Dining Services sparks interest in cross-departmental mobile app

Dining Services unveiled a new menu program on its homepage yesterday as part of the implementation of an upcoming web-based mobile app. The app will have links to information from several other departments, including the College libraries, the Office of Communications and the Office for Information Technology (OIT). The app will be a quick way to view essential information about major departments at the College.

Dining Services’ website revamp has focused on simplification. “Before, what we would have were menus with a lot of detail and information, but when you look at a phone screen, there’s only so much you can see on it,” said Chris Abayasinghe, assistant director of Dining Services. When someone was interested in checking the day’s menu for a certain dining hall, they would be forced to scroll down a long list of days in the month in order to locate the current date. Now, the menu for the day is at the top of the page. Each dining hall has a separate page and the hours of operation for each dining hall now appear on their respective pages. “Eventually, what’s on the website right now will be what the mobile app looks like,” Abayasinghe said.

“The [web]page was designed with an app-like functionality in mind,” said Chris Warren, senior academic application developer at OIT, who worked with Dining Services to develop both the new website and the upcoming app. Warren and Dining Services identified two major goals: to change the way Dining Services maintains its website online and to make its newly-restructured data compatible with a mobile app. Warren also stated that OIT and web operations staff are currently taking the data from Dining Services and structuring it for a mobile format.

The conversation about changing Dining Services’ website and creating a mobile app started at the beginning of last year, according to Warren. “In the beginning of 2011, a large mobile stakeholder’s committee was brought together, and we whittled it down for people who actually had specific projects in mind,” he said. “It’s very much a cross-departmental project.” One department that will be included  is the College library system. The app may feature operating hours for the library as well as ways to contact reference librarians for help. Warren mentioned that they have also considered a “text a librarian” feature for students who need help with research or library capabilities.

While only a few departments have signed on to the app’s development, Warren explained that several others have expressed interest in the project. “A number of other departments would like to ring in at some point, but at this point we have not roped any of them in,” he said. “We don’t want the project to be so big that it can’t get itself off the ground.” Warren hopes that as time goes on, other departments will be able to join with ease. He also identified student interest as a driving force behind the creation of the app. “Some of the earlier conversations and testing of the app included students, specifically about the look and feel,” Warren said.

Major contributors to the mobile app project include web developer Carl Clenow, who is working with the aesthetics of the app, and Heather Klenal, web content developer in the Office of Communications. Klenal was responsible for bringing the menu program forward. Suzanne Silitch, associate director of communications for the arts, has also been heavily involved as the liaison for the Office of Communication.

While a working mobile app has not yet been released, “most of the technical issues have been resolved at this point,” Warren said. “Right now, we’re working with the design, presentation and organization issues.” There is no set date for the launch of the mobile app, but Abayasinghe believes that it could be during the spring semester. “Hopefully it’s very soon, but soon could mean next week or next semester,” Warren said.

Abayasinghe is certain that the app will become an important fixture. “The app will impact our diners in a very positive way,” he said. “Information will be more accessible and more easily readable. It will also allow us to more frequently update our pages and work on the department’s social media presence.”