Universal design is often confused with handicap access. This mistake isn’t limited to the average person just learning about universal design, it is one also made by the pros. I recently saw two designs that were supposed to be universal and missed the target.
The first was an expensive wayfinding device designed to assist a person find their way in at a downtown tourist attraction. It was a solid object placed on a sidewalk. It had many features that would meet universal design objectives. It was placed at a height accessible to all. It had large, easy to read lettering and included Braille. But it wasn’t really universal. It served people who spoke the local language, it served people of varying heights and it served sight limited individuals – that’s it. That means it served only a few populations; many users would have to use other means to find their way. Finally, as a large bulky item, it impeded pedestrian flow and caused sidewalk congestion.
Two solutions would work better. One is the old fashioned map (no reinventing needed). The other is a modern gadget, the GPS (now included on smart phones). The map is inexpensive, portable and comes in many languages. It also covers a much larger area than the limited location represented by the physical object. The GPS takes wayfinding to a whole new level! It already has most of the world’s languages preloaded – choose yours. It pinpoints your location. It talks to you. And, some models work for those with sight limitations.
The other device I saw was an overly designed public pay phone. Do you remember trying to use a pay phone in a foreign country? This was that phone times ten! To make it fully universal, the designers included every bell-n-whistle they could think of. It had special ways to load coins and collect them, a qwerty keypad, a video function, credit card slots, prepay card slots and plenty of text and Braille all over the place. It raised and lowered and spun 360 degrees. As an ordinary user, you would need tech support to make a local call. The designers overshot.
For most, communication on-the-go is a cell phone. In fact, I am hearing of many people who are disconnecting their home land-lines. Those without cell phones are few. For telephone companies facing this reality, they are desperately trying to eliminate their pay phones – they cost more than they earn and are prone to vandalism. The New York pay phone would be an icon to perfection. It is nearly indestructible. It has nearly no features (handset, coin slot and return, keypad and an earpiece volume control). To make a call, pick up the handset and dial your number. The automated response navigates you through your options in a few different languages. Done.
When designing universally, it is important to remember that you are still designing for a great user experience for the greatest variety of users. To solve obsolete problems or over engineer a solution is to miss the target.