Universally Designed Content

(This is  a ‘refresh’ of a previous blog on Universal Content Design, with some updated information related to content management–and content marketing– best practices).

A Plea For Your Patience

Please bear with me. This blog is about content (management | marketing) , though due to references to education, architecture, etc.,  I must ask that content-management (marketing) practitioners suspend disbelief for at least a few paragraphs. It should become evident on why the Universal Design for Content is important to you.

Mr. Smith Goes To Kalamazoo

Several years ago, I entered a graduate program in educational technology in which I chose special education as my minor. Due to my background in publishing and Web consulting, I became enchanted (obsessed) with server-side solutions for the delivery of learning materials in accessible formats. For me, a key requirement was that the assistive devices should place a minimal cost-burden on the end user. I later termed this criterion, “The Best Buy Test”.

Discovering Universal Design

Early on, I learned about the principles of universal design (rooted in architecture) for planning physical environments. The key premise of universal design is that products, environments, (‘stuff’ in general) should be designed in a manner that benefits all users. There are numerous occurrences of design that accommodates users with disabilities, but are commonly used by the general populations. An example is the curb-cut in a sidewalk. This was conceived to provide access to wheelchair users, but is also beneficial to bicyclists and parents pushing stroller and many other users.


I had just started pondering the universal design framework for delivery of content when I became acquainted with the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), a Boston-area research organization that had developed an educational framework known as the Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

CAST’s neurological research has shown that learning occurs in three primary networks in the brain:

  • Recognition networks
    This is where we gather facts. We identify and categorize what we see, hear, and read. Identifying letters, words, or an author’s style are recognition tasks. This is the “what” of learning.
  • Strategic networks
    How we plan and perform tasks. How we organize and express our ideas. Writing an essay or solving a math problem are strategic tasks. This is the “how” of learning.
  • Affective networks
    How they are challenged, excited, or interested in learning… are dimension of affective learning. This is the “why” we learn.

Furthermore, CAST saw that traditional educational practices placed a heavy burden on the learners to adapt to the content.

Thus, in the spirit of the universal design,  CAST developed the Universal Design for Learning framework. CAST’s  findings were  that in order for content to benefit the greatest number of learners, then learning materials should adhere to three primary principles :

  • Multiple means of representation to give diverse learners options for acquiring information and knowledge (“What” ).
  • Multiple means of action and expression to provide learners options for demonstrating what they know (“How”)
  • Multiple means of engagement to tap into learners’ interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation (“Why”).

That’s Nice But Why Are You Telling Me This?

If these learning  principles above don’t immediately seem relevant to your organization, then swap the word “learners” with a term  (employees, constituents, customers…) that is more appropriate  to your context.

Now. you have the beginning of a universally designed content strategy. Is your content universally designed?

Is your content available in multiple formats?

  • Have you ever looked at your content?  No, really, have you ever you looked at it in a browser besides Internet Explorer? Or without your glasses?
  • Have you ever viewed your content on a smart phone? What about a smartphone of different platform?
  • Have you ever clicked on an interesting link and found yourself in an area that was not in your native language?
  • With the release iPad a few years ago , there were over 1/4 million new copies of Safari out in the world. Similarly, the introduction of the Android devices, led to a jump in Chrome users.  Wouldn’t it be nice if these users could access your content?

Are there multiple means by which your users can act on the content?

  • If you’re selling widgets, is it clear to the users on how they can buy those widgets?
  • The shopping cart is just a click away, but what if the consumers want to actually speak to a sales person? Will the users be able locate a phone number, or a chat window?
  • What if the customer prefers “try before they buy” ? Are locations for physical stores and resellers going to be clear to them?

Are you engaging your customers?

  • Every moment of the day there is an opportunity for a user to be enticed away from your content; are you doing enough to ensure that users gravitate toward your content?
  • Is you content compelling enough that users will return to it?
  • It is possible to learn without being engaged (penmanship class?), but who wants to learn that way? If your content is not engaging, what makes you think people will buy your products?

Going Forward

If you can honestly say that your content strategy includes “the multiple means” (of representation, expression and engagement) then congratulations, go have a long lunch and enjoy the waning moments of this summer weather!

When you return from this glorious lunch, then get to thee to a whiteboard and think about how you can reach more users and how you can do so more effectively:

  • Are your image and media files  stored as “digital masters”  (in a high-resolution, RGB) so that they can be repurposed for use in print or electronic media channels?
  • Are you employing a single-source strategy for your text content to facilitate  content reuse and translation?
  • Can your content creators find what they need to find, and do what they need to do with your current content management infrastructure?
  • Is your content “future-proof” in that it can easily be adapted to the burgeoning number new devices, browsers and formats?

If your content  strategy does not include “the multiple means,” then you also need to post up in front of a white board, digital collaborative space, etc. and start thinking about the goals for your organization’s (or clients’)  content.

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