A Shallow Dive Into Universal Usability

What is User Interface Design?


Rajarsi Saha

3 years ago | 7 min read

Computers or other devices with user interfaces are used all over the world, in a vast number of possible ways or contexts by a variety of users with all or no level of technical experience.

This includes users like little children, old people, people with various impairments, people who work a lot, or do jobs such as drive cars, and also users with different levels of education or literacy.

The concept that says that user interfaces will be easy to use, for all of the above-mentioned users at all these situations, is actually known as “Universal Usability”. Doing the above things and aiming for this goal requires gathering and understanding requirements,

designing and developing user interfaces, evaluation, and assessment, use of standards, following public policies, and so on and so forth.

This article shall widen your views on universal usability as it currently exists in the human-computer world.

What is Usability?

Usability is defined as the degree or measure to which something, let’s say a software, hardware, or just any other thing, is easy and at the same time comfortable to use for a person or user.

It is also a quality or characteristic of a product I.e., software or hardware. It also says whether the software or hardware mentioned above is efficient, is effective, and also is satisfying for the one who uses it.

Usability, that is a dimension of User Experience (UX) practice, is an approach to the development of products such as software or hardware that takes into consideration direct user feedback throughout the product development cycle in order to reduce costs,

create products and tools that meet the needs of the user and also to further understand what the general trend in the needs and requirements of the user is.


Definitions by International Standards:

“[Usability refers to] the extent to which a product can be used by specified users to achieve specified goals with effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction in a specified context of use.” — ISO 9241–11 [1]

“Human-centered design is characterized by: the active involvement of users and a clear understanding of user and task requirements; an appropriate allocation of function between users and technology; the iteration of design solutions; multi-disciplinary design.” — ISO 13407 [2]

What is User Interface Design?

User interface (UI) design is the process designers use to build interfaces in software or computerized devices, focusing on looks or style. Designers aim to create interfaces that users find easy to use and pleasurable. UI design refers to graphical user interfaces and other forms — e.g., voice-controlled interfaces. [3]

Types of user interfaces:

1. Graphical user interfaces (GUIs) Users interact with visual representations on digital control panels which includes touch-screen devices or button-based devices. A PC or a desktop is a GUI, a smartphone is a GUI.

2. Voice-controlled interfaces (VUIs) Users interact with these kinds of devices with the help of their voices. Most smart assistants such as Siri on the iPhone, Alexa on Amazon devices, Cortana on Windows are VUIs.

3. Gesture-based interfaces — Users engage with 3-Dimensional spaces often through bodily motions or with the help of a handheld device or stick to actually control or interact with the main device. Gesture-based interfaces are still in development on a huge scale but we do find examples like VR games, Smart televisions, etc.

“Interfaces get in the way. I don’t want to focus my energies on an interface. I want to focus on the job.”
— Don Norman, Grand old man of UX design

What is Universal Usability?

Human-computer interaction (HCI) pioneer Ben Shneiderman defines universal usability as “having more than 90% of all households as successful users of information and communications services at least once a week.” [4]

When people discuss usability, they usually mean it narrowly — usable by a target market — but the Web is available to everyone with the economic means for a computer and a modem.

While that still does not include most people, it does include users of different browsers on different operating systems, users who speak different languages, who have different physical capabilities, and who have different levels of experience with the Web.

A universally usable interface is able to adapt to all these differences, and more, as they arise. [5]


Universal usability is nothing but the design of products, environments, interfaces, and so on, which can be used by all kinds of people, to the greatest extent possible, without any need for adaptation or specialized design in the product.

Basically, something which is, in general, meant for everybody.

An example of this could be a sidewalk — a sidewalk is designed in the most general way possible for people with disabilities, baby carriages, bicyclists, commercial deliveries, and majorly to protect pedestrians from cars. Universal design aims to consider a variety of use cases.

How does universal usability differ from accessibility?

Accessibility is concerned primarily with the practice of making products usable by as many people as possible.

