One company’s digital accessibility failure means a wake-up call for anyone not taking compliance seriously.

A Tale of Decision-Making Woe

Domino’s Pizza has touted itself as a leader in excellent customer service. They love to advertise options and tools designed specifically to make things easier and more fun for the consumer. Unfortunately, they did not make these innovative sites and apps usable for all customers, just the ones without disabilities.

When one customer with a visual impairment couldn’t order a pizza due to the company’s inaccessible site and app, they sued. In response, Domino’s claimed that they didn’t need to be digitally accessible in the first place. This was the beginning of a long and costly legal debacle—one that still isn’t over yet. Domino’s made enormous errors every step of the way. By analyzing what went wrong in the case of Robles v. Domino’s Pizza, we can learn from their mistakes and avoid making them ourselves.

Domino’s and the Digital Accessibility Disaster

What did they do? So much, yet so little.

1. They tried to merely check an accessibility box.

Digital accessibility compliance can seem difficult and expensive to attain. A conservative estimate for a company the size of Domino’s to make their site and app accessible would land at roughly $40,000. Domino’s chose not to go the accessibility route. Instead, they continued to develop other innovations and tools like a 24/7 hotline with a voice ordering assistant. Later, they would claim this was an accessible alternative for ordering pizza. That might tick a box for a robot somewhere, but someone who has a hearing impairment can’t hear a voice ordering system in order to use it.

2. They got sued.

A customer—someone trying to give Domino’s their money—wasn’t able to order a pizza using a screen reader, a common piece of assistive technology for those with visual impairments, either on the website or the mobile app. The customer argued that his experience wasn’t equal to other pizza-lovers without disabilities. For the record, he definitely wasn’t the first Domino’s customer to have an issue with a lack of accessibility, he was just the first to sue over it. Facing a potential trial, Domino’s could have chosen to become digitally accessible and settle the case right off the bat. Instead, they chose to fight.

3. Domino’s dug their heels in.

Rather than settling with the customer and fixing the accessibility issues to make their site and app usable for all customers, Domino’s doubled down. They claimed that they didn’t have to make their site or app accessible in the first place since there were no federal accessibility guidelines specifically for digital spaces. Woo buddy. They were about to make sure that changed. But more on that in a minute.

Instead of investing in righting their digital accessibility wrongs and getting more business from customers who previously had difficulty ordering, Domino’s chose to hire legal teams and spend untold fortunes fighting the case. When a judge initially dismissed the suit, Domino’s thought they were in the clear—no fixing accessibility issues, no lawsuit, no more costs. But they celebrated too soon, and an appeal wound up in that dismissal being overturned.

At that point, Domino’s had two options: 1) Settle the case, cut their losses, and make their site and app accessible. 2) Take it through the exorbitantly expensive appeal process and simultaneously snub the disability community. Guess which one they chose?

4. They chose the exorbitantly expensive appeal process.

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The wronged customer kept after the lawsuit and Domino’s just KEPT APPEALING. That meant that rather than settling the case and finally becoming accessibility compliant, they invested even more untold thousands on legal counsel and court fees to fight against making their site and app accessible. The original cost to fix their accessibility issues would have been pennies compared to what they eventually spent in court.

5. Domino’s unwittingly set a new precedent.

In the end, the Supreme Court didn’t agree with Domino’s, meaning the additional expenses associated with appealing were all for nothing. The case established that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies not just to physical spaces, but also to digital spaces as well. Not only that, but the success of a digital accessibility lawsuit against a hugely visible defendant opened the floodgate for similar lawsuits against companies both large and small.

By arguing that they didn’t need to be accessible in the absence of a federal rule, Domino’s unwittingly led to the Supreme Court establishing that very rule. An act has even been introduced in Congress that, if passed, will soon establish WCAG 2.0 as the digital accessibility standard at the federal regulatory level.

