This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 4.0
“Is Universal Design Dead?”: Creating inclusive user
experience design methods
ARMSTRONG Helena*; GUFFEY Elizabethb; NICKPOUR Farnazc and WILLIAMSON Bessd
a North Carolina State University
b Purchase College State University of New York
c University of Liverpool
d School of Art Institute of Chicago
* Corresponding author e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Figure 1 “Is Universal Design Dead?” Creating inclusive user experience design methods
By 2050 there will be more people over age 65 than under 5 in developed countries
(United Nations, 2015). The question is not “are you disabled” but “when will you be
disabled.” Simultaneously, we are seeing a shift away from the precepts of Universal
Design toward a more flexible and inclusive paradigm. Sometimes labelled “design
for one,” the latter builds on the heritage of barrier-free design, but aims not for
design for all, but one size fits one. Our research methods should acknowledge these
changes. While differentiation and customisation to individuals—via emerging
technologies such as Machine Learning—is increasingly the “new norm,” our current
user-centred design tools presume user abilities in vision and motor dexterity. They
lack inclusion. This Conversation will begin by assessing and discussing existing user-
centred design methods in relation to users with disabilities. This Conversation will
then broaden the discussion to consider Universal versus Inclusive Design. More
specifically, how does our reconsideration of user-centred methods reflect a larger
shift toward designing for unique users? What impact do emerging technologies like
Machine Learning have upon these approaches? How can adaptive strategies for co-
design be applied to a range of users that fall upon a spectrum of impairment?
Keywords: Inclusive design; user experience methods, universal design; co-design;
accessibility; disability; design for all; psychosocial inclusion
1 Organising question(s) or provocation(s)
Overarching question: Is Universal Design dead and what are the implications of newer paradigms
for our research?
1. How do we augment existing or develop new methods for research to meet our changing
understanding of disability and the growing needs of our users?
2. How can we leverage new technology to open up possibilities not only for adaptive and
responsive designs but also adaptive and responsive user-centred design methods?
3. How might we move/push beyond the current archetypes of design for inclusivity,
embracing the more contemporary, complex and critical contexts and challenges?
2 The Conversation
Figure 2 Inclusive Design Discussion
2.1 Structure of Conversation
Each convenor introduced their research and identified one barrier and one opportunity in regard to
inclusive design. Following the convenor introductions (summarised below), participants moved
between four stations in the room. Each station asked the participants to discuss and document
their responses to a specifically provided query. All four participant groups moved between the
provided stations over the course of the Conversation. A convenor recorded the discussion at each
station as it occurred. After these small group discussions ended, all the participants came together
for a final wrap-up discussion.
2.2 Part One: Summaries of Convenor Research Introductions
2.2.1 Helen Armstrong
Helen Armstrong is a design educator, author, and researcher who explores the potential for
emerging technology to make data more accessible to users with Impairments. Armstrong
introduced recent user-centred industry partnerships and larger grant projects that focused on
designing intelligent interfaces that might detect and respond to unique user needs.
Figure 3 Conversation Introduction
Figure 3 Helen Armstrong introduces the discussion
I’m working at NC State to integrate inclusive design into our core design curriculum. My
research focuses on designing interfaces that respond to the unique needs of users with
disabilities. My projects have included working with SAS Analytics to create accessible
data visualisations for blind/low vision users. Working with North Carolina Museum of
Natural Sciences to use technology to generate exhibition spaces that welcome adults
on the autism spectrum. Working with a team of astronomers, designers and computer
scientists on the iData grant project to make astronomy data accessible to blind/low
vision high school students, and—most recently—working the IBM Watson Health team
via our first year Masters of Graphic Design students—some of whom are here today—
to consider how Machine Learning might be used to meets the needs of Deaf/Hard of
Hearing and Blind/Visually Impaired users. Machine Learning has increasingly become a
focus, particularly in ways that it might be used to detect and respond to unique user
●Identified barrier: Many user-centred design research tools presume user abilities in vision
and motor dexterity.
●Identified opportunity: How might we use ML to detect and respond to unique user needs?
2.2.2 Bess Williamson
Bess Williamson is a historian who focuses on the intersection of design and social movements of
the 20th-21st centuries. Her book Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design will be
published in early 2019 from NYU Press.
Figure 4 Bess Williamson introduces her work on Inclusive Design
My research examines the ways that designers come to know disability, looking at
historical examples of universal and accessible design. My findings from looking at
examples ranging from post-World War II rehabilitation devices to modern consumer
appliances are that changing politics of disability underlie all major shifts in approach.
