Part 4: Simple & Intuitive, the third principle of Universal Design
by Antonia Levy, Christopher Leydon & Julie Maybee

Simple & Intuitive, the third principle of Universal Design (UD), refers to the use of any product being “easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.” Guidelines for this principle include:

  • Eliminate unnecessary complexity;
  • Be consistent with user expectations and intuition;
  • Accommodate a wide range of literacy and language skills;
  • Arrange information consistent with its importance; and
  • Provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion. 

General design examples for this principle include the moving sidewalks found in airport terminals and other public spaces, or the kind of lavatory faucets that make their operation readily apparent and relatively easy.

Ikea manual

Remember instruction manuals that either use overtly technical terminology or visual instructions that are impossible to follow? Instructional materials would be readily accessible to more people if they take into account the principle of simple and intuitive design, for instance by combining plain language and drawings alongside the text. Avoiding unnecessary complexity and jargon applies to any instructions—including those created by university offices for use by staff, faculty, and students.

The design of our campus facilities should facilitate immediate understanding about the purpose and utilization of each design feature. Moreover, its means of use should be intuitively obvious so that it operates as anticipated by the user who can, therefore, use it spontaneously.

For a faculty perspective this month, we invited Julie E. Maybee, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Lehman College and Adjunct Associate Professor of Disability Studies here at CUNY SPS, who suggests a number of ways to apply this principle to the design of online and hybrid courses in Blackboard (Bb).

To make course navigation more simple, I aim to minimize the number of clicks required for students to figure out what work they need to do each week. I create a folder for each week in a content area on Bb called “Weekly Modules” or “Weekly Folders.” The folder description includes the date range for each week, as well as special due dates (such as for essays, or drafts of the final paper)—hence, the “Weekly Folders” section almost serves as a course calendar as well.

Each of the folders contains all the work the students have to do for that week. Moreover, in the interest of simplicity, each folder has the same structure:

  • An item introduces the week’s topic and study questions or learning outcomes;
  • A list of assignments students have to complete during that week—i.e., what to read, what work to submit, etc.;
  • A list of the week’s readings; and
  • Links, with assignment instructions, to the specific Bb tools students will use to submit their work, e.g. a link to the relevant discussion board (or blog) or to submit an assignment.

Each folder is thus a completely self-contained place where students can go to complete all their work for the week.

screenshot julies course1

There are also a few ways to make the course design more simple and intuitive. For one, providing multiple access points to the same items can help your students to navigate the course site more easily. For example, aside from the links in the Weekly Folders, I provide shortcuts to the discussion board or blog on the course menu for faster access. In addition, I create a link to the “Help with Writing the Final Paper” folder both within the “Assignment Information” section (for students looking for information about the assignment) as well as the “HELP!” section of the course (for students who think in terms of needing help with the paper). In other words, whichever way they might think, students will find a link to the information they are looking for in either place.

Also, limiting the variety of tools you assign is an easy way to simplify the design of your course—for both the instructor and the students. Each feature in Blackboard works a little differently; e.g., replying to a discussion forum is different than commenting on a blog or editing a wiki, and using the assignment tool is different from taking a test. So, instead of trying to use them all, I give similar assignments from week to week, or at least in multiple weeks. For instance, in some of my courses, students do the exact same discussion assignment for weekly readings: students must post four posts to the discussion board, some of which must answer study questions I provide on each of the readings, and some of which must respond to my or other student’s posts.

Making your assignments repetitive also helps to convey your course expectations to students. When an assignment is the same every week, students will find it easier to learn what they are expected to do, and they also have multiple opportunities to learn (and respond to) your expectations for that kind of assignment. If you then grade the discussion every week—preferably by using rubrics, which Blackboard makes fairly easy to do—you will also be providing consistent feedback to students that helps them to understand what these expectations are.

Last but not least, assigning different levels of writing assignments helps to accommodate students with a wider range of literacy and language skills. Since I do not typically grade discussion posts for grammar and style, I use the discussion board as a place where students can write more informally. Short blog/paper assignments can be helpful as a scaffold for the final paper by giving students lower-stakes opportunities to practice skills they will need when completing the more significant assignment later. In my own discussion posts and in grading feedback, I encourage students to provide citations to back their claims, to interpret quotations in their own words, to offer scholarly evidence from the readings for their views, and so on.

These are just a few ideas about some of the ways our courses can be more simple and intuitive—and hence more accessible—for students.

This article is part of an ongoing series introducing the concept of Universal Design (UD) as it applies to the context of higher education and to our work at CUNY SPS. Each month we cover one of the seven principles of UD with practical examples for both faculty and staff, including things you might not immediately associate with accessibility—or inaccessibility. Catch you next month! Questions or feedback? Email Antonia Levy or Christopher Leydon.

 

 

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