Intuitive to use: Does it work as a design guide?

Four buttons are lined up one above the other. They are used to open and close the door. There are lots of written instructions.The seven classic principles of universal design were developed in the 1990s and are still applied in many contexts. The concept of universal design continues to evolve. Today, the concept is better understood as a way of thinking about inclusion throughout the design process. Newcomers to the concept of universal design often try to apply the principles literally rather than as a guide for design thinking. Maybe it is time for a product recall?

The classic principles are not themselves intuitive to use. And herein lies the problem. Consequently, Steinfeld and Maisel devised the 8 Goals of Universal Design in 2012. The 8th Goal is about cultural inclusion. These goals are easier to apply and more suited to adaptation to different design disciplines. However, they have yet to receive the same attention as the classic principles.

Not surprisingly, there have been many academic papers critiquing the seven principles. Academics are now arguing nuances between universal design and intuitive design, or applying principles in a tick-box fashion. One such paper is focused on the third principle, simple and intuitive to use.

The author concludes that as a design principle it doesn’t work because it doesn’t say how it is done, but is useful as a reminder to think about a broad range of users. It is worth noting that the researcher did not consult with users during the design. Rather, an example from an existing design was used to critique the principle of intuitive to use. 

The author reports on the application of an automatic locking system on a toilet door on a new train in Norway. The trains were designed with the principles of universal design. This includes an electronic door locking system for the toilet. However, this system has many passengers confused in spite of written instructions and icons. Consequently passengers have found themselves in embarrassing situations due to the door not being locked. Clearly there is something wrong with the design for everyone. It fails the test of intuitive to use. But is this a problem with the principle, or the designers who failed to properly test the design? Did following the principles give unfounded comfort to the designer such that no product testing was used?

The title of the article is, Intuitive use in design guidelines: Can intuitive use be applied to a product?   An article in Medium has picked up the story and concludes it is bad design. It adds the critical point that if you need lots of instructions on how to use something then it is definitely not intuitive.

Abstract: Several design guidelines recommend to design for intuitive use and marketing often advertises products as intuitive in use – but what does it mean for a design to be intuitive? One design guideline that embraces intuitive use is described by the principles of universal design. The third principle says that the design should strive for ‘Simple and intuitive use’ regardless of experience and cognitive abilities. This article will examine the concept of intuitive use and address the case of an automatic toilet door system that, even though universally designed, seems to be confusing to many users. From the literature, the focus will lie on the concepts of affordance and familiarity, due to its relation to intuition. The case is further used to evaluate these concepts and to see if principle three of universal design is possible to fulfill. The article concludes that the principle is a good reminder of an important concept; however, the design process needs supplements from other design literature to fulfill the principle. 

Universal Design and Planning Policy

Front cover of the book.Are your planning policies universally designed? In 1999 Norway turned the notion of universal design upside down. Gone is the idea that it is just about the design itself and the responsibility of the disability officer. Instead, universal design principles were placed at the heart of the planning process.That means everyone has to take responsibility. Their landmark approach to universal design still holds today.  

Olav Rand Bringa’s story on how this was done in Norway is reported in a 2007 publication. He explains how it worked and what still needs to be done. The title of the book chapter on page 97 is, “Making universal design work in zoning and regional planning: A Scandinavian approach”. The book is, Universal Design and Visitability: From Accessibility To Zoning

Bringa gives an overview of the processes needed to bring about a change in attitude from inclusion being a “social services job” to “everyone’s job”. His work is the forerunner to the landmark document “Norway Universally Designed by 2025“.

Bringa followed up with another update at a UD Conference in 2018 titled, “From Visions to Practical Policy: The Universal Design Journey in Norway. What Did We Learn? What Did We Gain? What Now?”  This is very useful as it is written with almost twenty years of experience and guidance for others. 

To be successful, universal design and inclusion cannot be patched in later. An important point when planners think that access and inclusion is the disability officer’s job or something to worry about as a “detail” for later. 

Other chapters in the book cover different areas. Although it was published in 2007, most topics are still current due to the slow movement on the issues. Included within the 9 chapters are: The Seven Principles of Universal Design in Planning Practice; Universal Design in Transportation; and Inclusive Housing and Neighbourhood Design.

Abstract:  Universal design may turn out to be the most innovative and significant development to reach the planning sphere in the past several decades. The strategy of universal design presents a holistic approach to how to deal with the interaction between humans and the environment. The core of this thinking revolves around the important issue of accessibility for people with reduced functionality based on equal opportunities and equal rights.