Most notably, the voices of disabled people are often sublimated to commercial or
political assessments of disability, something that design research must address.
●Identified barrier: Institutional flattening of disability into the issue of accommodation; little
sense of disability as a contribution to the learning environment.
●Identified opportunity: Emerging student generation who identify as disabled politically and
culturally, including cognitive and mental health disabilities.
2.2.3 Farnaz Nickpour
Farnaz Nickpour is a human-centred design researcher, educator, and practitioner. Her work
explores critical and contemporary dimensions of design for inclusion. She leads the Inclusive Design
Research Group in the United Kingdom.
As an Industrial Designer by background, my starting point has been the study of design
in the physical realm; objects and products. Hence the foundational focus of inclusive
design on physical, cognitive, and sensory capabilities is a precondition. However,
almost three decades forward, I believe there is an urgent need to revisit the core
concept of ‘design for inclusion’ and challenge its current definitions, scope, theories,
and applications. We need to embrace the wider, more challenging, and contemporary
contexts for design for inclusion - exploring the full spectrum of ‘human diversity’. Firstly,
move beyond age + ability; looking into cases such as lifestyle exclusions, invisible
disabilities, and neurodiversity. Secondly, move beyond physical access and physicality of
experience, entering the realm of psychosocial, and aiming for overall quality of
experience. I share two examples of inclusive solutions which I believe are relatively
successful; Bradley haptic watch, designed primarily for blind people and a desirable
multi-sensory timepiece for all - using two sense to engage with time. Biomimicry food
packaging designed by Mimica, with vision impairments in mind —starting with an
inclusive mission but adopted as innovation in sustainability and food waste.
●Identified barrier: Getting stuck with the ‘access-provision’ mentality focusing on physical
accessibility as the ultimate goal rather than the starting point
●Identified opportunity: Engaging with the extreme and innovating for the mainstream as
core (diversity as a driver for innovation)
2.2.4 Elizabeth Guffey
Elizabeth Guffey is a design historian and author of various publications, including Designing
Disability: Symbols, Spaces, and Society. She is also founding editor of Design and Culture.
Figure 5 Elizabeth Guffey shares her experiences with Inclusive Design
As a specialist in design history/theory/criticism and a disabled person, my book
responds to the International Symbol of Access. At the DRS, I described how my book
derived from my experience sitting on board of access at the building of my University,
which was designed as “accessible” inside, but not outside. The symbol, I explained, was
present, but doesn’t guarantee compliance. Indeed, I noted that the introduction of a
newer symbol depicting a more ‘active’ chair user is often used in what I call
I noted that ‘Universal Design’ is a term often referred to in the US as a form of ‘heritage.’ Inclusive
design is an alternative, though not well /consistently defined. At the same time, I noted, there
remains a culture of fear and sense of defensiveness around the subject. This has not helped as
lawsuits are mounting over digital access (and institutional secrecy in matters of access).
How are ways to counteract these measures? I concluded, arguing for a variety of co-design
practices—bringing disabled people into design fields, etcetera.
●Identified barrier: The “culture of fear” (about breaking the law, doing something “wrong,”
etcetera, as a barrier to moving forward)
●Identified opportunity: Opportunities for co-design, tap the creativity of disabled people
(more designers with disabilities trained/brought into practice as in WITH program)
2.3 Part Two: Small Group Query-Driven Discussions via Rotating Stations
2.3.1 Station 1. Inclusive Research. Identify opportunities and barriers for inclusive research
in your field—whether history/criticism, practice/research or other
Figure 7 Research opportunities discussion
Figure 8 Research opportunities documentation
The discussion recognised that many barriers could also be opportunities.
●Long-term goals: envisioning value
●Performance of assistive devices like hearing aids
●Empathy more than sympathy
●How can disciplines work together via inclusive design? Lots of opportunities for cross-
●Integration of inclusive design projects into the curriculum rather than isolated stand-alone
●At the local government level, there is a lack of incentives around inclusive design. City Con
in London is offering a change in the right direction by adding incentives through
●As educators working in design for social innovation, we need to help our students to
understand issues of liability. This is a highly regulated environment. How might our
curriculum support our students and allow them to produce work that can advance? Often
our curriculum doesn’t account for that.
