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How to Design for All: Inclusive Design vs. Universal Design vs. Accessible Design

Design is about finding solutions to problems and creating experiences that enhance life. In today's world, product design goes beyond just looking good and being functional; it must also be inclusive and accessible to diverse user groups.  

Designing for accessibility and diversity is essential in the digital era, where technology connects people from all backgrounds, ages, and abilities. Good design is not just visually appealing; it must also be intuitive and empowering for everyone, enabling them to navigate and interact easily with the world around them.  

Three experience design methodologies cater to diverse users: Inclusive Design, Universal Design, and Accessible Design. Inclusive Design is a proactive approach that embraces diversity in design processes, creating solutions that cater to a broad range of abilities. Universal Design focuses on making environments, products, and systems usable by all individuals without the need for adaptation or specialized design. Accessible Design ensures that individuals with disabilities can access digital products and physical environments effectively, complying with established guidelines and standards.  

These design principles reflect a shift towards a more human-centric approach, emphasizing empathy, understanding, and inclusivity. When used together, they create environments, products, and experiences that are accessible and truly inclusive. 

What is Inclusive Design? 


Inclusive Design is not merely an outcome but a holistic methodology that redefines the approach to design. It goes beyond accommodating diverse users; it embraces diversity as a fundamental aspect of the design process. At its core, inclusive design aims to create products, environments, and experiences considering the full spectrum of human diversity from the outset. 

Approach and Philosophy of Inclusive Design 

The philosophy of Inclusive Design is rooted in empathy and understanding. It involves a shift in perspective—from designing for the average user to designing for the extremes, recognizing that what works for the most marginalized users often benefits everyone. The approach is iterative, collaborative, and user-centered, focusing on the following principles: 

  1. Diversity as a Strength: Inclusive Design sees diversity as a source of strength and innovation rather than a challenge. By embracing diverse users' unique needs and perspectives, designs become more adaptable and versatile. 

  2. User Empowerment: It aims to empower users by providing choices and flexibility in interacting with products or environments, allowing for customization and personalization according to individual preferences and abilities. 

  3. Proactive Consideration: Inclusive Design proactively considers the needs of a wide range of users, including those with temporary disabilities, situational limitations, or varying cultural backgrounds. 

  4. Continuous Improvement involves an iterative process that evolves based on feedback, insights, and changing user needs. This process ensures that designs remain relevant and responsive. 

Examples Demonstrating Inclusive Design 

  • Microsoft's Inclusive Toolkit: Microsoft developed an Inclusive Design Toolkit that aids designers in creating products that cater to diverse users. It includes resources, guidelines, and case studies demonstrating how inclusive design principles can be practically implemented. 

  • Apple's VoiceOver Feature: Apple's VoiceOver screen reader is a prime example of Inclusive Design. It allows users with visual impairments to navigate their devices through spoken descriptions of on-screen elements, enabling access for a wide range of users. 

What is Universal Design? 

Universal Design embodies an approach that aims to create environments, products, and systems that are inherently accessible and usable by the widest range of individuals, regardless of their abilities, age, or circumstances. It goes beyond accommodating specific needs to integrate inclusive features into the design from the outset proactively. 

Purpose of Universal Design 

The primary purpose of Universal Design is to eliminate barriers and create inclusivity by design, ensuring that everyone, regardless of their physical or cognitive abilities, can access and use products and environments comfortably and independently.

It emphasizes that good design should be usable by all without needing adaptation or specialized design alterations. 

Principles and Characteristics of Universal Design 

  1. Equitable Use: The design is usable by individuals with diverse abilities. 

  2. Flexibility in Use: Accommodates a wide range of preferences and abilities. 

  3. Simple and Intuitive Use: Easy to understand and operate. 

  4. Perceptible Information: Communicates necessary information effectively to all users. 

  5. Tolerance for Error: Minimizes hazards and provides warnings to prevent accidents. 

  6. Low Physical Effort: Requires minimal physical exertion. 

  7. Size and Space for Approach and Use: Provides appropriate size and space for various users. 

Impactful Instances of Universal Design 

  • Curb Cuts: Originally designed to assist individuals with mobility impairments, curb cuts have significantly impacted everyone, including parents with strollers, cyclists, and delivery workers. This simple design intervention benefits a diverse range of users. 