6. Domino’s STILL hasn’t settled.

As of early 2021, Domino’s is still in the throes of litigation. Whether they finally settle or try yet another appeal on a different basis, they will, in the end, still have to make their site and app accessible. That writing is on the wall, even if Domino’s can’t see it yet. They could have invested $40,000 in the first place and showed goodwill to their customers instead of spending whatever fortune they have spent and continue to spend.

And these lawsuits can cost a fortune. Skeptical? Ask the Law School Admission Council, which had to spend $8,730,000 in penalties, damages, and attorney fees for their own accessibility nightmare. And, again, that didn’t even include the cost of fixing their original accessibility problem.

Non-Compliance Risk Is Greater Than Ever

According to UsableNet’s 2020 Full Year Report, digital accessibility cases rose by a staggering 50% in the second half of 2020. That means across the board, companies with essentially any digital products are more vulnerable than ever to their own round of extremely expensive and ultimately damaging legal battles.

You have two choices: 1) Fight the flow and eventually lose. 2) Learn from the mistakes Domino’s made and get on the good side of history.

Do things differently.

Every one of Domino’s Pizza’s missteps is an opportunity for you to choose a different outcome.

1. Focus on real users’ needs.

Some of your customers are operating with disabilities, and your digital products must serve them well. Checking an accessibility box may cut it for a robot scanner but it simply won’t work for real people. That means you need to talk to users and find out what they actually need. Have users with disabilities test your digital products using their actual tools. What areas of your site or app give them problems? Can they do what they need and want to do? Don’t forget to manually test your site or app yourself, using assistive technology that your customers with disabilities would use.

2. If someone finds an accessibility problem, offer a solution.

As it turns out, “the customer is always right” still holds. If someone has a problem while trying to give you their money, make sure your first instinct is to help them. Fixing accessibility issues opens the door for new and increased business from an entire community. You might be able to avoid a legal issue altogether if you are willing to invest in solutions rather than ignoring your customers.

3. If you get sued, don’t double down to resist accessibility.

Domino’s could have avoided the majority of their debacle if they had chosen to fix their digital accessibility issues as soon as a lawsuit popped up. If you get sued, immediately responding to your accessibility issues is by far the least expensive way to proceed in the long run. Things got ugly with Domino’s because they kept fighting the eventuality of required digital accessibility compliance.

4. Invest up-front.

Even a seemingly costly investment to make your site or app accessible is a far cry from what you will end up spending to achieve compliance later on. An up-front investment in research, professional consultation, and new or redesigned digital products is cost-effective, not to mention efficient—you’ll save yourself a massive headache by taking time for the work now rather than rushing it later.

Digital accessibility is a wide-open door for an increase in business from customers with disabilities, who have spending power and will choose the companies that offer them equal options and experiences.

5. Establish a pro-accessibility stance.

The pizza company’s continued pushback has tarnished their reputation as a customer service icon and clearly established a negative stance towards an entire community of customers who have disabilities. You have the opportunity to do the right thing and integrate accessibility into your company culture, establishing your organization as a forward-thinking champion.

6. Go where the future is going.

When things went wrong, Domino’s missed a major opportunity to make a positive impact on their reputation and their bottom line, not to mention their customer base. They could have turned their lawsuit into an opportunity rather than a calamity. You can still do just that.

Don’t be Domino’s.

Digital accessibility isn’t going anywhere. You can either invest in compliance now, or spend a fortune fighting it until you are required to comply anyway. What you can’t do is ignore it any longer. By the way, ignoring digital accessibility is de facto fighting digital accessibility.

We’ve been picking on Domino’s, but they aren’t the only ones in trouble for digital accessibility non-compliance. Huge brands and organizations that should know better are guilty across the board. Even Beyoncé has been sued for accessibility non-compliance. If Beyoncé isn’t even safe, your organization definitely isn’t either.

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About truematter

Our team has been doing the real work of user experience since the earliest days of the commercial web. We’re out to make your digital products a whole lot better.

We’re not perfect either, but when we say our products are made for their real “users,” we mean all of them.

Author: @JessAndAmen
Graphic: @djosephmachado