Universal Design for Interactive Systems

“Look at the opportunity of design to empower everyone” — Dan Formosa

Isuruni Rathnayaka
11 min readMay 7, 2022

Each and every person in the world is different to each other. They have different capabilities, weaknesses, backgrounds, cultures, interests, viewpoints and experiences. So, the way they interact with an interactive system is different. Because of that, it is not fair to come up with a generalized system that can be used by majority of people. However, introducing a design for each variation is also not practical. Therefore, the best solution for this confusion is universal design for interactive systems.

Universal design for interactive systems is the process of designing interactive systems that are usable by anyone, with any range of abilities, using any technology platform. This can be achieved by designing systems either to have built in redundancy (ex: an interface that has both text and audio methods for inputs) or to be compatible with assistive technologies (ex: an interface that provides text alternatives for graphics, in such a way that they can be read using a screen reader).

As mentioned above the practicality of designing anything so that anyone can use it may be low but we can try to provide an equivalent experience to the users. For this, seven principles of universal design can be applied.

Universal design principles

In the late 1990s a group at North Carolina State University in the USA proposed seven general principles of universal design. These were intended to cover all areas of design and are equally applicable to the design of interactive systems. These principles provide a framework that can be used to develop universal designs. They are;

1. Equitable use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

• It provides the same means of use for all users: identical whenever possible; equivalent when not.

• It avoids segregating or stigmatizing any users.

• Provisions for privacy, security, and safety are equally available to all users.

• The design is appealing to all users.

ex: — A website that is designed so that it is accessible to everyone, including people who are blind.

2. Flexibility in use: The design addresses a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

• It provides choice in methods of use.

• It accommodates right or left handed access and use.

• It facilitates the user’s accuracy and precision.

• It provides adaptability to the user’s pace.

ex: — A website that allows a visitor to choose to read or listen to a description of the contents.

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

• It eliminates unnecessary complexity.

• It is consistent with user expectations and intuition.

• It accommodates a wide range of literacy and language skills.

• It arranges information consistent with its importance.

• It provides effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion.

ex: — Provide information in an interface in plain English and avoid using jargon so users can understand the content easily.

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

• It uses different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information.

• It provides adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings.

• It maximizes “legibility” of essential information.

• It differentiates elements in ways that can be described (i.e., make it easy to give instructions or directions).

• It provides compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations.

ex: — Enable open/closed captions in videos for users with audiovisual impairments.

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

• It arranges elements to minimize hazards and errors: most used elements, most accessible; hazardous elements eliminated, isolated, or shielded.

• It provides warnings of hazards and errors.

• It provides fail safe features.

• It discourages unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance.

ex: — In an interface error messages should clearly explain the error and provide clear instructions on fixing the issue.

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

• It allows user to maintain a neutral body position

• It uses reasonable operating forces.

• It minimizes repetitive actions.

• It minimizes sustained physical effort.

ex: — Enable keyboard shortcuts for users with limited mobility.

7. 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.

• It provides a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user.

• It makes reaching to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user.

• It accommodates variations in hand and grip size.

• It provides adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance.

ex: — Allow accessible features such as the pinch-to-zoom function to work on mobile

Multi-Modal Interaction

The most important fact that we can extract form the seven principles of universal design is providing access to information through more than one mode of interaction. This can be approached through the concept of multi-modal interaction.

Multimodal interaction provides the user with multiple methods for interacting with the system. Simply stating, in multi-modal interaction, for the information input, apart from the traditional keyboard typing, mouse clicking, screen touching, the latest speech and face recognition technology are used.

For the output, the traditional screen display, the speech and facial expression synthesis and gesture generation are used. Hence, multi-modal systems support the principle of redundancy required for universal design, enabling users to access the system using the mode of interaction that is most appropriate to the abilities they have.

Most interactive systems often use the visual channel as their primary mode of presentation, through graphics, text, video and animation. In a multi-modal system there are some alternative modes that can be used to provide human–computer communication. Some of them are,

Ø Sound in the interface

Sound is an important contributor to universal design because it enables access for users with visual impairments. There are three types of sound that we could use;

1. Speech

Speech related to an interactive system can be mainly of two types;

o Speech recognition — capability a system has, to process human speech into a written format.

o Speech synthesis — capability a system has, to translate written information into aural information/ computer-generated simulation of human speech.

We learn speech naturally as children by listening to and mimicking the speech of those around us. But the speech learning is a complex task. This becomes clear when we try to learn a new language other than mother language, later in life. This complexity makes speech recognition and speech synthesis by computer very difficult.

2. Non-speech

Non-speech sounds are audio feedbacks of or to the system, that does not use human speech. For an example, indication of an error with a beep sound can be considered. Some non-speech sound that are used in an interface is;

o Auditory icons — use natural sounds to represent different types of objects and actions in the interface. For example, as a file is dragged across the screen the noise of paper scraping can be heard.

3. Earcon

An Earcon is a structured audio message based on musical sounds which conveys to the user information about the tasks being carried out. For example, while scrolling up and down a page the user gains information on their place in the document.

Ø Touch in the interface

The use of touch in the interface is known as haptic interaction. Touch in the interface can provide a primary source of information for users with visual impairments and a richer multi-modal experience for sighted users. Some examples of haptic devices are electronic — or soft — braille display and force feedback device.