  • Automatic Doors: Widely used in public spaces, automatic doors assist individuals with limited mobility and provide convenience for people carrying heavy items or parents pushing strollers. 

  • Smartphone Accessibility Features: Features such as voice commands, screen readers, and adjustable font sizes on smartphones cater to users with various abilities, benefiting a broad audience beyond those with specific disabilities. 

  • The Open Arms Project by IKEA: IKEA's Open Arms Project initiative focused on creating furniture that accommodates diverse abilities and provides solutions for people with visual, hearing, or mobility impairments without compromising aesthetics or functionality. 

What is Accessible Design? 

Accessible Design ensures that products, environments, and digital interfaces are designed and developed in adherence to specific guidelines and standards, making them usable and understandable for individuals with disabilities.

Unlike Inclusive or Universal Design, Accessible Design emphasizes the end result based on established accessibility guidelines. 

Accessibility Guidelines from Governmental and Industry Groups 

  • Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG): Established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG sets standards for making web content more accessible to users with disabilities. It encompasses perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust (POUR). 

  • Section 508: In the United States, Section 508 mandates that federal agencies ensure their electronic and information technology is accessible to individuals with disabilities. It aligns with WCAG standards to ensure digital accessibility. 

  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): ADA outlines accessibility requirements for public accommodations, including websites and digital services, ensuring equal access for disabled individuals. 

  • European Accessibility Act (EAA): EAA aims to make various products and services, including digital interfaces, more accessible to people with disabilities across the European Union. 

Significance of Accessible Design in Digital Products and Websites 

  • Inclusivity and Equal Access: Accessible Design ensures that individuals with disabilities have equal access to information and services provided through digital platforms, promoting inclusivity and avoiding discrimination. 

  • Legal Compliance: Adhering to accessibility guidelines is ethical and a legal requirement in many regions. Non-compliance can result in legal repercussions and the exclusion of a significant user base. 

  • Improved User Experience: Creating accessible digital products often leads to enhanced usability for all users. Features designed for individuals with disabilities, such as clear navigation and descriptive alt text, benefit a broader audience. 

  • Business Benefits: Accessible Design can expand businesses' reach by tapping into a larger audience. It also enhances reputation and brand loyalty by showcasing a commitment to inclusivity. 

Key Differences and Similarities 

Distinctions between Inclusive, Universal, and Accessible Design 

Methodology vs. Outcome: 

  • Inclusive Design: Emphasizes a holistic methodology that embraces diversity in the design process. 

  • Universal Design: Focuses on creating inherently accessible designs from the outset, ensuring inclusivity without needing adaptations. 

  • Accessible Design: Concentrates on achieving an end result that adheres to specific guidelines for accessibility. 

Approach to Diversity: 

  • Inclusive Design: Proactively considers and integrates diverse user needs throughout the design process. 

  • Universal Design: Aims to create designs that cater to a broad range of users by default, without targeting specific groups. 

  • Accessible Design: Focuses on addressing the needs of individuals with disabilities by meeting established standards and guidelines. 

Scope of Application: 

  • Inclusive Design: Applicable to a wide range of design disciplines and industries, emphasizing flexibility and adaptability. 

  • Universal Design: Primarily focused on creating products and environments that cater to diverse users. 

  • Accessible Design: Often specifically applied to digital products, physical environments, and services to ensure compliance with accessibility standards. 

Overlapping Aspects and Complementary Nature 

Shared Goal of Inclusivity: 

  • All three design approaches aim to create inclusive experiences and environments catering to diverse user needs. 

Enhancing User Experience: 

  • Inclusive, Universal, and Accessible Design all contribute to improving user experiences by considering diverse user needs and preferences. 

Complementary Practices: 

  • In practice, these design approaches often intersect and complement each other. For instance, Inclusive Design principles can inform Universal Design strategies, while Accessible Design guidelines can align with Inclusive and Universal Design aspects. 

Holistic Design Thinking: 

  • A holistic approach combining elements from all three methodologies can lead to more comprehensive and empathetic design solutions that benefit a wider range of users. 

