Inclusive vs. Universal: The Different Types of Digital Design

Published November 2, 2022

Each year our world becomes more reliant on digital devices to stay connected and actively participate in society. More than 90 percent of United States households have at least one computer, twice as many as in 2000.

Digital technology is essential, and with 15% of the global population living with a disability, both technology and digital designs must be usable for everyone. 

As the need for digital design grows, designers and researchers are addressing usability in new and innovative ways. Notably, two types of digital design strategies are the most used today.

We'll discuss inclusive and universal digital design and how each affects accessibility.

Understanding accessibility

Accessibility, or the opportunity to consume content, use things, and participate regardless of disability status, is the overarching goal for all products, devices, services, vehicles, and environments.

It is essential to recognize that digital accessibility focuses on achieving that goal.

Accessibility is measurable by various government and industry guidelines, such as the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).

Due to digital design's global nature, accessibility is not always easy to measure for specific sectors and communities. Therefore, it's essential to have processes that make accessible design practices standard regardless of regulatory oversight.

That's where universal design and inclusive digital design come in.

Inclusivity in digital design

While accessible design represents the product's result, inclusive design focuses more on the process or methodology with which a design is created.

Inclusive design is the ongoing process of designing solutions to accommodate diverse experiences. Above all, inclusive design aims to reduce barriers to engagement based on differences in respect to culture, gender, age, ability, language, and more.

Of course, the best way to reduce barriers is to understand what user diversity might look like. Tech companies like Adobe and Wix have set up rules for inclusive design that bring accessibility to the forefront of the design process.

Here are five distinct principles of inclusive design:

  • Identify points of exclusion. Identify potential points of exclusion in a design. Use them to generate new ideas and highlight possibilities for inclusive solutions.
  • Avoid personal biases. We all have personal biases. Without actionable steps to avoid bias, it is easy to create designs that only consider users from similar experiences, excluding everyone else. Designers are encouraged to collaborate with individuals with differing abilities and backgrounds. 
  • Leave space for possible user error. There is no such thing as a perfect user, so make space for users to make mistakes. An example of this principle in action is the idea of a 404 page, which works to guide users toward solutions.
  • Frequently test designs and work towards improvement. Inclusivity in design requires frequent testing and adjustments. From user interviews to prototyping, consider inclusion during all phases of development.
  • Create a user-friendly design. All-inclusive designs should offer a consistently accessible experience for all users, regardless of an individual's background or disability.

The most significant advantage of inclusive design is that it allows for a wide range of human experiences to be reflected in the user experience.

What universal design looks like

Unlike inclusive design, which highlights individual differences, universal design focuses on the similarities all people share.

Universal design is the practice of designing usable products that don't require adaptations. This type of design makes products accessible to as many people as possible, regardless of income, background, disability, or other differences.

Universal design applies to both digital and non-digital products. According to The Center for Universal Design, the seven principles of Universal design are as follows:

  1. Equitable use: The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.
  2. Flexibility in: The design accommodates various individual preferences and abilities.
  3. Simple and intuitive use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  4. Perceptible information: The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.
  5. Tolerance for error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  6. Low physical effort: The design can be used efficiently, comfortably, and with minimum fatigue.
  7. Size and space for approach and use: Appropriate size and space are provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user's body size, posture, or mobility.

The nature of universal design works to decrease overall barriers digital designs may pose, which benefits everyone.

Where accessibility, inclusivity, and universality meet

The evolution of technology shows us many ways to improve digital accessibility. However, whether creating a universal or inclusive design, the main goal of usability remains.

Some universal designs include video captions, motion sensors, speakerphones, and text-to-speech capabilities. These examples show that universal designs serve as accessible products that help all people live more independently.

Digital products and designs that do not meet accessibility standards can benefit from inclusive design updates that allow for improvements. For example, inclusive designs can offer customizable interfaces that can be personalized based on individual need.

Accessible digital designs are the future, and innovative approaches to user experiences continue to benefit everyone, regardless of disability.

Event: Accessible Mobile Apps and Kiosks

Join us on Tuesday, August 22nd at 1 PM ET for our next event on Accessible Mobile Apps and Kiosks.  We need to ensure self-service is accessible to everyone.

The self-service trend for customers through mobile apps and kiosks has exploded in recent years. Identify gaps in your processes that may prevent all customers from utilizing these tools. Explore how to provide an accessible user experience for all when designing, developing, and deploying mobile apps and kiosks.

Register for this free, online event here.

Catch Design, Develop and Deploy for Accessibility On Demand

Did you miss our Design, Develop and Deploy for Accessibility series? Not to worry.  It is now available on demand for you to catch on your own time. Grab the videos, transcripts, and supporting materials by clicking this link.


Vendor Directory now offers an impartial listing of digital accessibility vendors.  Search for products and services by category, subcategory, or by company name.  Check out our new Vendor Directory here.