Mobile Apps Taking Bigger Role in Promoting College Dining Operations

Ease and accessibility has been the key to success when launching a mobile app.

Published in FSD C&U Spotlight

Steven Johnson, Associate Editor

It’s no secret mobile devices are playing an increasingly pervasive role in the lives of most Americans—none more so than in the lives of college students, where four out of 10 own a tablet and as many as 75% own a smartphone, according to a 2013 survey conducted by education services provider Pearson.

To meet this mobile demand, many colleges and universities have adopted their own applications that allow students to view information about their campus dining program in this more accessible format.

Though apps for a university’s dining service program can differ in presentation or features offered, all share certain characteristics in terms of the information they provide. 

FSD takes a look at two successful mobile dining apps to see how dining services has managed to use this tool to not only keep their students informed but to also help create a more engaged and involved customer base.

“Aggie Dish” - University of California, Davis 

Launching in March 2011, UC Davis’ mobile application Aggie Dish offers several features that provide students with a bevy of information on food offerings in both retail and dining hall operations.

Users of the app have a choice of five different sections: nutritional information for meals; dining locations and hours of operation for dining halls and on-campus restaurants; daily special discounts on specific food items; notifications about upcoming events; and a “connect” feature that allows students to offer feedback to dining services.

According to James Boushka, marketing director for Sodexo at UC Davis, the development of Aggie Dish came about after noticing the high frequency with which students were accessing the college’s dining services website from their mobile services.

“Focus groups were the start of understanding the need of why we needed a mobile app,” Boushka says. “What really stood out for me was the high number of people that were going to our static website from a mobile device—the number was so high that it validated that people were accessing our menus from a mobile device regularly—so with that substantiated we saw the need to offer this [app] as a solution.”

In trying to determine how much information to provide to students with the app, Boushka says some features were taken out during the planning process.

“One of those elements was educational information as it related to sustainability,” Boushka says. “As we began to identify really what people wanted to know about the dining program and what had to be offered, sustainability was so far down on the list that that actually came out.”

Boushka says keeping the app simple and easy to use so that it can provide information quickly has played a key role in yielding the best results.

“[Students] really just want to know what’s on the menu, is it a healthy option and the daily deals,” Boushka says. “They want to know that core information and they want to know it pretty quickly.”

UGA Food Service Mobile – University of Georgia

Much like UC Davis, the mobile web application developed for the University of Georgia Food Services was borne out of student demands for easily accessible information about campus dining options.

“It was a customer service initiative,” says William McGee, UGA assistant director of auxiliary services. “We had requests from students who said they wished there was a mobile app for [dining services], and since we saw it as a customer service initiative we wanted to move forward on in it right away.”

Since its launch in February 2012, UGA’s mobile app has received an average of between 20,000 and 25,000 hits per month.

UGA Food Services Marketing Coordinator Allison Harper says part of the app’s success has to do with the decision early on to make it accessible across multiple platforms upon its launch as opposed to making it available initially to only Apple iPhone or Android smartphone users.

“We noticed that a lot of the students were always using their cell phones and it was becoming pretty standard for operations to provide a mobile app,” Harper says. “And we knew that we could better serve our students by being where they were whether you were suing a smartphone, an iPad or a tablet.”

Like the Aggie Dish, UGA’s app provides menu information for all four of the university’s dining hall facilities, as well as nutritional details for items being served. The app also shows location and hours of operation, and allows students to purchase meal plans from their device.

What perhaps sets UGA’s app apart from other dining service versions is the real-time information it provides on occupancy levels at each dining hall.

“Students can see when a dining hall is 60% full or 80% full and then decide whether they want to be where everyone else is or try to grab a quick lunch somewhere else,” Harper says. “That feature has been very popular.”

In terms of advice, McGee says each college has to develop an app that works best within their parameters, but he suggests creating one that allows as many students as possible access. 

“Develop a mobile app so that you are not device dependent,” McGee says. “There are definitely advantages and disadvantages to developing a mobile app versus a web application, and each institution just has to decide which is going to be best for them, but for us we wanted to reach all platforms.”

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