The Curse of the 'Universal User'

Juliet Sprake
2000, Vol. 5, No. 3,


A recent report from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) highlights the role of design (of everyday consumer products) for people with physical impairments.

'It is a human rights issue: if you have millions of people who can't do these things then they are being deprived of quite a few choices ... excluded from using household products because their needs are not being fully considered at the design stage.' (Kim Howells, Consumer Affairs Minister, The Guardian, 25 August 2000)

It is important that students understand the multiplicity and the variety that exists under the label 'user'. Examining users with impairments can help to identify for students the need for individuality, and this paper describes how values-led design can offer students opportunities to design innovative and challenging products that avoid stereotypical interpretations.Whilst everyda

y consumer products are usually well designed for safe use by ablebodied people, some are not necessarily designed to suit all the special needs of disabled people. This means that some consumer products cannot be used by disabled people, and others cannot be used as efficiently, which both inhibits business in meeting market expectations and consumers having the widest possible choice. (DTI, 2000: 1)

The data produced in this DTI report is aimed at designers. Although underlining an inclusive design philosophy, the report is perhaps more important in its emphasis on the 'people factor'. Participants with disabilities of varying levels of severity were set tasks in using a wide range of everyday consumer products (from opening jam jars to folding ironing boards). They were assessed according to a scale based on the Assessment of Motor and Process Skills (AMPS) system:

'AMPS is a test of disability and an occupational therapy measure of a person's ability to live independently. It is not a test of impairments or capacity to do a task, but a test of disability and how effectively a task can be done.' (DTI, 2000: 3)

The focus of the tasks was on the use of everyday products in the home by people who are disabled to varying degrees. The report indicates that the purpose of the findings is to give designers the data they need to design better consumer products for everyone - including those with physical impairments. It suggests that the everyday products that were tested were a compromise, making concessions to the 'universal' user. Finding myself in an electrical appliance superstore recently (to buy a new kettle), my final choice was made on the shape of the handle and the overall product style. But there was actually very little to choose between the 20 kettles. Compromise in this instance reflected a lack of real choice for widely differing human needs.

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