The Norwegian Government is currently in the process of integrating universal design perspectives into various aspects of national planning policy. This is a direct result of advances achieved through preliminary policy development and pilot projects over the last years. County and municipal plans comprise the main targets for the new initiatives, which address a number of issues in strategic planning and zoning. The process of integrating universal design into planning policy includes revising the Planning Act, expanding government impact assessment regulations, developing and issuing national policy guidelines, and raising the overall levels of professional competence.

This process brings to light new issues that need be discussed and clarified. What is the relationship between universal design, sustainable development, landscape development, and protection of the cultural heritage? Are the universal design principles consistent with the full scope of the definition of the concept?

Universal design in housing: The time has come

House half built showing timber frameworkTime has come for the housing industry to catch up with the rest of society. Inclusion and diversity are now recognised as Australian values. Discrimination still exists of course, but many sectors, business and government, are striving to do better. That means designing products and services to embrace population diversity. However, the housing industry continues to resist change. They say it will substantially increase the cost of building a home. But how much is “substantially”.

Smaller building firms have shown that for a maximum of $3000 they can deliver universally designed homes. That’s because they thought of the design from the outset. They have changed the cookie cutter.

One of the reasons the housing industry says it will cost more is because level entry is difficult to achieve on a steep slope. This can be true, but that is no reason for no change at all. Exceptions would be made for one-off situations. Besides, mass market housing in a greenfield site is rarely on a steep slope – these are not favoured by developers. That’s because it cuts down on building efficiency. But any excavation needed benefits builders too.

The Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) is asking for people to comment on their consultation document on Accessible Housing. This is a difficult read. It is a very long and convoluted way of concluding costs outweigh benefits. However, the wrong question was researched. It shouldn’t be, “can we afford to make changes?” It should be “we need to make changes, what’s the best way to make it happen?” 

Fortunately, two eminent economists responded to the call to comment and they have concluded the opposite. The benefits outweigh the costs. Also dense reading but the document challenges the ABCB document at every point. They also conclude that Gold level of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines are not only beneficial to the community but they offer the best value overall. 

You can respond with your story of how the design of your home, or that of a family member, has impacted their life. Good, bad and ugly stories are welcome. Send an email to Kieran O’Donnell at the ABCB. Every story counts. Like a picture, it paints a 1000 words for politicians.

Just because accessible features make sense to most of us, do not assume it is a done deal. We still need grass roots action.

For others who want to respond directly to the ABCB document, Australian Network for Universal Housing Design has circulated a final draft of their response. It covers every point. The date for close of submissions is 31 August 2020.

Australia Cannot Afford NOT to Build Accessible Homes, gives an overview of why we must mandate universal design features now. We’ve had ten years for Livable Housing Australia to show that it can do this voluntarily. It has failed. It’s time for them to come good.

 

The Caring City: Inhabit not Inhibit

View from high building in Brisbane overlooking building roofs and the Brisbane river and bridges. Jacaranda trees can be seen in the street.A caring city is one that understands the dynamic relationship between individuals and their surroundings. But are our cities caring or careless in their design? Carelessness makes cities uncomfortable, ugly and dull, with traffic movement taking priority over pedestrians. This extends to a multitude of steps and stairways making access difficult or impossible for some. 

Charlotte Bates argues that we need more caring in our cities. Her book chapter is a discussion based on three case studies that illustrate ways to configure care in the design of urban environments. The examples are of an open space, a hospital complex, and a housing estate.

In each example, people are have the opportunity to come together or to retreat into private space. Intimacy and spontaneity are encouraged so that “caring spaces enable connections to be made”. As Bates says, the notion of caring design challenges the designs based on property-led narratives.

black and white photograph of an open terrace at the top of a building. It has a row of stretcher beds facing out to the view.The title of the chapter by Bates, Imrie and Kullman available on ResearchGate is, “Configuring the Caring City: Ownership, Healing, Openness”.  Or you can directly download a PDF of the document.  It was published in 2016 in Care and Design: Bodies, Buildings, Cities.

The research underpinning this chapter was funded by the European Research Council.

 

Accessible Housing: Costs outweigh benefits

Graphic with orange and red buildings depicting several sizes of home from small house to apartment block.The Australian Building Codes Board has released the long-awaited Consultation Regulation Impact Statement (RIS) on accessible housing. Bottom line of this complex document? The costs outweigh the benefits. But how did they measure both the costs and the benefits?

The RIS follows the consultations and submissions related to their Options Paper. A RIS is about weighing up implementation costs with community benefits. In this case, the RIS is about the cost and benefits of the Silver and Gold levels in the Livable Housing Design Guidelines. This is only for new dwellings.

