‘Design for All’: Socially Responsible Design or just good sense?


Jenny S. Darzentas and John Darzentas


The term ‘Design for All’, or ‘Universal Design’ is frequently misunderstood. Most often its detractors take it as a euphemism for ‘designing for the disabled’, i.e. designing products and systems for a small minority and requiring specialist knowledge on the part of the design team, such as rehabilitation engineers, physiotherapists, etc. Another misinterpretation is that universal design seeks to find a utopian solution, a kind of “one size fits all” to suit all types of users.

However, a more realistic definition of Design for All within the area of ICT is available. It allows for a graded approach and defines Design for All as, in the first instance, the design of products, services and applications, suitable for most of the potential users without any modification, then, to the design of products, which are easily adaptable to different users (i.e. by incorporating adaptable or customisable user interfaces) and finally, to the design of products which have standardised interfaces, capable of being accessed by specialised user interaction devices.

Are designers of ICT products and systems concerned about Accessibility and Design for All? Lately there has been a growing interest in the subject. This is partly a response to legislation passed to do with accessibility of information (content) and information systems. It is interesting that this stems from legislation to do with the accessibility of the built environment and of transport systems. Under this legislation some very expensive litigation has taken place. This has led to a search for guidelines and standards to be used by designers to ensure their companies’ products and systems are not liable for any infringements of the law.

A further factor contributing to the increase in awareness are the demographic statistics. These point to the fact that the population of the Western world is aging. Ageing brings with it disability in the guise of decreased mobility, less acuity of hearing and sight, not to mention increased propensity to succumb to the debilitating effects of diseases like cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s and Altzheimer’s. With this in mind, and realising that their customer base may soon be made up of retired couples with money and leisure time to spend, car manufacturers designing their in-vehicle telematic systems for navigation, security, comfort and entertainment are actively targeting elderly drivers as their user group.

Perhaps by far the most cogent of all these factors is the voice of the users themselves. For many disabled or socially excluded people, technological advances have given them the means to communicate with the world. The Internet and the support it offers for activities such as shopping, banking, voting, entertainment, and education, not to mention the lifelines provided by various online communities, have opened up opportunities that were not possible for these users before. With these communication channels they are also able to make their voices heard, and their need for accessible content, input and output mechanisms, is being proclaimed loud and clear – for those who have ears to hear.

So with these factors at work, why hasn’t the take-up of Design for All been more widespread. There are several answers to this. The legislation is still fairly new, the industry still regards ‘universal design’ as design for a niche market, – that of assistive technology. Then there are those skeptics of the demographic argument who believe that the statistics are overrated and that the aging population with be computer literate and well able to make personalised adaptations for themselves to standard applications and hardware. However, by far the most important obstacle to the dissemination of Design for All practice is that the knowledge is so fragmented and that it is not widely taught:- only a handful of courses are available for professionals and students at universities and colleges.

This is a serious bottleneck. For designers with no knowledge in this area, ‘retro-fitting’ or trying to adapt software to take account of accessibility concerns is notoriously difficult, time-consuming, expensive and demoralising. More often than not, complete new designs are required. At the same time, designers appreciate the extra usability afforded by ideas adopted from assistive technology or solutions devised for the disabled. Many of these are now standard features, for instance, flashing and vibrating alerts for mobile phones, inspired by systems for the deaf and the vision impaired respectively, as well as voice generation systems (text readers) for the blind.

This aim of this paper is to describe the work that is being done in the design of curricula for Design for All, and to point to best practice in the area, in order to serve as a reference point for designers of Information Society products and systems, as well as for the educators of future generations of designers. In the effort to draw up curricula, the primary task is to understand what are the knowledge and skill sets to be taught. The work of the IDCnet (Inclusive Design Curricula Network – www.idcnet/info) is concerned with just this task. Defining these sets means showing how all the requirements, arising from legislation, demographic concerns, and the users themselves, and be brought to bear in order to mainstream Design for All into the whole design cycle, from concept to reality. It is particularly acute to deal with this situation now. As the work on ubiquitous computing continues, we see examples of designs which block out whole sections of the population, for instance touch screens, or menu driven screens both unusable by the vision impaired. This includes the blind, those who are partially sighted, as well as those people whose situation or context of use, precludes them from seeing a screen, or touching a screen? If we are to prevent the evils of e-exclusion, including the disenfranchisement of those groups so lately freed up from disability by technology, then we must take our responsibility to Accessibility and Design for All with the same seriousness we give to issues of privacy, security, copyright etc. and make sure this important issue is part of every Information Society Designer’s education. This is both socially responsible and good sense.