Both user-centered and universal approaches to eLearning design focus on the end user—the learner—in that they aim to improve the usability of the end product. The approaches differ, though, in that universal design is more conceptual and philosophical, while user-centered design is more process-focused.

User-centered design

User-centered design includes end users in every aspect of the design and development process. At its heart is a focus on understanding who will be using the eLearning and what the needs of those learners are. User-centered design follows a process, listed on the website:

  1. Specify the context of use. Identify the people who will use the product, what they will use it for, and under what conditions they will use it.
  2. Specify requirements. Identify any business requirements or user goals that must be met for the product to be successful.
  3. Create design solutions. This part of the process may be done in stages, building from a rough concept to a complete design.
  4. Evaluate designs. Evaluation—ideally through usability testing with actual users—is as integral as quality testing is to good software development.

User testing is a key element of user-centered design; creation of personas and use cases can also aid tremendously in the design and development processes. User-centered design is compatible with many instructional development (ID) models, including agile, which is popular among eLearning developers.

Universal design

Universal design takes more of a big-picture approach based on embracing the variations among individual humans. Rather than home in on specific learners or groups of learners, universal design aims to create products, including eLearning, that are “usable by the widest range of people operating in the widest range of situations without special or separate design,” according to the Institute for Human Centered Design. That means designing eLearning that is easy to use by a broad spectrum of learners, regardless of their age, disability, or technical savvy. The universal design approach follows these seven principles:

  1. Equitable use. The design does not disadvantage or stigmatize any group of users.
  2. Flexibility in use. The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
  3. Simple, intuitive use. Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.
  4. Perceptible information. The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.
  5. Tolerance for error. The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
  6. Low physical effort. The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue.
  7. Size and space for approach and use. Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

Similarities and differences

Both approaches consider the learner. Universal design inherently assumes a broadly heterogeneous learner pool, including individuals with varying skills, limitations, and abilities. When done well, user-centered design also serves a broad pool of learners. You can accomplish this through the development of personas or use cases that incorporate learners of different ages and abilities, by comprehensive user testing with a representative group of learners, or by using a combination of personas, use cases, and user testing.

The two concepts are not interchangeable, though. Universal design is more philosophical; the principles can apply to any design and development process. Applying universal design principles to a user-centered process would result in what might be termed the best of both: a broadly usable eLearning product designed and tested with its specific population of learners in mind. Embracing a user-centered development process makes it easier to apply the principles of universal design, as well as to avoid costly mistakes that could result in eLearning that many learners simply cannot use.


Astbrink, Gunela, and Jenine Beekhuyzen. “The synergies between universal design and user-centred design.” In 10th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003.

Hogle, Pamela. “Personas Place Developer Focus on Learners’ Needs.” Learning Solutions Magazine. 19 October 2016.

Holzinger, Andreas, and Renate Motschig-Pitrik. “Considering the Human in Multimedia: Learner-Centered Design (LCD) & Person-Centered e-Learning (PCeL).” In Innovative Concepts for Teaching Informatics. Vienna, Austria: Carl Ueberreuter, 2005.

Institute for Human Centered Design. “Principles of Universal Design.”

Institute for Human Centered Design. “Universal Design.”

US Department of Health & Human Services. “User-Centered Design Basics.”