Want Universal Design? Make Technology More Intuitive

Designer Patricia Moore on the shortcomings of minimal compliance, and why she’s hopeful that technology can create a more inclusive built environment

A recent student project from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design explored inclusive approaches to designing applications for digital technologies.

Color photographs courtesy the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design

I’m often asked if another designer, at 26 years of age, were to go undercover as a woman in her eighties, as I first did in 1979, what kind of world would they encounter today? My response is the classic good news/bad news scenario. Attitudes toward aging and our elders have evolved. There’s been a cultural shift—I call it the Betty White effect—and it’s been largely positive. When I was on the streets conducting my research, we as a society had lost our capacity for empathy. The Boomers were wrapped up in their own lives and not really paying any attention to anyone (except themselves). Now, Millennials, involved in emerging family dynamics, are more aware of their grandparents and more responsive to their needs. In the 1980s I was ignored, invisible, twice mugged, and attacked. Today, that same woman of 26 would be noticed and perhaps helped. That’s the good news.

The bad news is our designed environment —the buildings and objects that surround us—hasn’t fully responded to this shift. I was on the committee that helped write the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and I was less than enthusiastic at the time, because I felt like we were in Korea, signing a peace treaty with no clear winners. Contrary to popular myth, the ADA was always about legal access to employment—not design access or even design sensibility— so the somewhat predictable response in the ensuing three-and-a-half decades has been minimal compliance. I always warn the architecture and design students I work with that if you proudly tell me you’ve met the requirements of the ADA, I will give you a “D,” because that’s minimal compliance, not design excellence.

Courtesy Patricia Moore


As a young designer, Patricia Moore went undercover, dressed as a woman in her eighties, to experience firsthand the indignities of the built world. That field research provided initial inspiration for this magazine’s continuing coverage of universal design.


Supporting the Support by Katie Gaudion focused on the role of support workers for adults with autism.

We’re still dealing with governments, bureaucracies, and designers who insist on placing people in two categories: “us” and “them,” the able-bodied and the so-called disabled. But I have long contended that no one is handicapped, unless they’re a golfer or racehorse. I’ve always tried to convince clients and students that we shouldn’t design on the basis of what a person can’t do. The role of design is to accommodate the needs of people by providing for what they can do. We have to design features into every environment and object that meet the needs of all people as equals, and stop dismissing the “others” by assuming that they’re patients and not people.

That said, I must confess: I have a lot of hope for the future. Every time I’m on a college campus or conduct a workshop, the response is eager and enthusiastic. And I delight at how appropriate technologies are meeting more consumer needs with inclusive solutions. Serious considerations for Smart Houses began in earnest before we created personal computers. It makes perfect sense that children defined by the TV of the sixties—The Jetsons, Lost in Space, Star Trek—would become adults demanding doors that opened magically and meals that cooked themselves. But while my mother, at 85, with low vision and arthritis, adores “voice dial,” she’s disheartened by the “emergency alert pendant” dangling around her neck so she can more safely live alone. I have immense faith in the collective intelligence of the Apples and Googles of the world. Some of their best work is broadly inclusive, because it’s superbly conceived. The question—and the challenge—in the future will be: How humanistic can we make technology? Nothing will ever replace a kiss on our cheek, or a whisper in our ear, but that’s how intuitive technology has to be. It must be integrated, seamless, holistic, and humanistic for it to reach its full potential.

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