Why I Disfavor Using "Universal Design" in the Title

Date: 11 December 1998, 16:20 hrs
To: WAI-GL Page Authoring List Group
From: Eric Hansen
Re: Why I Disfavor Using "Universal Design" in the Title

I would like to respond to Dan Dardailler's question about why I disfavor 
the use of the phrase "Universal Design" in the title of the page authoring 
guidelines document. (See an excerpt of his question at the bottom of this 

I wish to state at the beginning that I believe that Web-based products and 
services should be designed to be accessible to people with disabilities 
and highly usable by all people. By that simple test, I am a believer in 
Universal Design. Generally, I think that the term Universal Design is a 
nice way of describing what we are trying to help people do. However, I 
have many reservations about the term when it comes to using the term in 
the title of the WAI page authoring guidelines.

My reservations are only partly related to limitations of the document as 
it currently exists. 

For a review of my analysis of some of the limitations, see my previous 

"Priorities, Impacts, Etc."

"Suggestions" particularly items 15 and 16

"Refining the Scope to Address Gaps"

"Gaps: (1) Language Readability, (2) Privacy"

The working group has recently strengthened guidelines related to 
comprehensibility of language (see especially guideline B.3, beginning in 
the 17 Nov 1998 version) 
(http://www.w3.org/WAI/GL/WD-WAI-PAGEAUTH-19981117.html). This helps 
address issues that I had raised. 

Yet language is just one "gap." 

Andrew Marlatt in an article in Internet World notes, "Despite their 
immediacy as a barrier, language differences are just the beginning of the 
international-audience problem. The list of cultural obstacles grows in 
relation to the number of cultures a site tries to accommodate.  [T]he 
truly international site would avoid politics, humor, history, sex, and 
religion; the numbers 2, 4, 13, and 666; the colors white, black, red, blue,
 yellow, and purple; pictures of children, food, animals, body parts, flags,
 women in authority positions; slang, acronyms, abbreviations, long 
sentences, and, in fact, excessive text. ("Can one site appeal to all?: The 
increasingly multicultural Web poses problems for designers", Internet 
World, 16 Nov 1998, p. 23). 

I recommend the full article for your review. 

Without at least an acknowledgement of other factors I don't think that the 
document should be considered a guide to Universal Design of Web pages or 

Indeed, I believe that any decent guide to Universal Design will 
acknowledge that its scope is limited and that it is not able to focus on 
the full universe of considerations that should go into the overall design 
of any product or service (including a Web-based product or service).  

I recently proposed such an acknowledgement as part of my draft revision of 
the Abstract. 

"This document focuses primarily on issues that can be influenced through 
markup of the Web content."

"This document does not constitute a complete guide to Web design. It does 
not necessarily address all valuable principle of visual design, although 
it is expected that these guidelines are generally compatible with and 
supportive of good visual design. Nor does the document specifically 
address several other issues, such as economic, legal, and cultural issues 
that can also influence the accessibility and usability of Web pages." (See 
item 15 of my "Suggestions" memo, 

With that kind of acknowledgement, perhaps the document is sufficiently 
complete to be considered a guide to Universal Design. (By the way, the 
wording on that paragraph still needs refinement.)

But even if the design document does acknowledge its limitations, I have 
other concerns about the term "Universal Design."

I think that the term "Universal Design" is an oxymoron (Greek for 
"pointedly foolish"). The phrase "jumbo shrimp" is an oxymoron. One word 
contradicts another. The term "design" means, in my view, a process that is 
intended to result in a solution that satisfies several, but not an 
infinite number of constraints such as cost, quality of materials, 
usability, accessibility, etc. Good design results in practical products 
that provide at least a minimal level of satisfaction for a good chunk its 
target audience. The "universal" in this context says that the design 
process will work for everyone. Yet this is impossible, because no design 
can satisfy what is essentially an infinite number of constraints.  For 
every practical set of "Universal Design" guidelines that a Web developer 
can follow, I can find people for whom her Web content is inaccessible. 

Thus, even if the guidelines fully treat issues like Web page mark up, 
alternative content, comprehensibility of language, and respect for old 
browsers, I can always point out some consideration that could make the Web 
page inaccessible or unusable by some group -- even more specifically, some 
disability group.

Of course oxymorons grab attention and for that reason, they may be useful 
in advertising and promotion.

"Universal design" is wonderful and commendable as one design objective 
among many, but if other important considerations are ignored, the product 
or service will fail.

I don't want people to be misled into thinking that a small set of 
"universal design guidelines" will guarantee that a product or service will 
be accessible. Even if you acknowledge that within the document, a title of 
"Universal Design" could be misleading.

One thing that I am not comfortable with is the possibility that the page 
authoring guidelines lose their disability focus and I am concerned that 
overuse of the term "universal access" might lead to that. I think that it 
is appropriate to point out how these guidelines will greatly benefit 
nondisabled users as well. But I would like to keep the primary focus on 
issues that differentially disadvantage people with disabilities. 

In conclusions, I suggest.

1. Develop the "impact" ratings (or better yet, "adjusted impact ratings"), 
particularly for the small number of disability groups, for each guideline 
as outlined in my 10 Dec 98 posting. These rating are intended to help keep 
the focus on issues that differentially disadvantage people with 
2. Acknowledge the limitations of the document.
3. Avoid using "Universal Design" in the document title.

Background material

From D. Dardailler

Starts with quote from E. Hansen:
> Item-18. Some Thoughts on the Name of the WAIGL-PA Document> 
> I think that the current name is OK, though as noted
> elsewhere in this document the use of the term "page" seems  
> a bit archaic.> 
> I am against using the term "universal design" in the title.
> "Universal design" -- i.e., usability by everyone everywhere
> -- is a great design objective, but it suggests a note of
> impracticality and also, in the minds of some, the phrase
> may carry other meanings that we might not want associated
> with the guidelines. 

Can you elaborate on the "impracticality" and the "other meaning"aspects ?
> Besides, the document does not deserve 
> the title because no where does it acknowledge the wide
> range of considerations that should go into the design of
> accessible and cost-effective Web-based products and
> services.

These guidelines promote the design of web content so that it can be 
accessed no matter what operating system, device, or modality of user 
interface one has, hence the universality. In which way are we not 
considering enough universality in the design (given our limited context of 
web content production) ?

Eric G. Hansen, Ph.D.
Development Scientist
Educational Testing Service
ETS 12-R
Rosedale Road
Princeton, NJ 08541
(W) 609-734-5615
(Fax) 609-734-1090
E-mail: ehansen@ets.org 

Received on Friday, 11 December 1998 16:27:23 UTC