People-First Design: Prioritizing Accessibility Needs in Product Development


Presented at 3:30pm in Plaza Ballroom D on Wednesday, November 17, 2021.



  • Sarah Horton, Author and consultant

Session Details

  • Length of Session: 1-hr
  • Format: Interactive/Discussion
  • Expertise Level: Beginner
  • Type of session: General Conference


In A Web for Everyone, the first principle of Accessible UX is People First: Designing for differences, where people are the first consideration, and sites are designed with the needs of everyone in the audience in mind. This interactive discussion session will explore ways we can put people first in our accessibility practice.


Content-First Design. Mobile-First Design. These design approaches were born out of necessity, in response to outmoded approaches to web design that resulted in bad UX. Websites with content forced into layouts designed with placeholder text. Sites architected around organizational structures rather than user and content needs. Mobile websites weighed down by content and functionality irrelevant to mobile users. In addition to bad UX, these outmoded approaches causes significant overhead for design and development, requiring teams to rework designs and content to make them first and to provide multiple website versions to accommodate mobile and desktop users. The resulting methodologies that they gave rise to — content strategy, responsive web design, progressive enhancement — have contributed significantly to improvements in development practices and user experience design.

But tech still lags behind in putting people first in product development, and technology products are often designed without insights and input from end users. As a result, the technology that we rely on does not always meet our needs and is often difficult to use.

Accessibility has the potential to spotlight usability issues, since bad UX can lead to insurmountable barriers. However, most accessibility efforts focus on technical standards rather than people.

In this interactive roundtable discussion, we will explore ways accessibility efforts can encourage a people-first approach by directing attention to user needs in technology product design and development. Participants should come prepared to share experiences and insights into how we might ignite a People-First Design movement and give rise to methodologies that address accessibility needs, improve development practices, and provide good UX.


  1. First principles, like content-first and mobile-first, set priorities for technology development.
  2. Accessibility efforts that focus on meeting technical standards do not prioritize user needs.
  3. We can foster people-first design by putting users first in our accessibility efforts.

Disability Areas

All Areas

Topic Areas

Uncategorized, Web/Media/App Access

Speaker Bio(s)

Sarah Horton

Sarah Horton is an independent consultant, helping organizations create “born accessible” technology. She is also an author of books, articles, and papers on designing technology to improve quality of life, including Web Style Guide with Patrick Lynch and A Web for Everyone with Whitney Quesenbery.

Sarah began as a designer and developer in 1991 at Yale University, making instructional CD-ROMs on cardiothoracic imaging. She was an instructional technologist at Dartmouth College, helping faculty across disciplines use technology to teach. Later she worked at the institutional level, as web director at Dartmouth and then strategy lead on Harvard University’s web transformation project. As an accessibility engineer with The Paciello Group, Sarah performed design reviews and audits of websites, applications, apps, and devices, and conducted user research and usability studies. She was lead for TPG’s strategy services, providing strategic consulting to teams and organizations seeking to incorporate accessibility into culture and practice. She has worked with a broad range of companies and organizations, gaining insights into how accessibility is currently managed and manifested in our digital world. Sarah is currently a member of the research team working on the Teaching Accessibility in the Digital Skill Set study at the Centre for Research in Inclusion, Southampton Education School, University of Southampton.