Why Each Approach Matters 

Importance of Adopting Each Design Approach 

Inclusive Design

  • Embracing Diversity: Inclusive Design fosters empathy and acknowledges the diverse needs of users, leading to solutions that accommodate a broad spectrum of abilities and backgrounds. 

  • User-Centricity: By focusing on user experiences and preferences, Inclusive Design ensures that products and environments cater to individual needs, promoting inclusivity. 

Universal Design

  • Inherent Accessibility: Universal Design aims to create environments and products accessible to everyone by default, reducing the need for retrofitting or specific accommodations. 

  • Design for All: Its approach benefits not only individuals with disabilities but also various demographics, enhancing usability for a wider audience. 

Accessible Design

  • Legal Compliance: Adhering to accessibility guidelines ensures legal compliance and helps organizations avoid discrimination while providing equal access to disabled individuals. 

  • Enhanced User Experiences: Accessible Design leads to improved user experiences, fostering positive interactions and inclusivity within digital spaces. 

Impact on User Experience, Society, and Businesses 

User Experience (UX)

  • By embracing these design approaches, UX becomes more intuitive, adaptable, and personalized, enhancing user satisfaction and usability. 

  • Improved usability positively impacts how individuals interact with digital interfaces, ensuring smoother navigation, user engagement, and retention


  • These design approaches contribute to a more inclusive society by breaking down barriers, promoting equal access, and fostering social integration and empowerment. 

  • Inclusivity in design promotes a sense of belonging and equality, fostering a more empathetic and understanding society. 


  • Incorporating these methodologies expands market reach by accommodating diverse user needs, tapping into new user segments, and improving brand reputation. 

  • Inclusive and accessible designs resonate with consumers, increasing customer loyalty and positive brand perception. 

How To Design For All?

As you embark on your journey into UX, UI, and product design, you must equip yourself with the tools and strategies that drive inclusive, accessible, and universally appealing design solutions. Whether you're stepping into the field, shifting careers, or advancing your expertise, here's how you can implement these design methodologies and propel your career forward: 

Practical Tips in UI/UX Processes 

User-Centric Research

  • Inclusive Design: Engage with diverse user groups, considering various abilities, cultures, ages, and contexts. 

  • Universal Design: Focus on designing for the extremes while catering to a broad spectrum of users by default. 

  • Accessible Design: Implement specific guidelines (like WCAG) to ensure digital products are compliant and usable for disabled individuals. 

Iterative Prototyping and Testing

  • Inclusive Design: Continuously iterate and test prototypes with diverse user groups, integrating their feedback throughout the design process. 

  • Universal Design: Prioritize elements that benefit users most without sacrificing usability or aesthetics. 

  • Accessible Design: Conduct thorough accessibility testing, ensuring compliance and usability for individuals with different disabilities. 

Clear and Consistent Design Language

  • Inclusive Design: Ensure your design language is culturally sensitive and understandable across diverse user groups. 

  • Universal Design: Focus on creating a design language that is intuitive and universally understood, transcending language or cultural barriers. 

  • Accessible Design: Utilize clear and descriptive elements (such as alt text for images) to assist users with disabilities in understanding content. 

Strategies for Comprehensive Design Solutions 

Collaborative Design Thinking

  • Encourage multidisciplinary collaboration and brainstorming sessions to incorporate diverse perspectives into the design process. 

Holistic Design Frameworks

  • Adopt frameworks integrating Inclusive, Universal, and Accessible Design principles to ensure a comprehensive approach to design challenges. 

Challenges in Implementing Design Approaches 

Resource Constraints

  • Limited resources, including time, budget, and expertise, can hinder the full implementation of inclusive and accessible design practices. 

Resistance to Change

  • Overcoming organizational resistance and fostering a design culture that embraces inclusivity and accessibility can be challenging. 

Emerging Trends in Designing for Diverse User Groups 

AI-Driven Personalization

Voice Interface Revolution

  • The rise of voice interfaces presents new opportunities to create more accessible and intuitive interactions, particularly for users with limited mobility or visual impairments. 

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