Responsive and Seven Principles of Universal Design

Most of us in the UX field understand that novice users, expert users, or disabled users all need to have equal access to the information and applications that the Internet has to offer.

For many years enterprise experiences have focused on primarily applications for desktop computers (Win32, Java Swing or Web). The interaction patterns created were typically based upon understanding of the needs and goals of users, theories of cognitive psychology, business goals, development limitations, and ultimately upon “best practices” in software human factors. Internet technology has changed a lot in recent years, but among the more significant changes has been the exponential proliferation of number and types of Internet-enabled devices—Smart Phones, Smart TVs, Set-top Boxes, Tablets, Netbooks, etc. each with its own browser and/or set of capabilities and specifications. Is it even possible to create a single, simple interface that will satisfy and engage users across these and other emerging platforms? Early responsive designers thinking about “mobile first,” or using CSS media queries, started using fluid grids with flexible images.

These early adopters did not create a single user experience that will work across multiple platforms, but used available information to modify the user experience for a current device. Some created several UI’s and stitched them together with code that determined what and how to display content for a specified device. (the "M dot" redirect) Responsive design may be the current “fad” in our field. But, User Experience professionals need to do more than cloning existing designs, much like all of the you-tube knock-offs of “Gangnam Style.” User Experience and Usability People need a framework, or set of principles to ensure that their web design is more then just following a viral trend in interface design.

Universal Design

The principles of Universal Design are applicable no matter the context, or device. The Center for Universal Design, at the North Carolina State University at Raleigh, has defined Universal Design as: “The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation of specialized design.” Universal Design is a well-established approach to solving design problems that leads to solutions for the largest number of people. The goal of Universal Design is not to create a single solution that applies to everyone, but to follow a systematic process that produces appropriate design solutions for specific people, in specific situations. Apply this across multiple devices and it sure sounds a lot like Responsive Design, doesn’t it?

Universal Design is everywhere. The most familiar example of the Universal Design approach is the curb ramp, or curb cut. These were originally created to help people in wheelchairs who were crossing from the sidewalk to the street. However, any pedestrian who is walking with something on wheels, such as the delivery person with a hand truck, a parent with a child in a stroller, or even the grocery shopper with a wheeled shopping basket, also benefits from the ramp between the sidewalk and the street. The Center for Universal Design, has defined Universal Design with seven principles. By evaluating and incorporating these seven principles into design techniques and processes as they solve a user experience problem, experience design teams can thoroughly examine their design problem to create a design that works for the largest set of users.

Principle One: Equitable Use The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.


  • Provide the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not segregating or stigmatizing any users.
  • for privacy, security, and safety should be equally available to all users.
  • the design appealing to all users.

Principle Two: Flexibility in Use The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities. Suggestions

  • Provide choice in methods of use.
  • right - or left-handed access and use.
  • the user’s accuracy and precision.
  • adaptability to the user’s pace.

Principle Three: Simple and Intuitive Use Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level. Suggestions

  • unnecessary complexity.
  • consistent with user expectations and intuition.
  • a wide range of literacy and language skills.
  • information consistent with its importance.
  • effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.

Principle Four: Perceptible Information The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities. Suggestions

  • Use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information.
  • adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings.
  • “legibility” of essential information.
  • elements in ways that can be described (i.e., make it easy to give instructions or directions).
  • compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations.

Principle Five: Tolerance for Error The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. Suggestions

  • Arrange elements to minimize hazards and errors: most used elements, most accessible; hazardous elements eliminated, isolated, or shielded.
  • warnings of hazards and errors.
  • fail-safe features.
  • unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance.

Principle Six: Low Physical Effort The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue. Suggestions

  • Allow user to maintain a neutral body position.
  • reasonable operating forces.
  • repetitive actions.
  • sustained physical effort.

Principle Seven: Size and Space for Approach and Use Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility. Suggestions

  • Provide a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user.
  • reach to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user.
  • variations in hand and grip size.
  • adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance.

The Universal Design process offers many opportunities for those interested in Responsive design. Adopting the Seven Principles of Universal Design early in the software development process, allows a design team to consider, and plan for, a much wider audience for their solutions.