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  • Writer's pictureSantiago Garcia

The Applicability of Universal Design

The seven principles of universal design provide a great basis from which to design for the average, healthy, educated and comfortable corporate consumer, but are not always the most effective and relevant for systems and technologies that target specific groups of people who perform unique activities (i.e. military, disabled/handicapped, youth/elderly).

In understanding the seven principles of universal design, these principles are applicable to a lot of the human-computer interaction (HCI) development and associated errors relevant to this industry at large. These principles cover the fundamental components of what it takes to effectively design for the average user in common circumstances. Equitability, simplicity, perceptibility, fool-proofing, minimizing effort, and sizing parameters pretty much cover the necessary HCI components needed to design a new touch-screen phone or laptop computer for the common college student or middle-aged member of the working class. For this discourse community, these principles are effective and provide guidelines to produce effective products/systems. This area of design consists of making products available to the most amount of people (including those with varying physical and mental capabilities). An area where these design principles would flourish is in emerging smart-phone technology and personal computers. In order to put the most amount of people in communication with one another, with the least amount of confusion, and for the lowest price possible, a human factors designer would definitely want to design for the 99% (all population groups). Designing for the majority includes making a product easy to learn, reliable, comfortable, readily accessible, and portable. This will ensure those with varying levels of education, different socio-economic backgrounds, different lifestyles and limitations all have access to the technology/system.

While this holds true for the majority of technology systems emerging in the consumer industry, the seven principles of universal design isn’t always the appropriate approach to take for communities where mission requirements and operator characteristics have a significant role. If the military designed aircraft, uniforms, weapon systems, and military technologies with these principles as the foundational approach, we could often never find a meeting point between the needs of the operator and user-centered design. Equitable use and minimum physical effort would be two principles never applicable to the fighter pilot community. The designers of these systems should not be focused on making it useful for a wide range of people, it should be designed for those who meet the physical qualifications and who have already undergone extensive pre-requisite training. Minimum physical effort isn’t applicable either, in that the very nature of maneuvering a fighter requires physical exertion. Trying to design something in which fighter pilots won’t have to strain themselves would be counterproductive and actually result in a higher chance of in-flight errors and/or mishaps.

In this example, it is evident that designing the cockpit and aircraft for its purpose is the first (and crucial) step that human factors designers ought to consider prior to integrating principles concerned with how many and how fast people can use the system.

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