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Universal design, design for all

A few weeks ago, I attended the 2020 Virtual Service Design Global Conference: a two-day event with over 800 participants from 50 different countries and top-level exhibitors

Of all the presentations, the one that particularly struck me was on the concept of Universal Design. The topic is well known within the design world, but I believe there are still plenty of opportunities to apply it across many industries. Universal Design can open the door to new business opportunities and expand the size of the market for current products and services, just by taking into account that there is a percentage of customers that we consider part of our target but in practice are not, as they have limitations in accessing or benefiting from our offer.

What is Universal Design?

Universal Design is “designing all products and spaces to be used by the widest possible range of people, regardless of their age, abilities or status[1]. This may seem obvious, but it is a principle that is often not applied. To understand Universal Design, we must start with the concept of accessibility, which was created to solve the problems faced by people with disabilities in everyday activities such as going up the stairs in a wheelchair or going to the bathroom. Access ramps, which are fundamental to the design of any building today, were not widely provided in the 1970s, which is when the architect and product designer Ronald L. Mace created this concept. Mace however went beyond accessibility, thinking about inclusion; designing for all.  

How can we apply Universal Design to business in a profitable way?

The concept of Universal Design opens the door towards expanding the market for a product via minor modifications, such as the height at which a screen is placed for a child or the space between the seats of a train for a wheelchair to pass through. Instantly, the percentage of the population that is willing to pay for a product or service—who previously didn’t have access to it—will increase.

The facilities for the (now delayed) Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, designed under the Universal Design 2020 Action Plan, are undoubtedly an excellent example of how to introduce the principles of universal design into spaces, products, and services. During last year’s lockdown Mormedi worked on a project about the role of technology in the well-being of elderly users, which gave us an in depth look at the need for more user-friendly mobile devices for the large proportion of Baby Boomers who are approaching old age.

Understanding the needs of users who until now have been marginalized due to some kind of barrier generated either by their age, height, race, or physical ability, is just one way of expanding the reach of a product.By aiming to guarantee people access, we can start to envision the new design challenges of the post-pandemic world, such as “how can Braille be utilized in a context where nothing should be touched in public space…?”

Why is universal design important?

Technology has allowed “mass personalization”. We no longer design for everyone, but design for each and every individual. However, within that ambition there are some who are left behind. For example, the facial recognition algorithms that are becoming so widely used in all kinds of services and devices have quite a few problems in recognizing black and Asian faces. These are challenges that we will continue to face, which is why we must not forget the concept of Universal Design, since, as Ronald L. Mace said in one of his last public presentations, “good design is focused on all people”.  

If you would like to know how Mormedi can help your company design solutions for everyone, you can write to me at juanda@mormedi.com.

[1] Definition made by Ronald Lawrence Mace, considered the creator of the concept of “Universal Design”.

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