We tend to think of this as being about people with disabilities or other differently-abled people, but the practice of building products accessible also benefits other groups of people such as people who only rely on mobile devices or people with slower internet connectivity.

Accessibility is definitely the correct thing to do. Providing accessible products is part of the law in some countries, which provides access to the companies many other markets which were previously not available to them.

“Simplicity is achieved when everyone can easily understand and use the design, regardless of experience, literacy, or concentration level.”
— William Lidwell, Universal Principles of Design, Revised and Updated: 125 Ways to Enhance Usability, Influence Perception, Increase Appeal, Make Better Design Decisions

Why the sudden focus on Universal Usability?


Recent laws have made it mandatory for making products that are more accessible to everyone as well as more usable and effective on the lives of the general public. This is also to minimize the socio-economic diversity in the human race and make education and public services available to each and every person possible.

Age factor

There has been a rapid increase in the number of individuals who are older and who have started using products and services which were initially made for the young generation.

To suffice their needs there grew a need for creating products that are simple, easy to understand and use, and do not require much to learn or remember. Thus, a market-pull maneuver became a necessity for the people belonging to this category.

Mobile computing

There has been a considerable and rapid rise in mobile computing in the past decade. Therefore, it has become quite a necessity for products to become usable in a wide range of environments and circumstances.

People have started relying on mobile devices more than desktop PCs and laptops and that has brought about a need for a UI/UX which compatible with mobile devices and one that is a lot more universal in nature.

What are the challenges to Universal Usability?

Technology variety:

The goal of making web pages more plastic — flexible for use in a wide variety of contexts — has been identified by many but responded to by few (Thevenin and Coutaz, 1999).

The benefits of being able to take web content and convert it into many forms will substantially enlarge markets and audiences.

In an ideal world, designers would create web content in a display-independent manner that would enable rendering in many forms and media, even ones that have not yet been invented. [6]


Supporting a broad variety of hardware, software, and network access. With the advance of (Information and communications technology) ICT, users’ hardware, software, and network configurations are forever changing. The variety of ICT merchandise and products creates advanced systems with a broad range of hybridity.

For instance, will a software product be useful to users running Windows 10 on an Acer laptop/notebook with broadband internet access and to those that have Windows 98 on a Pentium II desktop with 56K dial-up?

User diversity:

Understanding the differences in users is another way that designers can get insights that lead to technological improvements and breakthroughs.

Familiar examples are modifications to serve the needs of elderly users by increasing contrast, enlarging fonts, slowing dynamic displays, avoiding complex sets of simultaneous key presses, and limiting short-term memory loads.

Similarly, the needs of young children who might be beginning readers, or have short attention spans can lead to innovations that benefit many users. [6]


Understanding individual differences among users which include age, gender, disabilities, literacy, culture, etc.

(In the field of Human-Computer Interaction) HCI, research attempts have been centered on accommodating physical and cognitive differences by grouping various factors such as spatial ability, movement speed, visual-gesture coordination, etc.

This is a major job and a lot of research is in the process of catering to individual differences.

Gaps in user knowledge:

No matter how knowledgeable you are about computers, the first time you use a new interface, you must bridge the gap between what you know and what you need to know.

Sometimes the bridge is built with familiar metaphors and standard terminology, but often novel actions or objects require some learning. While email users may understand ‘Reply’ and ‘Forward’, they might be uncertain about the metaphoric distinctions between ‘Certified Reply’ and ‘Registered Reply’.

Another problem is inadequate knowledge of the problem domain such as the online stock trader who is confused by a ‘Stop Loss Limit Order’ or a ‘Zero-Coupon Bond’.

Other problems include complex sequences of actions, which are hard for novices to anticipate, and hostile or incomprehensible error messages, which appear when problems arise. [6]


Bridging the knowledge gap between, what users already know and understand, and what they have to know and comprehend about a few specific systems. Two problems ought to be resolved:

1. Building a user model to access users’ information on a selected system

2. Incorporating the method of evolutionary learning

Originally published here.


Created by

Rajarsi Saha







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