An article in Sourceable has picked out the most relevant information from the RIS executive summary for an easier read. It is worth reading this before going to the Australian Building Codes Board website for the full documentation. The Board’s website also has an explainer and project overview

Have your say. Personal stories and case studies are highly relevant to this consultation. What does it cost not to have accessible features, and what it has cost to have the family home modified? And it is not just dollars – it’s also about quality of life, and ability to do ordinary things. Don’t have a story? There is an online survey you can do which poses questions about the RIS to see if you agree. Submissions are open until 31 August. 

Case studies that show the actual costs in practice are also very useful, particularly if they are less than those shown in the RIS. They calculated Gold level features to cost more than $21,000 per dwelling, and $3,400 for Silver. 

The Australian Network on Universal Housing Design (ANUHD) also has a webpage with relevant information. This RIS is preliminary information. So there is time to submit useful information to help decision-makers. CUDA and ANUHD will be drafting responses for sharing, so watch this space.

For an overview of what housing policy and including universal design features have a look at the easy and quick to do online course Home Coming? It’s free and has a lot of good information and statistics to help your submission. 

 

How to design an inclusive school building

A view of the school courtyard showing a circular garden and blue paving.A design project for a new school building shows how to make it inclusive for everyone. Architects involved users from the outset and then applied the knowledge they gained. This was no typical building because the task was to integrate two existing schools into the one building. One was a primary school and the other is described as a special school. The story is told in a video which begins with the architects talking about their approach. The video goes on to discuss all the elements they needed to consider which make this an excellent exemplar for all buildings.

Good examples of incorporating user feedback are the installation of footbaths. The area has a high Somali population who like to wash their feet before praying. Understanding that some children with autism find sharp building lines difficult influenced the curved building shapes within the building. The placement of toilets so staff don’t have to walk the length of the building each time was another factor in the final design. Integrating overhead hoists for transferring children to and from wheelchairs so that it just looked like part of the overall design – not special. Small details also make a difference. An interesting point was installing different tap styles because it is a learning experience for the children. And of course energy efficiency was not forgotten in the design process. 

 A very useful and interesting video from the UK for anyone interested in design. There are few good examples of inclusive design in action so this is welcome change. 

A second video shows it’s very productive to involve children in the design process. It’s too easy to dismiss them on the basis that they are too young to know much. It’s also a learning process for them too.

 The picture a the top is of the courtyard in the new school.

Beyond compliance with UD

Front cover of the guide.Standards for the built environment tell you how to comply with minimum requirements. But compliance does not equal usability or convenience for everyone. A guide book from Ireland on the built environment draws together Irish standards with a practical universal design approach. Many of the standards mirror those in Australia so most of the information is compatible. Parking, siting, pedestrian movement, steps, ramps, lifts, seating and bollards are all covered. 

Building for Everyone, External environment and approach covers each of the features in detail. While the style of tactile indicators varies from the Australian design, the advice on placement is still useful. There is a reference list of related documents including Australian Standards. The guide is undated, but probably published circa 2010. This means some of the technology, such as parking ticket machines is a little outdated.

There is also a section at the end on human abilities and design. It covers walking, balance, handling, strength and endurance, lifting, reaching, speech, hearing, sight, touch and more.

Published by the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design in Ireland it is very detailed. Checklists help guide the reader through the material. This booklet links with others in the series, particularly the one on entrances and circulation spaces. The good aspect of these guides is the perspective of a universal design approach rather than proposing prescriptive design parameters.

The science of universal design

An aerial view of Grand Harbour Malta showing the many bays and dense population.Can universal design be regarded as a science? As more guidelines are produced with technical specifications, there’s a danger that the spirit of the concept is getting lost. When we drill down to the skills required to design inclusively we find it goes beyond well-meaning guidelines. This is what makes designing universally a science. 

Reporting on case study of a design proposal for a floating sea terminal in the Grand Harbour in Malta, Lino Bianco explains why. The case study also includes a heritage centre, a maintenance workshop and offices. The article details technical aspects supported by drawings and design considerations.

Bianco begins with the background to universal design and how it relates to EU and the Maltese context.  As a member state of the EU, Malta is obliged to follow the legal requirements for accessibility and inclusion. 

Bianco argues that the universal design philosophy has evolved into the systematic development of design guidelines. Consequently, the guidelines have become mandatory for built infrastructure projects. This has lead to a compliance approach which is contrary to the original aims of universal design. This is why the holistic application of universal design principles is a science not a format.

His concluding comments propose that universal design should be descriptive and not prescriptive. “Adopting a performance-based approach is what UD as an applied science involves. It leads to designs with inclusive environs beyond the prescriptive requirement at law”.

The title of the article isUniversal Design: From design philosophy to applied science. 

