failure of universal design

Try designing a single printer-fax-scanner-copier (PFSC) for use in China, Russia and Nigeria.  How about designing this PFSC for every imaginable context of use.  Even the paper, the most basic requirement of such a machine, is not a product that lends itself to universal design.  Although paper comes close to being designed for all possible use cases, even it has specialized formats that are unique to the context in which it is used.  When I worked for the FDA in the mid 90’s, I remember getting in trouble for putting fax paper in the printer.  "That's fax machine paper not printer paper", I was told.  In another account, I remember being told, "No, that's copy machine paper not printer paper."  And in yet another account, "No, that paper is for the LaserJet printer, not the inkjet printer."

Even paper is polarized for different groups of users.  In this case the "users" are composed of various types of machines that share a common paper-type.

Nowadays, I hear the interactive community screaming with the desire to design one website that is usable on the desktop, mobile phone, PDA, iPod, digital projector, and web tv.  The reasoning goes like this.  Let’s build a single multi-use website that is constructed in a way that the content is accessible to everyone in every context of use.   It is either built to fit, or it "degrades" gracefully.

When you design for every-one and every-thing, you end up addressing the specific needs of no-one and no-thing.  You lose not only your key purchasers and influencers, but alienate your whole audience.  It’s like the photos that attempt to appeal to individuals of a diverse audience by showing a rainbow of people.  By appealing to everyone, the group photo doesn't identify with any one group in particular and therefore appeals to no one.  

When you fail to polarize people, you strip away the uniqueness of your audience.  You strip away the specific things they value.  You mask away and dilute the specific attributes of your product or service that address their specific attitudes, interests and desires.  Ultimately, you eliminate any chance of influencing their purchase intent or the ability to propel them through your desired scenarios on your website.  The linkages between product attributes and human values are broken before you even start.