September 2, 2023

Know you users is ableistKnow you users is ableist


Know your users is a flawed idea applied to accessibility.

  1. It assumes that demographics of users is representative of the users that will ever use the software
  2. It treats accessibility like a feature to be added instead of a process to follow
  3. Know your users is an ableist sentiment

Features Versus Process

I’ve been hearing this idea that we need to know our users” when approaching development priorities. The idea, I think, is to ensure we are prioritizing user or functional development. It’s a cornerstone of user-centered design where you define your feature roadmap based on functionality users need to accomplish a task.

So, for example, if you develop a service that host written content on the internet - something like Blogger, or Wordpress. Your users love how the text editor works but they want to be able to include imagery in their writing. You plan to add image embedding to the editor.

That’s a feature - the ability to post with images. It is specific to the tools created for your users.

Inclusive Design

Allowing users to interact with the image editor means supporting input methods typical of computer users. We generally don’t only design for mouse users, especially something that accepts text. We include the ability to interact with the tools with a keyboard.

This is good design. Keyboard, mouse, touch screen, and other click or type based interactions are all understood and expected methods we understand as part of the process. Anything that only work with a keyboard or only a mouse feels broken.

Calling that a feature is inaccurate. It’s a requirement for users to employ the tool we provide.


Screen readers, voice, or switch controls are just another interaction method people use every day.

What we need to recognize, though, is that in systems that do not currently include design principles making software anyone can user, the current set of users is limited by systemic exclusion. If none of my users are blind then I’m never going to prioritize developing for blind users. We want to design for as many users as possible.

Know Your Users Reinforces Systemic Problems

Therefore, know your users” reinforces systemic ableism. Our jobs as designers and developers of software is to be as inclusive as possible which means having it work for any input method a user may employ.

Similarly, if you view accessibility as a feature, it’s a feature that won’t be prioritized when your user base is selected through a biased system. If blind people can’t use your software, for example, they aren’t in your user base to request that feature.”

This Is Why It’s a Process

There’s a difference between functional priorities - creating features users will use according to value to the user - and principles of development - accessible design is a way of approaching the process of development that results in a particular outcome - accessible software.

Knowing your users must be inclusive of the users you may not have. Otherwise, you’re just perpetuating the problem.

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