Inspiration

In light of recent events, on-campus food outlets face great challenges bringing their customers back and regaining their trust. The platforms out there, such as Deliveroo and Just Eat, are helping high-street vendors maintain their revenue during these trying times. However, university campuses in the UK seem to be lagging behind adopting these technologies, a reason for it being the strict branding guidelines and high fees that companies such as the ones mentioned above have.

This inspired us to build a low-commission food ordering platform specially designed for university campuses, that is highly customizable for each institution.

What it does

The mobile app gives students and staff the possibility to order and pay for their items online using their card, Apple Pay or Google Pay. Users are able to choose a pick-up, eat in or delivery option, depending on each outlets’ preferences. Outlets can manage incoming and outgoing orders, manage their stock, menus and keep track of their inventory live. Also, they can send push notifications to customers, informing them about daily offers or discounts, this strategy being very effective towards the end of the day to avoid food waste.

Using this platform, university outlets can keep their staff and customers safe by minimizing physical interaction, while increasing their revenue. With the new social distancing measures in place, serving customers is much slower, therefore fewer customers can be served. By using this mobile channel, outlets can better communicate with their audience and increase their selling capacity significantly.

How we built it

The mobile app for customers was built using Flutter and it runs on both iOS and Android operating systems. For database/server purposes, Firebase Database has been used. The Payments, Orders, Locations and Customers APIs have been used for implementing in-app payments. Both Apple Pay and Google Pay have been implemented following Square’s documentation. Also we've built a recommender system for customers using a word2vec algorithm in Python.

The software for the venues was also built using Flutter and it has been adapted for tablets having a 10 inch screen size.

We reached out to multiple universities across the UK and discussed with them about their problems, needs and what would be the best solution for them during these uncertain times. Having conversations with catering managers, we found out that they would need to have a live stock management feature on the platform, as well as to be able to limit the number of orders during certain time intervals to comply with social distancing rules. One UK university suggested having an on-campus delivery option, which we have successfully implemented. They have also suggested having the option to pause deliveries, in case there is no staff to fulfill orders during certain times.

Challenges we ran into

Business and communication challenges

Without having the possibility of having physical contact with the catering managers from the universities with whom we’ve been in touch, it has been challenging to communicate exactly how the platform works, as they were not able to have a feel of it. Instead, we have been using Microsoft Teams and Zoom for communication purposes and it has proved to be the best solution in these circumstances.

Getting in touch and discussing with potential customers has proven to be more difficult, as we couldn’t attend common conferences or meet them in person to showcase our product. Therefore it has been more difficult to gain their trust online (especially because we are an early-stage company).

Technical challenges

At times, the sandbox testing with Square was not reflecting accurate results in respect to payment processing. Strong Customer Authentication was not working accurately when having to save a credit card within the app using the sandbox environment. We have used the #buildwithsquare Slack channel to ask questions about what we’ve encountered and we were assured that in production this will work.

Some other challenges faced have been implementing suggested features from UK universities, such as an on-campus delivery option, or stock management features for the venue’s software. These have proven to be successful in the development of the product.

Accomplishments that we're proud of

Building a food ordering platform for higher education campuses that will help them overcome their catering challenges during this difficult time, allowing their staff and customers to feel safe buying food from their on-campus outlets.

Listening to feedback and suggestions from the universities that we’ve been in contact with and incorporating the best ideas. For example, building an on-campus delivery option and adding stock management features on the venue’s tablets have proved to be very important in the development of the overall product. Stock management features include adding or deleting items, making items live and having the possibility to make items out of or in stock during working hours. Also, all universities requested a sales report which will be available within the software. An end of the day report will be shown with the meal names, quantities and total earnings on each day.

What we learned

Even during these difficult and uncertain times we are facing, businesses can still thrive and implement solutions to make a difference.

We have learnt that it is very important to constantly listen to our customers’ feedback in order to improve and further develop our product (by adding essential features or optimising our current processes). Many of the features suggested by one partner university have been desired by the next few universities that showed interest in the platform, so listening to our partner university’s advice has proved to be extremely valuable.

Having a good code structure, so that adding and removing features for certain food venues would be easily customizable, has proved to be a great lesson.

An important lesson has been designing the product not only for being relevant during the pandemic but also after things get back to normal as well. In this way, we are able to continue helping and engaging with our customers in the long term.

What's next for Dill

Starting in July, one of our partner institutions in London is opening one of their on-campus outlets, where we’re going to implement our solution.

In the next few months, we will continue approaching new customers, while working with our current partners to improve Dill. Improving the accuracy of the python recommender script for providing users with recommendations. This would allow us to have a stable version of the recommender system and include it in one of our future app releases. Introducing a loyalty scheme for customers.

For on-campus food outlets we are planning to build a web version of the software for an easier menu management.

Apart from higher education institutions, we are planning to implement Dill within NHS Wales & England hospitals in the next months, in order to be used by patients, staff and visitors. Food outlets within hospitals lack technology solutions to improve their services and in many cases, patients have a difficult time communicating their preferred meals, particularly patients that have to rest in bed for a longer time period. Our solution would help hospitals improve their capabilities in a similar way that it currently helps higher education institutions, but adapted to each hospital’s specific needs.

Notes

A Google Play Store link has been attached, with an android app version in production environment but campus venues are closed and orders can't be processed. Therefore we have prepared apks featuring multiple venues and universities so that the app flow can be observed. Second link is an android apk in sandbox environment (platform for users) where the first university has available venues. College Cafe is the only venue which has an available menu and it is the last one in the list. For trying to place an order College Cafe is the one that should be used. Third link is the apk featuring the platform for institutions with the username: seller2@dill.com and password: 123456.

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