectrum of users, it directly reinforces many of the current efforts of human factors professionals.  Attention to the new regulations has, in some cases, caused human factors professionals to review the incorporation of new features developed to meet the new regulatory requirements, which has, in turn, led to their discovery of how such features could benefit a broader base.  This has brought increased attention to the whole topic of usability and human factors, which has tended to draw human factors professionals back into the design process from which they are often excluded.

Design Tools.  Tools developed for use by product designers, to facilitate their practice of universal design, need to be practical and industry-specific.  One key finding from both our formal surveys and informal discussions with industry product designers is the desire for specific design examples.  Although checklists of universal design features were rated highly (for keeping the various factors in mind), the number one request of industry product designers was always "as many examples of good universally designed products as possible, preferably examples of products within our industry and even better if it is examples of products exactly like what I am trying to design."

Training.  Staff training on universal design is a high priority, but it must be as brief and economical as possible.  Wherever possible, it should be integrated into training programs for design professionals.  The usual method of providing on-the-job-training of junior members by senior members of the design team does not work, since there is no resident base of expertise in universal design in most companies.  As a result, companies are having to look outside.  One frequently-suggested model was to provide general training to the teams and then to bring outside consultants in for in-depth participation on the design process.


Although there are many factors affecting a company's choice to adopt universal design, only two seem to have any permanent or lasting effect.  The first is regulation.  In our study to date, this was the only motivator that was found to provide substantial and consistent motivation.  Even the threat of regulation has had affect (e.g., much occurred in the computer industry in response to the earlier version of Section 508).  However, as soon as either the regulation or the enforcement did not materialize, the efforts often dissipated.

The second major factor is high profit.  In those cases where universal design could be turned into a high profit line (e.g. the Oxo line of kitchen tools), it took on a commercial life of its own.  However, this effect did not tend to generalize to other product lines within the company.

Good citizenship, endorsement from high in the organization, knowledge, and championing of an idea in the ranks all effected when and how universal design was adopted.  These effects, however, are lost over time as products, people, and initiatives come and go.

It may be that once regulation has caused industry to look more carefully at universal design and incorporate it into their standard design process, that the benefits to all users will become more evident (especially with the aging population).  This can only be assessed as the new regulations have had more time in effect.


1 Note the work of ISF and COST219bis in Europe.

2 Telematics Applications Programme, "Design-for-All" for an Inclusive Information Society, Disabled and Elderly Section (Dec. 8, 1998).  Design for All and ICT Business Practice: Addressing the Barriers; Examples of Best Practice. (EC Ref. Number 98.70.022).  Brussels:  European Commission - DG XIII-C/E.

3 Vanderheiden, G., & Tobias, J. (Oct. 1998).  Barriers, incentives and facilitators for adoption of universal design practices by consumer product manufacturers.  Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 42nd Annual Meeting.  Chicago, IL.

4 Greenman, C. (Feb. 3, 2000). A Way to Talk on a Cell Phone Without a Word Being Spoken.  New York Times: Circuits Section.


More information about the Universal Design Research Project and other related work is available at the following web site:


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.
Temper Complex
37 Miriam Drive
Matawan, NJ  07747

Figure A:  Highlighted Results
1998 Universal Design Research Project Industry Survey

External Strategies

Awareness Materials

Design Tools / Procedures

Statistical / Market Data

Training / Education

Consultants / Experts

Consumers / Advocates

Governmental Activity

Internal Factors - Positive

Marketing, Sales & Management

Design Resources

Internal Factors - Negative

Fears and Concerns

Inadequate Training or Resources

“Lack of Fit” Perceptions

Organizational Structure