Universal Design and Assistive Technology: Using UDL Principles in Web Design

Universal Design and Assistive Technology: Using UDL Principles in Web Design

Customer experience (CX) is getting a lot of attention these days, but for too long many developers have ignored a key customer segment — people with disabilities. Universal design and assistive technologies aim to address that. By designing accessible websites from the start, you can create a stronger CX and user experience (UX) for everyone. The value of accessibility features for users also reaches beyond communities of people with disabilities and includes users who want a flexible and personalized UX. For example, many video viewers appreciate text transcripts of dialogue and audio-only recordings. Accessible design may be perceived by users as a significant value-add.

In order to create accessible websites, it’s essential to understand Universal Design (UD) and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles and how web developers use them. 

Although very similar to UD in many respects, UDL is a distinct standard. Sometimes, these two terms are used interchangeably, but UD focuses primarily on the physical environment and UDL is designed for learning. Aside from that, they’re both useful accessibility standards. 

Keep reading to learn more about how UD and UDL help with creating accessible web design. 

UD Web Design Accessibility Guidelines

Although accessibility guidelines vary, the general principles are the same. UD attempts to capture a set of basic accessibility standards within one conceptual framework. Created by a team of engineers and architects led by Ronald Mace, UD principles guide developers and designers who are looking for practical ways to maximize accessibility. 

These principles form the basic structure of Universal Design practices: 

Principle One: Equitable Use

Humans have a range of diverse abilities, so developers should plan accordingly. Design, usability, privacy, security, and every other area of UX should be the same, whenever possible, for all users. If providing the same experience isn’t possible, then you should provide an equal experience.

Principle Two: Flexibility in Use

Developers should accommodate different user preferences and abilities in web design. Right- and left-handedness, accuracy, and speed should be flexible enough that people with different abilities can still benefit from the site. Some examples include creating subtitles on video for deaf users or making larger icons that can be selected and double-clicked at different speeds. 

Principle Three: Simple and Intuitive Use

When you design web technologies, keep it simple and well-organized. If you’re presenting a series of information, prioritize it so users get the information they need when they need it. Take care to consider how people with varying knowledge, personal experience, language skills, or ability to concentrate may use the site. 

What do your users expect to see on a site like yours? Use successful competitors’ sites as a guide, or glean insights from user surveys and feedback. Make your designs consistent with these user expectations. For instance, does your website respond the way users might expect it to? Do you know how different groups of users typically interact with your site and what they expect to see on it? Have you created a plan to determine how users engage with your designs? Is your site difficult to navigate? 

Principle Four: Perceptible Information

Websites should communicate the right information in ways that are as neutral as possible to user sensory capabilities. For instance, information that’s important should be presented in different ways. The same information could be presented visually, aurally and in a tactile format. 

  • Visual: Presenting information visually might include using icons, bulleted lists, photos, animation, videos, infographics, and other visual displays to demonstrate a concept or show information. 
  • Auditory: Using recorded information in different formats such as stories or interviews. You can also provide a recorded reading of text so users have the option of listening instead of reading. 
  • Tactile: Present a format users can engage with using braille, touchscreen interfaces, or through other means. As technology improves in this area, consider support for using haptic gloves and augmented reality engagement tools that are relevant to your users. 

Principle Five: Tolerance for Error

Consider how all users, disabled or not, might make errors. Design with a high error tolerance makes it easier to benefit from a website and less likely users will be frustrated by the results of errors they make. 

Principle Six: Low Physical Effort

Websites should cause minimal fatigue to users and be easy to use for those with physical limitations. Excessive clicking, zooming, or scrolling — especially on mobile devices — can frustrate both disabled and abled users who are engaging with your site.

Principle Seven: Size and Space for Approach and Use

Finally, websites should accommodate physical and other limitations users have. For instance, by being neutral on how much physical assistance is needed to navigate and use the page. 

UDL for Web Design

UDL concepts provide more options for every user. People with or without disabilities can benefit. For example, automatic doors are a popular feature not only for people with mobility challenges, but also for anyone else who wants or needs to open doors with minimal physical effort. Plenty of users appreciate accessibility features online whether or not they’d characterize themselves as people with disabilities. 

Online, this means there’s a substantial audience for accessible features. When you use videos on your website, captions are helpful for many users with hearing issues, but other people may also choose text captioning if they’re offered the option. 

For these reasons, accessibility features have universal benefits and relevance. These features don’t single out individuals–they add to the user experience for everyone who visits and interacts with your website. 

UDL Principles 

Within a learning context, Universal Design for Learning focuses on how information is presented: 

UDL Principle 1: Provide Multiple Means of Engagement 

Since users engage in different ways, websites should provide more than one way users can engage with information, set goals and objectives, and achieve those goals. 

UDL Principle 2: Provide Multiple Means of Representation

Knowing that people perceive and understand information in different ways, websites should present the same information in different ways and through multiple channels. An omni-channel approach to your content can help users comprehend your message and use it in different ways. Use rich, varied content that can be consumed through different senses, in different packaging, and with varying levels of concentration. 

UDL Principle 3: Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression

Give your users different options for how to use your information and what to do next. Make it possible to engage with the material in a lot of different ways. For instance, you could provide both a recording and a text transcript of the same material so your users can decide how to engage with the content. 

Creating More Accessible Websites

These high-level concepts behind accessible design can guide decisions and design choices. Although it’s not always feasible to make a perfectly accessible website, you can apply Universal Design and UDL principles to demonstrate how your website design can support more users and their preferences and needs. 

When planning colors for your site, for instance, consider how accessibility issues apply with colorblindness–considering a particular color palette for your new landing page template, for example, how would the colors you choose be seen by someone who’s colorblind? 

Within your own projects, you can use these principles alongside your other considerations and parameters: 

  • Budget: Consider which accessibility features are within a project’s budget. If they don’t fit, is this a sign that you need to invest more in accessibility? 
  • Time: Does your project timeline need an adjustment? 
  • Knowledge: If you’re not entirely sure your team has the right expertise, you may need outside support in this area. 

Once you identify your priorities and ensure they’re consistent with what your user base needs, you’re ready to start. Create a plan, set your goals, and begin looking at ways to build accessible design into your websites. 

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