Ø Handwriting recognition

Handwriting is a very natural form of communication in an interactive system. The major piece of technology used to capture handwriting is the digitizing tablet. However, the variation between the handwriting of individuals is large. Moreover, the handwriting of a single person varies from day to day, and changes over the years. So, handwriting recognition is also a complex activity like speech recognition. Therefore, many of the solutions that are being attempted in speech recognition are also being tried in handwriting recognition systems, such as whole word recognition, the use of context to disambiguate characters, and neural networks, which learn by example.

Handwriting Recognition interface

Ø Gesture Recognition

Gesture recognition allows users to interact with the system through body gestures. Being able to control the computer with certain movements of the hand would be advantageous in many situations where there is no possibility of typing, and also this supports communication for people who have hearing loss. But the problem is that, like speech and handwriting, gesture is user dependent. So, the technology for capturing gestures is expensive, using either computer vision or a special data glove.

Automotive gesture recognition system

Designing for Diversity

There are different people in the society as mentioned at the beginning. Therefore, one common interactive design is unfair and one general design can be impractical. But, if people are categorized under some key areas, universal design can be made successful. Ideally, three key areas; disability, age and culture can be considered for this purpose.

Ø Designing for users with disabilities

Considerable portion of the world population has a disability that will affect interaction with computers. So, it has become a legal responsibility to design software and hardware to be accessible by differently abled people so that their job prospects are not disturbed by computing inability. Below are some impairments that should be considered when engaging in interactive system designing;

· Visual impairment

One of the most common impairment when interaction is concerned, is visual impairment. In text-based interaction, screen readers use synthesized speech or braille output devices provided to receive output and touch-typing to provide input, supporting complete access for computers to people with visual impairments. However, at present there is a rise in graphical interfaces that effects visually impaired people negatively. The best solution for this is, multi-modal interaction. That is use of sounds or touch along with visuals in an interface as mentioned above (in multi-modal interaction).

· Hearing impairment

Compared to visual impairments most of the interactive systems have addressed hearing impairments. Including gesture recognition along with visuals and sounds in interactive systems can also be considered as a good solution for people with hearing impairments and also it can help to achieve the goal of a universal design.

· Physical impairment

Physical impairments are of different types. Generally, speech input and output eyegaze system (tracks eye movements to control the cursor), a keyboard driver (attached to user’s head to track movements) and gesture tracking can be used as options in an interactive system to support physically impaired people in many ways.

· Speech impairment

For users with speech and hearing impairments, multimedia systems provide a number of tools for communication, including synthetic speech and text-based communication and conferencing systems.

Aim of a universal design
Aim of a universal design

Ø Designing for different age groups

The way people communicate with an interactive system differs according to the age. Normally, young people learn systems quickly and they are so excited to work with new technology. However, older people and children have specific needs when it comes to interactive technology.

· Older people

Many older people in the society has at least one impairment they have got with the age. They also have some problems with memory loss. New communication tools, such as email and instant messaging, can provide social interaction in cases where lack of mobility or speech difficulties are available. Mobile technologies can be used to provide memory aids when there is age-related memory loss. Moreover, designs must be clear, simple and forgiving of errors so that they become reliable for older users, paving the path for a universal design.

· Children

Interfaces that allow multiple modes of input, including touch or handwriting, may be easier for children than keyboard and mouse. Redundant displays, where information is presented through text, graphics and sound will also enhance children’s experience. It is also a good idea to include children in design teams and extract their needs through behaviors.

Ø Designing for cultural differences

Culture difference can be simply interpreted as national cultural differences. However, to promote a universal design, there are some key factors that should be considered. They are;

- Languages (People who are using different languages should be supported by the design)

- Cultural symbols (Symbols have different meanings in different cultures. We cannot assume that everyone will interpret symbols in the same way and should ensure that alternative meanings of symbols will not create confusion to the user. The study of the meaning of symbols is known as semiotics)

- Gestures (Another area where diversity can cause misunderstanding is in the use of gesture. Ex: — In western cultures thumbs up is a sign of approval or agreement but it is considered as an insult in Bangladesh)

  • Colors (Colors are often used in interfaces to reflect ‘universal’ conventions. But in reality, one color represents different meanings indifferent cultures. Ex: — red represents life (India), happiness (China) and royalty (France))

Universal design is about designing systems that are accessible by everyone, everywhere, all the time, regardless of their diversity in disabilities, age and culture. Multi-modal systems provide access to an interactive system through different input and output modes and promotes redundancy. They also allow users to interact in different way, making it more convenient for users with impairments.

Whenever designers are engaging in an interactive system design, the most important thing they should ask themselves is that whether this design is excluding someone and whether there are any potential confusions or misunderstandings. Only then they can achieve the goal of universal design for interactive systems.

Diversity is a fact.

Equity is a choice.

Inclusion is an action.

Belonging is an outcome.

All are part of a universal design approach.

-Arthur Chan

Hope the article is useful for you to come up with a universal design for interactive systems. Thank you very much for reading!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Isuruni Rathnayaka



Isuruni Rathnayaka

Software Engineering Undergraduate - University of Kelaniya Sri Lanka