Universal Design and Free Software

"Universal Design" addresses an unrealistic goal. There is no way to create anything that fits everyone. But Free Software offers different hope to reach the same goal: adaptability.

A couple of days ago I visited an expert´s forum concerning Universal Design:

Universal Design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” (Ronald L. Mace, 1988)

Thinking about this definition of Universal Design, I have two critical points to make: Who is meant by all people? And why is no need for adaptation a goal at all?

In the first place I regret the fact that the debate was dominated by speeches NOT referring to ALL people at all! Organized by the German Family Ministry it focused on generation fairness rather than the UNIVERSAL aspect of Universal Design.

By far the best contribution at this event was made by Peter Glaser – regarding him as an excellent speaker and a bright mind, I should pay more attention to him in future: He was about the only one there to understand that a UNIVERSAL claim cannot be limited to elderly or disabled people here in Germany or other first world countries – UNIVERSAL needs to imply ALL people on our planet.

If I understand the idea behind Universal Design correctly, I think it is one of the most important ideas around: Do not discriminate against any people anywhere in the world by means of technology, products or services.

But with my personal (free-) software-specific view on design I am puzzled about the rejection of adaptations in the definition by Ronald L. Mace.

I am convinced that the exact opposite is true. To me GOOD Design makes it extremely easy to adapt a product to the special needs of the user(s). This believe is one impulse behind my commitment for free software. The mechanisms of free software encourage people to derive special solutions for their needs on the basis of developed technology standards.

Some examples:

  • The GNU Linux kernel is an example for a good software design. Based on it there are heaps of derivatives for special needs.
  • The KDE desktop exists in a ‘normal’ and a ‘netbook’ variant – more hopefully to come.
  • There are many different variants of a single underlying GNU Linux distribution, e.g. Ubuntu, KUbuntu, Edubuntu, Mythbuntu, etc.
  • Kontact as a PIM-suite originally designed for the KDE desktop is being adapted to a mobile use-case in the ‘Kontact Touch’ project.

Do you have any other examples?

To sum it up: I believe free software is a good – if not the best – approach to achieve the noble goal of creating non-discriminating technology for all, or Universal Design. We are on a good path, even though it is still too complicated to actually do the needed adaptions today, especially if you are not a software-developer. We can still do better.

Shouldn`t we always keep that in our minds, when we create free software?