To Improve Engineering Design, Ask Your Users

January/February 2019

Communities: Education
To Improve Engineering Design, Ask Your Users


YVETTE E. PEARSON, PH.D., P.E.Engineers are problem solvers charged with devising solutions to a myriad of societal challenges. These challenges are not “one size fits all” and neither are their solutions. While regulations such as the American With Disabilities Act have improved accessibility for people in the US who have disabilities, they provide minimum standards that are often implemented using a checklist approach rather than with careful thought and consideration to the end user. Planning and design are best when user perspectives are incorporated at various stages of the processes.

User-centered and universal design are two frameworks that can be used to improve accessibility. User-centered design engages users throughout the iterative design process to ensure the resulting product or system meets their needs. The basis of universal design is taking into consideration the needs of a broad spectrum of users so that the resulting product or system is usable by as many people as possible, including people with various abilities—reducing the need for special accommodations. Combining these approaches results in designs that optimally meet a wide range of users’ needs.

Traditional approaches to engineering education have focused relatively little attention on user-centered, universal design (UCUD); however, there have been efforts toward improvement. For example, all programs in the Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering at the University of San Diego now require a first-year course titled User-Centered Design. Currently taught by Odesma Dalrymple and Diana Chen, the course engages students in design projects that tap user perspectives from the start (in establishing requirements) through the end (in evaluating and selecting design alternatives).

Incorporating UCUD principles in engineering curricula aligns well with the changes to ABET Engineering Accreditation Commission criteria that will become effective in fall 2019. Though UCUD is not specifically mentioned, student outcomes in Criterion 3 and the accompanying definitions promote inclusivity in the way students are taught to practice engineering design. First, the concept of teams has been defined explicitly to require that people with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives work together to solve problems. Second, the example design constraints have been expanded to include usability, accessibility, ergonomics, and other factors associated with principles of universal design.

There are also efforts to make engineering and other STEM disciplines more accessible to a broader spectrum of learners. Ann Gulley at Auburn University at Montgomery leads a team that developed a purely audio-based method of teaching and assessing mathematics for students who are blind or have visual impairments, called Process-Driven Math. As an undergraduate, Logan Prickett, an AUM alumnus with unique disabilities, co-developed the method and was key to the team’s UCUD approach. Efficacy of the method for diverse learners with and without other disabilities (for example, dyslexia) is being researched by the team I lead at Rice University.

For a number of years, the Disabilities, Opportunities, Interworking, and Technology (DO-IT) Center at the University of Washington has promoted accessibility for people with visible and invisible disabilities. The center’s website ( has become a go-to repository of resources for applying principles of universal design in classroom, workplace, and meeting settings.

The benefits of user-centered universal design are numerous and include improved safety and quality of life and reduced costs realized by not having to retrofit designs post-construction. It can also help bridge the disconnect between the public’s perception of engineers and societal impacts, attracting a more diverse population to the profession.

Yvette E. Pearson, Ph.D., P.E., is associate dean for accreditation, assessment, and strategic initiatives in the George R. Brown School of Engineering at Rice University. She is vice chair of ASCE’s Committee on Diversity and Inclusion and chairs ASCE’s Formal Engineering Education Committee, a subcommittee of the Committee on Sustainability.