Today’s students like to—and expect to—be able do a lot of day-to-day business on their smartphones. From research to shopping to paying bills and keeping in touch with their friends, it’s a way of life for Millenials.

“They also expect to do things instantaneously,” said Allison Harper, marketing coordinator at the University of Georgia.

UGA food service took notice of this and—getting a sense that its existing online presence wasn’t meeting its customers’ expectations—created a mobile web application for better mobile accessibility to the UGA website.

“Our website wasn’t optimized for mobile viewing. It wasn’t the right size and they’d have to continually adjust to try and read it,” said William McGee, UGA IT director, presenting at an interest session during NACUFS 2013, in Minneapolis in July.

Such a transition isn’t the easiest undertaking in the world, McGee, cautioned. “But the end result was worth it.”

Now, UGA students can use their phones to sign up for a meal plan, adjust the meal plan, connect to their account, look at menus, find nutritional info, connect to the dining department’s Facebook page, leave feedback on the food, check bus schedules and even see how full a dining hall is at any given time. Paper contracts and lines 100 people deep are now a thing of the past.

But first came a choice between designing a custom app like those sold in the Apple iTunes store and designing one that was “device independent.” The team of stakeholders (IT, marketing, foodservice administration and a new media class) decided to go with a more universal mobile web application.

“We decided to optimize. We could have created an Apple app or an Android app, but either way we would be limiting our customers,” Harper said. “They don’t have to go to a store to download ours. Instead they just type in our web address and it directs them to a web-based mobile app.” 

Another advantage to the mobile app is the fact that it’s integrated with existing back-end systems. There is no special programming as there would be with an app.  

One of the most requested during the development phase was a way to see live traffic counts at UGA’s various dining halls. This can help students in a hurry decide where to grab lunch. UGA’s biometrics access technology to help make this happen, tracking when people enter the dining hall and when they exit, getting an average of how long individuals are there.

There are also interactive features, like the feedback button. Students must enter their email address to use this, and questions and concerns go directly to Harper and Jeanne Fry, executive director of food service.

Students can select a calendar date, location and meal period to access the “my plate” feature, dragging menu selections to a virtual plate and then viewing the nutritional information for the whole plate or individual items and also a total calorie count. This is made possible by accessing a common database. Healthful meal planning on the go!

Once the app was ready, the only thing left to do was let people know about it.

“We wanted to make a big deal about this,” Harper said. She and the marketing team staged a social media-themed dinner to celebrate the launch, complete with cool t-shirts that Harper said she still sees students wearing around campus.

“Food is the original social media,” she said. “Connections are made over food; conversations are started.”

Continual marketing efforts and announcements during orientation are ongoing parts of the plan. Usage of the mobile web app has been tracked using Google analytics, and looking at the data is also an ongoing process, McGee said, adding that there has been an uptick tracked during summer orientations.

Overall, response has been very positive.

“When we make the announcement during orientation, we see students and their parents with their phones and iPads, getting the plan right then and there,” Harper says.