Universal Design of Consumer Products: Current Industry Practice and Perceptions
Gregg Vanderheiden, Ph.D.
Director, Trace R&D Center
University of Wisconsin-Madison
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:
- 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
- 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.
UNIVERSAL DESIGN RESEARCH PROJECT
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.
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.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
More information about the Universal Design Research Project and other related work is available at the following web site: http://trace.wisc.edu.
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.
Trace R&D Center
Department of Industrial Engineering
College of Engineering
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madison, WI 53706
Inclusive Technologies, Inc.
37 Miriam Drive
Matawan, NJ 07747
Figure A: Highlighted Results
1998 Universal Design Research Project Industry Survey
- 82% indicated introductory materials on universal design (including print, video, and web-based materials) for use by internal advocates are very important to critically important, but not fully available now.align="center"
Design Tools / Procedures
- 89% noted that specific design examples showing how to apply techniques to specific products would be very important, but 59% indicated that these do not exist
Statistical / Market Data
- 61% indicated that a method of estimating the number of new customers (including individuals and institutions, with disabilities or not) that might result from a particular design decision or features was critical. Another 25% indicated this was very important. 85% noted that this does not exist today.
Training / Education
- 50% indicated that training for members of design and development teams was critical, but non-existent today.
Consultants / Experts
- 65% indicated that expert assistance with design review of individual products was very important to critical, with 50% noting that such expert assistance does not exist in their company.
Consumers / Advocates
- 75% indicated that consumer groups that are open to working with companies as partners was very important to critical.
- 71% indicated that assistance with product testing by consumers with disabilities, including recruitment of test subjects, was very important to critical.
- One-third indicated that inclusion of disability access requirements in purchasing specifications by government buyers was critical; another 52% indicated this was somewhat to very important.
- 70% noted that general federal regulations requiring accessibility of products and services were somewhat important to critical.
Internal Factors - Positive
Marketing, Sales & Management
- 71% noted that top management support for universal design is critical; 100% felt it was at least somewhat important. Only 19% said it was fully available in their company.
- 68% indicated that a belief within the company that universal design can be cost-effective is critical; another 25% rated it as very important. 68% noted that this belief does not exist in their company.
- 64% indicated that a belief within the company that universal design would increase their market is critical; 100% rated this as at least somewhat important. 44% noted that this belief does not exist in their company.
- 70% indicated that an effective human factors group or other knowledgeable internal resource group positioned to facilitate the practice of universal design was very important to critical. However, only 32% indicated this was fully available in their company.
- 85% indicated that knowing what can be done to design their products to make them more usable by people with disabilities was very important to critical. 92% did not believe this was fully available in their company.
Internal Factors - Negative
Fears and Concerns
- 57% indicated that concern that the practice of universal design will slow down time to market was an absolute barrier or a major obstacle, with 82% indicating that this fear is present in their company.l
- The greatest concerns that adoption of universal design would increase costs were in the areas of design (64% rated this an absolute barrier or major obstacle), manufacturing (56%), testing (52%), and product support (52%). Concerns about these costs were felt to be present in 79 to 83% of the responses.
Inadequate Training or Resources
- 52% noted that lack of time on the part of product development people to learn about more diverse populations and how to design for them was a major obstacle or absolute barrier; this situation was noted to be in existence for 79% of the respondents.
- 48% noted that lack of universal design and access "know how" by product development people was a major obstacle or absolute barrier; this situation was noted to be in existence for 79% of the respondents.
“Lack of Fit” Perceptions
- 64% believed that the belief by marketing, sales, and other management that universal design is simply design for disability, and therefore represents a niche market, is a major obstacle or absolute barrier. This perception was noted to exist in their company by 64% of the respondents.
- 44% indicated size and diversity of the company can be a major obstacle or absolute barrier, because a change to adopt universal design is too complicated, requiring adoption across many organizational boundaries.