●Opportunities around aesthetics. Some of the most powerful projects put aesthetics at the
●As an educator, I feel we don’t talk enough about the people we are educating students to
●Opportunities for ML are interesting particularly around interface design. Paradigm
changing. How can ML move us toward design for one?
●The misconception that data might be enough is a barrier—that data will suffice instead of
bringing real people to the table. Dealing just with data allows designers to avoid dealing
with the nuance of lived experience around disability
●Lack of training at University leads to having to self-educate
●Inclusive design standards can lead to designer defensiveness which causes barriers to go
●Unrealistic measurements of social values
●Acceptance or decline of charity
●Perceptions of aging
●Embodying these experiences easily
●Rate of abandonment
●Performance of assistive devices like hearing aids
●Dated welfare state
●Few academics have an interest in this topic in my country
●Ethical concerns. Need for training before engaging with disabled people
●Lack of expertise around designing for inclusivity and the technical knowledge needed to
interpret the government regulations
●Privacy issues: what information are people willing to share?
●Availability of feedback for research projects
●Resistance to change
●There is a mistaken assumption that everyone can use technology
●Lack of defining inclusive design as part of a design career
●Practice and interface design. Companies go after government contracts. Lots of regulations
around access that are creating opportunities to address users with disabilities but a lot of
resentment. Some companies use inclusivity as a reason not to update things. Resistance to
change. Inclusion as a barrier and an opportunity
●There is a misconception that older adults are always vulnerable—like infants. This attitude
is a barrier that affects general perceptions of how we age. Having a mindset that we peak at
40 limits our ability to embrace a more fulfilling life as we age
●Lack of user buy-in
●The distance between researchers and end-users
2.3.2 Station 2. Inclusive Design Methods. List current inclusive design methods. Describe
problems and successes that you have experienced with these methods.
Figure 9 Inclusive design methods discussion
Figure 10 Inclusive design methods documentation
● Filling out forms: bureaucracy
● How to achieve institutional buy-in
● Ethics and extensive paperwork
● Exclusion: calculation/estimation—good for persuading clients, too narrow needs to be
complemented by user research but often no funding is allowed to this.
● User observation involvement: lack of funding and time, the client wants answers tomorrow or they
won’t listen, difficulty recruiting more excluded groups.
● Motivation for awareness
● Role of the state?
● Simulation: can be limited and not welcomed by some communities
●User Observations: useful but sometimes vague
●Timely and urgent discussion as design practice evolves
●Co-design processes in both school and studio setting
●Universal Design barriers vocalised for me for first time—have already experienced this in
●Establishing trust—protecting rights of participants
●Experimental methods—engaging family members in the project
●Non-Universal Design methods?
●Educate clients about expectations
2.3.3 Station 3. Inclusive Practice. List voices/disciplines/reference points you currently
engage with in your inclusive practice. Who/what do you feel is currently missing?
Figure 11 Inclusive practice documentation
Current reference points:
● End user’s family/relatives
●Networks of professionals
●Social media (a biased reference point)
●Internal resources and reference points – people, stories and facilities
Missing reference points:
●Positive motivations rather than tick-the-box and bare minimum mentality (Inclusive Design
is not sexy, but it could be?)
●Research tools (limited and inaccessible)
●Books, guides, inclusion and exclusion case studies (effective info on how what we do affects
●Access to networks of professionals – interdisciplinary input and perspectives
●End users (there is still a lot of voice and input missing from them), communities, children
●Knowledge, guidance on how/when to address Inclusive Design within the process
●Transition design and system design perspectives
●Social, cultural & global perspectives (e.g. culture-sensitive research methods and
●Democracy, decolonisation, tokenism perspectives
●Race, gender and power perspectives
●Information and guidance on desirability?
Key issues raised:
●Apart from some usual suspects, the reference points could vary from one practice to
another - depending on the nature of the practice (research, product, policy, service,
etcetera), scale, client, timescale, and level of priority/proactiveness and familiarity of the
team leading the project.
●The client is a key factor - in practice, almost everything goes back to how much/little they
are interested, what their angle on inclusivity is if/why they care, and if/how inclusion sits as
strategic part of the brief.
●Inclusion suffers from ‘afterthought’ mentality and is mainly seen as ‘add-on’ in industry
briefs, hence direct impact on inclusion practices.
●Integration of principles, methods, and practices in the educational curriculum is crucial -
that’s where people first and foremost learn about inclusive practices.
