Accessibility Principles for the Physical World (Universal Design 2.0)

Universal design got its start in the physical world. As I noted in Accessibility Principles for ICT (WCAG), universal design principles can have an impact on the digital world, too. In the physical world, universal design focuses on making spaces available and welcoming to as many different types of people and abilities, as possible, without adaptation or specialized design. It aims for a one-size-fits-all design solution that embraces the social model of disability, which says that people only experience a disability when a design creates that barrier.

As a side note, I touched on the topic of universal design during Day 93: Designing an Accessible User Experience, Part 1 of my WAS certification journey. So many of these principles that revolve around access for all tend to overlap in ideas in order to make equitable access a reality.

The 7 principles of universal design are:

  1. equitable use
  2. flexibility in use
  3. simple and intuitive use
  4. perceptible information
  5. tolerance for error
  6. low physical effort
  7. size & space for approach & use

Equitable Use

The first principle’s design guidelines say that a design should be useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities by:

  • Providing the same means of use
  • Preventing segregation or stigmatization
  • Supplying privacy, security, and safety
  • Making an appealing design


  • automated sliding doors that open upon approach
  • public seating that is adaptable for a variety of people and abilities

Flexibility in Use

The second principle’s design guidelines say that a design should accommodate a wide range of preferences and abilities by:

  • Providing choices in methods of use
  • Accommodating right- or left-handed access and use
  • Facilitating the user’s accuracy and precision
  • Providing adaptability to the user’s pace


  • scissors that can be used by left- or right-handed people
  • ATM that has visual, tactile, and auditory feedback

Simple and Intuitive Use

The third principle’s design guidelines say that a design should be easy to understand how to use, regardless of a user’s past experiences, knowledge, language, or focus by:

  • Eliminating unnecessary complexity
  • Meeting user expectations and intuition
  • Accommodating a wide range of literacy and language skills
  • Arranging information by importance
  • Providing prompting and feedback throughout tasks


  • escalator
  • image-only instruction manual

Perceptible Information

The fourth principle’s design guidelines say that a design should communicate important information to a user, despite lighting conditions or user’s sensory abilities by:

  • Using multiple modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for presentation of essential information
  • Maximizing “legibility” (contrast, text) of essential information
  • Differentiating elements in ways that can be described
  • Providing compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations


  • thermostat with tactile, visual, and audible cues
  • airport announcements communicated via speaker and signage

Tolerance for Error

The fifth principle’s design guidelines say that a design should minimize hazards and consequences of accidental or unintended actions by:

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


  • an undo feature in a software program
  • a double-cut key that can be inserted either way it’s turned

Low Physical Effort

The sixth principle’s design guidelines say that a design should be made to be used efficiently and comfortably with minimum fatigue by:

  • Allowing a user to maintain a neutral body position
  • Using reasonable operating forces
  • Minimizing repetitive actions
  • Minimizing sustained physical effort


  • lever door handle
  • touch lamps

Size and Space for Approach and Use

The seventh principle’s design guidelines say that a design should provide space and size for approach, reach, manipulation, and use for all body sizes, postures, and means of mobility by:

  • Providing a clear line of sight to important elements (seated or standing)
  • Making reach to all components comfortable (seated or standing)
  • Accommodating variations in hand and grip size
  • Providing adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance


  • curb cuts and wide sidewalks
  • wide gates and entryways

Additional Reading

One thought on “Accessibility Principles for the Physical World (Universal Design 2.0)”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s