I've been a bit skeptical of the value of Mark Pilgrim's accessibility profiles, portraits of five fictional Web users with disabilities who will be examples in some usability tutorials this month.

When considering an audience for your work, real people are much more likely to show you where your assumptions are incorrect than the fictional ones you dream up. To borrow a motto from the high priests of open source, "many eyes make all bugs shallow."

After Pilgrim wrote about the needs of a color-blind Web user, he heard from one. His assumption that the condition would render Web images unusable was wrong. Though the profile helped him discover this, I think the best way to talk about example users is to go out and find them. It's too easy to come up with fictional ones who fit your preconceived notions (or, even worse, help you gloss over some of the deficiencies in your work by not needing things you do not provide).

Incidentally, I worked at an interactive TV startup in the mid-'90s where we talked incessantly about the mythical user of our product, a handheld that communicated via infrared with a set-top box that pulled data off the TV's vertical blanking interval. As it turned out, our users really were mythical; the company folded three days before the launch.


By and large, the character sketches are based on real people that I actually know. One or two technical details got munged (and subsequently corrected). But the sketches are definitely not created out of thin air; I really know a blind person who uses JAWS, and another one who uses an ALVA and thinks that all JAWS users are sissies. I really do know a retired guy who had a stroke and can only type with one hand. All the background material about the Relay Center job is also true; I used to work at a Center like that, and we really did have blind coworkers like Marcus. And so forth.

It seems to me that Mark's accessibility profiles have accomplished what he set out to do. Generate conversation and raise awareness. Thanks, Mark!

I don't doubt that there's an air of truth to each of them, but I think a more valid approach would have been to profile real people and let them speak about their real needs. Your project's doing a good job of raising awareness, and I was glad to call more attention to it here, but I think any kind of fictionalized persona will be less useful than the real thing.

As a color-blind man -- and a blindingly handsome man, as well -- I wish more people would attend to my particular handicap, which comes with all of the drawbacks and none of the advantages of other disabilities: for instance, it is completely impossible for me to play the Dynomite game at

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