2.3.4 Station 4. Networking Table
Names and sites of the study were shared (see attached participants list). We also discussed some of
the institutional “homes” for disability research and the barriers to learning/sharing information.
Some themes that emerged:
●Most people do not have a disability-specific academic background and only a few
encountered this subject in design school
●Design research projects seem to either identify “inclusive” strategies or not include
disability (some participants shared how disability issues had come up in projects not
otherwise labelled as such)
●Paths to entry are not always clear – participants mentioned not wanting to be “patronising
observer” or “outsider” / life experiences with disability (whether self or family/community)
had often shaped them but were not recognised as research
2.4 Part Three: Wrap-up Discussion. What have we missed in our discussion?
●E Guffey: Are we designing against each other? Cross-disability conflicts. Disability is a huge
field. A lot of the things that are helpful to blind people get in my way. We are often
designing against each other. I’m not sure how to solve that.
●S Red Wing: language and terminology issues can be a barrier. How knowledgeable are we
about terms that we throw around. People may not know what those words mean. We get
categorised under terms that don’t represent us. Build better language to address and share
●Mac Hill: Inclusivity as afterthought/check box, problematic verses opportunity. Working in
the field of inclusivity often feels like an afterthought. A box that you check off. Make
something that is usable for people instead of just checking the box.
●Andrew Shea: What is the range and diversity of projects that people work on?
●Joe, practitioner: How designs are at odds, cases for the industry?
●Farnaz: Practice-based work, case-based versus critical discourse
● E. Guffey: “Design for One” - individual cases, but does this avoid bigger question? The
thrust right now is toward designing for an individual. Designing for one. How does this cycle
out to bigger questions. How do you design for one person’s problem without shutting
someone else out? This should also be part of the discussion.
●Joy: Data driven approach. My research that looks at data in the population tries to get at
this by trying to measure who would be including and excluding. Better for evaluation than
developing new ideas.
●E. Guffey: Kat Holmes who created the Microsoft toolkit is writing a book around exclusion.
She talks about inclusion verses exclusion in her new book: Mismatch. The mismatch
between disability and the larger world.
Final question from wrap-up: How do we want to move forward to continue this Conversation?
●Share specific studies and experiences.
●Invite everyone to join the Google Doc.
●Distil conversations and share insights.
Clarkson, John. (2003). Inclusive Design: Design for the Whole Population, Springer.
Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University, “The Principles of Universal Design,” Version 2.0,
April 1, 1997.
Cong, H, Cardoso C, Cassim J, Keates S, Clarkson PJ Inclusive Design: reflections on design practice. University
of Cambridge UK CUED/C-EDC//R 118 (2002)
Greed, Clara. (2004). Designing a More Inclusive World, ed. S. Keates and J. Clarkson, Springer.
Guffey, Elizabeth. (2017). Designing Disability: Symbols, Spaces and Society, Bloomsbury.
Hamraie, Aimi. (2017). Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability, University of Minnesota
Iwarsson and A. Stahl. (2003). Accessibility, Usability and Universal Design—Positioning and Definition of
Concepts Describing Person-Environment Relationships, Disability and Rehabilitation 25, no. 2.
Mace, Ronald. (1985). Universal Design: Barrier Free Environments for Everyone, Designers West, November.
Mullick, Abir and Edward Steinfeld. (1997). Universal Design: What It Is and What It Isn’t, Innovation 16, no. 1.
Newell AF, Gregor P. (2000). User sensitive inclusive design: in search of a new paradigm. Proc. ACM
Conference on universal usability, November, Washington DC, pp 39-44
Pullin, Graham. (2009). Design Meets Disability, MIT Press.
Salmen, John. (1994). The Differences between Accessibility and Universal Design, Universal Design Newsletter
1, no. 7.
United Nations. (2015). World population ageing 2015. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population
Division, pp 1 - 164.
About the Authors:
Helen Armstrong is a design educator, author, and researcher who explores the
potential for emerging technology to make data more accessible to users with
Elizabeth Guffey is a design historian and author of various publications, including
Designing Disability: Symbols, Spaces and Society. She is also founding editor of
Design and Culture.
Farnaz Nickpour is a human centred design researcher, educator and practitioner.
Her work explores critical and contemporary dimensions of design for inclusion. She
leads the Inclusive Design Research Group in the United Kingdom.
Bess Williamson is a historian who focuses on the intersection of design and social
movements of the 20th-21st centuries. Her book Accessible America: A History of
Disability and Design will be published in early 2019 from NYU Press.