Beyond accessibility

At HOME, we believe in creating accessible digital products that make experiences as easy to use as possible. Part of this is ensuring we meet the criteria set out by Web Content Accessibility Guidelines to help those with cognitive and physical disabilities.

However, we also believe we can go a step further than this using a principle of universal design. This is defined as “a product that is usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design”.

User needs can be so unique, regardless of disability, so we like to follow the below seven principles of universal design to make digital experiences easier to use for everyone. Think about a time when you’ve had to use your phone with a smashed screen, on a bumpy train ride or even when you’ve had a bit to drink. All these situations affect how we interact with products and how likely we are to stop interacting, so by keeping these experiences in mind, we can try and create an easy-to-use product that will ultimately reduce bounce rates and improve conversion.

So, what is accessible design?

In order to go beyond accessible design, we first need to take a look at what it really means. Accessible design provides a checklist of definitive points to consider when designing and building digital products. This includes things that can be easily measured such as font size, colour contrast ratios and the inclusion of alt text to describe images and links on the site. Consider this your absolute base level of getting on the path to accessibility.

Why should we consider universal design?

Universal design is inherently a good thing to practice. Currently, the state of the digital space is letting people down, with WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) reporting that out of the 1,000,000 most frequented websites, 97% failed to meet every single criteria with no errors. So, there is still a lot of work to be done, and we want to be part of that change. We believe agencies have a responsibility to create accessible spaces so that clients’ users don’t feel excluded from the products we make.

According to clickawaypound, it’s estimated that in 2019 7.1 million disabled users were left needing to actively adjust the way they used digital products in order to meet their needs. As access to digital services grows, that number will grow too. 70% of these users will click away if the site cannot accommodate their needs, which translates to a spending power of £17 million.

The seven principles

Whilst universal design can apply to any sector and any product, we’re going to concentrate on digital capabilities and explain how you can use these principles to begin factoring universal design into your own products.

Principle 1: Equitable Use
“The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.”

While every brand will have their own defined target audience, the first principle is about expanding this to consider all users, not just the target ones. By applying this thought first and foremost, you remove any unconscious bias towards your target audience and ultimately improve everyone’s experience.

Example scenarios

  • Keep content short and concise
  • Pay special attention to line height and font size
  • Ensure strong colour contrast so copy can be seen in difficult situations and by those with visual impairments

Principle 2: Flexibility in use
“The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.”

Quite simply, put the experience of your site in the hands of the user and offer flexible ways to access your product.

Example scenarios

  • Caption videos with subtitles
  • Provide alt tags and formatted content for screen readers
  • Provide the ability to stop any flashing elements

Principle 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.”

This is where the skills of both UX and UI designers come in extra handy, ensuring actions on the site are clearly marked and provide simple, meaningful interactions for the user.

Example scenarios

  • Clear call to actions that indicate the next step
  • Micro interactions to nudge the user in the right direction
  • Icons to accompany important actions for any differences in language

Principle 4: Perceptible Information
“The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.”

This is about making sure content is always presented in a manner that is easy-to-digest. This could be ensuring videos have transcriptions for users with hearing impairments or breaking up a long block of copy with clear headlines and formatting.

Example scenarios

  • Headings and bullet points within copy to break up long paragraphs (just like this)
  • Images to help with content comprehension
  • Subtitles on videos

Principle 5: Tolerance for error
“The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.”

We can apply this principle by ensuring our UI and systems are really clear to the user. Everyone makes mistakes and that’s okay, the site just needs to point users in the right direction. This is most apparent in form entry on websites requiring data – if something is incorrect, make sure you tell the user what and where the error is.

Example scenarios

  • Validate email addresses before hitting submit
  • Add instructions as to why something has gone wrong on form entry
  • Use visual feedback to highlight errors to the user

Principle six: Low physical effort
“The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.”

Using a device can get tiring, particularly when our lives demand we spend so much time on them. This principal is about making the actual effort involved in using digital products minimal, such as reducing repetitive tasks or ensuring the site is set up to utilise common shortcuts to aid usability.

Example scenarios

  • Use sticky navigation to ensure parts of the site are always accessible
  • Ensure buttons are ‘reachable’, particularly on mobile devices
  • Minimise effort on form entry by utilising native app controls and auto-population

Principle seven: Size and space for approach and use
“Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.”

For digital products, it may seem surprising to consider size and space, but when we’re interacting with physical devices, we need to keep this in mind. Responsive design is key to allowing a good experience for users on any device and it’s important to keep in mind factors outside of the screen.

Example scenarios

  • Car mode, highlight core functionality at a much larger size
  • Button sizes to allow for error-free touch
  • Consider size of type and elements for users who may be further from the screen

Getting started

Now we know the principals, there are some useful ways we can start to put these into practice.

Practice empathy

At HOME, we have a user-centered approach to design, practicing empathy and understanding and encouraging our clients to put themselves in their users’ shoes.

By reminding yourself that you are not the end user of this product, it can help ground and re-focus your designs. It’s important to remember that there are a whole range of reasons why your user may be struggling to interact with your product, whether that’s someone with a hidden impairment or someone who hasn’t fixed their cracked phone screen, and we need to ensure that these use cases are factored into the development process.

Educate yourself

Educate yourself on the main categories of disabilities and continuously learn about the constraints users can face when using digital products.

Complete user research

Gather as much diversity as possible within your user research phase. Listen to what they have to say as empathy can only get you so far if you don’t actually know what they’re experiencing.

Test and test again

Implement a structured testing strategy to get feedback on the product and ensure it’s really meeting the needs of users. When conducting these tests, ensure the participants reflect diverse abilities and circumstances, so as to not create bias.

Consider an accessibility interface plugin

There are a range of services such as accesibe and equalweb that can help implement a catch-all service on your existing websites. These plugins allow users to adjust the CSS to meet their needs and digest the content in a way that suits them.

The ultimate goal for universal design is to make an inclusive space that is human-friendly, accommodating to all individual preferences and situations and to be as easy to use as possible.

The benefit of the seven principles of universal design is that they imply a continuous process of learning, testing and developing. It’s about exploring other people’s experiences and ensuring a product is truly usable to whoever lands on site. And hey, we like to be accessible too, so if you want to know more about our approach to digital experience or how we could help your brand, drop us a line at

Written by:

Stephanie Maguire Senior UX Designer


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