One for all

A toolkit for designers aims to ensure that products can be used by people with a wide range of abilities, says John Clarkson

Have you ever got lost in the menu system of a technical product, or had difficulty plugging a cable into the back of your television? Have you struggled to pull the ‘pull tab’ on a packet of ham, or to open tough plastic packaging? If so, you are not alone.

These are just a few examples of products that are challenging to use, even for people who are relatively young and fit. Just imagine how frustrating they would be for people who are older or have disabilities.

In the UK, 8.6 million people are registered disabled, and by 2020 it is estimated that half of the adult population will be over 50. Older and disabled people present an important, growing and lucrative market. Yet their needs are often overlooked by younger and fitter designers.

Failing to account for this diversity in customers’ ability levels and experience can result in products that are unnecessarily frustrating, difficult or even impossible to use by large sections of the population.

In response, recent design research has developed a range of approaches to help companies produce more accessible mainstream products, such as Inclusive Design, Universal Design and Design for All. These have slightly different emphases, but they all encourage consideration of the needs of a wider range of users.

Also, a large number of methods have been developed to help designers better understand their customers and keep their needs in mind during the design process. Some of these, such as focus groups and observations, involve users directly in the design process. Others, such as personas and simulation exercises, help designers to consider, understand and empathise with users without direct contact.

There has been some adoption of these approaches and methods within commercial practice, yet their implementation is often sporadic and limited. Commonly cited barriers to designing more inclusively are: insufficient time, budget or resources, a lack of practical knowledge and tools to support it, and the perception that there is no justifiable business case for it.

To address these barriers, the Engineering Design Centre (EDC) at Cambridge University has developed an inclusive design toolkit ( This freely available online resource lays out the business case for inclusive design, then explains how it can be promoted within an organisation and integrated into a typical commercial product development process. Discovering the needs of the user and the business forms the foundation of this process.

Other sections contain detailed information on users’ capabilities and show how better design can ensure an enhanced product experience for a diverse range of abilities, including those who are fully able and those with capability loss.

The website also contains a range of tools to help designers understand and engage with users, particularly those with reduced capabilities.

It includes a family of character descriptions, constructed to cover a wide range of people, with different wants, needs, social contexts and capability levels. These help designers consider and keep in mind the real people behind the facts and figures on population diversity.

The ‘links and resources’ section contains an ‘exclusion calculator’ that can evaluate how many UK adults would be excluded from using a particular design, according to the demands it places on seven key user capabilities.

Another type of tool is simulation, which gives designers an insight into capability loss by allowing them to experience some of its functional effects for themselves. The EDC has produced sets of special glasses, gloves and other equipment that reduce the wearer’s vision and movement capabilities.

Simulation software demonstrates the main functional effects of common vision and hearing impairments on image and sound files, thus helping designers understand how these impairments affect the use of everyday products. Designers can also view photographs of their own concepts with simulated impairment, to help identify difficulties and potential improvements.

The case for inclusive design is compelling, yet companies often struggle to put it into practice. The inclusive design toolkit presents a practical and useful resource to address this gap and has been used effectively by both designers and design students to help support the inclusive design process.

John Clarkson, director, Engineering Design Centre, Cambridge University, with Joy Goodman-Deane and Sam Waller, research associates