Abstract: Universal Design (UD) philosophy is inspired by the social responsibility that no discrimination is present in the use of the built environment. During recent decades UD philosophy led to a systematic development of design guidelines for architectural and urban projects aimed at rendering the built environment accessible to all. In Malta, such guidelines are endorsed by central and local government entities and non­governmental organizations and they are covered by legislation which i s actively enforced. Moreover, the law stipulates that the planning regulator makes it mandatory that a given development permission complies with these guidelines. This ensures that no barriers can hinder the usage of a given development. The objective of this paper is to demonstrate that UD is not only a legal requisite emerging from a socially sensitive design philosophy and grounded in official design standards that ensure legal compliance, but an applied science aimed at ensuring mobility for all. Using a case study from this European Union Member State, this paper argues that setting the focus on technical specifications relating to access for all falls short of addressing the inherent interdependencies; consequently, it does not tackle UD issues. UD goes beyond the prescriptive requirement established by law and underpins a performance-based design, thereby intrinsically enhancing the quality of any given element, whether a space or a product. UD is an applied scientific discipline; it is a multifaceted, interdisciplinary branch of learning. It involves the application of current formal scientific knowledge to pragmatic scenarios in order to attain contextual specific solutions. UD is not just an applied design philosophy; it is an applied science integrating anthropometrics, medicine and design; it is universal design science.

Bianco, L. (2020). Universal design: from design philosophy to applied science. Journal of Accessibility and Design for All, 10 (1), 70-97

The myth of the accessible bathroom

A bathroom with red tiled wall has a white wc pan and two drop down grab bars. It's indicative of an accessible bathroom.Videos explaining universal design, almost universally start by showing a person in a wheelchair. This is one reason why people think universal design is disability design. It’s also why they think they don’t need it – it’s for the “others”. 

When the classic 7 Principles of Universal Design were devised in 1997, the concept was envisioned as mainstream. Hence the use of the term “universal”. However, universal design does benefit people with disability most. And it’s difficult to explain universal design without including people with disability

A video from the United States, titled Laying the Foundation for Universal Design, also starts with wheelchair users. In the second half it moves onto the 7 Principles as originally intended. It emphasises that universal deign goes beyond compliance. In this case, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

One speaker captures the concept well, “I laughingly talk about the myth of the accessible bathroom, because there are so many ways you can meet the intent of the law, and still it doesn’t meet everyone’s needs”. Looking for flexibility in the solutions available is the key. It’s critical to think about how different people respond, perceive or interact with a design.

This video is one in a series and good for introducing people to the concept of universal design. It has some good take home messages. However, the focus is on people with disability. There is little mention of children, older people, people who are neurodiverse, and those using wheeled devices other than wheelchairs.

Similarly to Australia, the US legislation, ADA, does not require universal design. Compliance usually results in accessibility as an afterthought. Universal design is a set of performance guidelines that explain why it should be done.

Thanks to LifeMark in New Zealand for this find. The video was created by Tools for Life Georgia AT in the US. It is one of a series.

 

How to make a Universal Design Toolkit

As with all educational materials, toolkits should be designed with everyone in mind. If not, key sections of your community could be missing out on your information. After all, learners come in all shapes and sizes and different frames of reference. This is especially important if the guideline is about accessibility, inclusion and/or universal design.

So how do you universally design a toolkit or guideline? 

When devising a customer engagement toolkit, the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design in Ireland also documented their process and lessons learned. While the document is focused on tourism, the method and principles are relevant to any field of practice.

At 100 pages this is a lengthy document. You might want to skip the first part and go directly to the section on Guidelines to Toolkit Authors, which is at the end. Each of the headings and subheadings form a guide to developing and designing instructional toolkits and guidelines for practice. Here are some of the key points from this section about the structure of the toolkit:

Step 1: ‘Perception’, the ability to understand information regardless of the user’s ability to see, hear or touch
Step 2: ‘Discoverability’, providing flexibility in use so that the user can find the information they want
Step 3: ‘Understanding’, how easy it is for the customer to interpret and understands how to use the content; regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level
Step 4: ‘Use’, the design prevents from accidental or inadvertent actions, forms, controls and navigation are usable and the customer decides on how to use and act on the content presented

The title of the report is Lessons from Good Practices to Guide Universal Design Toolkits

Living the message is an important point in the universal design world. Anyone who writes, educates or speaks about universal design and inclusive practice should live the message. For example, a slideshow presentation about universal design with tiny font is contrary to the message. 

Editor’s note: This document looks to be for an academic or professional audience and perhaps not following their own guidelines. Regardless of the intended audience, applying UD principles helps understanding and retention of information.