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What Domino’s Pizza Tracker® Can Teach us about Higher Ed

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When I look back at disruptive technology of the past decade, two products come to mind: the iPhone—which sparked the smartphone revolution—and Domino’s Pizza Tracker®, which sparked my obsession with ordering pizza. And yes, I’m moderately serious. Even if you’ve never experienced the joy of watching Pete prep your pizza, chances are you’ve heard about the online tool that enables Domino’s customers to follow the progress of their order from the time they click the “Place Order” button until the miracle is delivered. Like Apple has done in music and telecommunications, Domino’s artistically blended function with design.

From its inception I loved the Domino’s Pizza Tracker® because it was kitchy and fun, but genuinely because it eliminated everything I hated about ordering over the phone:

  1. Explaining my order to a judgemental teenager.
  2. Shouting over ‘friends’ demanding gross vegetable toppings.
  3. Agonizing over where and when the box of joy would arrive.

Consequently, I’m not alone. Since launching in 2008, digital sales at the chain have topped $1 billion, at a time when Domino’s competitors have been slow to adapt to online sales. Ask the average Domino’s customer if they see the pizza chain as an innovative technology company (although if you think about it, Uber is merely a Pizza Tracker® for taxis), and you’re bound to receive blank stares. But tell that to Domino’s IT team, which grew from 125 to 300 in the past three years.

Still, the Tracker isn’t without controversy. Several blogs have openly called the Pizza Tracker® a “fraud,” alleging the site merely repeats a slightly modified GIF to distract us while the process continues more or less independently of the technology (this has since been mostly debunked). But to this I say: who cares? Domino’s proactively manages my expectations. And happiness is merely the proximity of our expectations to our reality. Plus, I feel comforted watching the Domino’s Pizza Tracker® animation chug forward, and I’ve definitely ordered more pizza from them as a result. Because they made ordering pizza fun.

Still, what does pizza tracking technology have to do with enrollment management? More than we’d all care to admit.

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To begin, look at how the stereotypical application clumsily attempts to digitally replicate the paper application experience, often requiring a combination of native fields (addresses, GPA) and document imaging (transcripts, recommendation letters, etc). Couple this with the fact that DecisionDesk sees roughly 51% of materials arrive within 7 days of the deadline, creating a daunting communication bottleneck. Clunky processes result in application abandonment, as some institutions report receiving hundreds of student calls/emails a day inquiring about the status of their application. This damages both staff productivity and the recruitment prospects of students who interpret this process as a signal of poor institutional quality.

But what if this process was intuitively designed for a digital user base? What if applying to college involved creating a mobile optimized profile where materials are effortlessly uploaded, and both students and admissions officers could view the completeness of an application? What if the process was an engaging, branded opportunity for conversation? What if—like ordering a Domino’s pizza—it was… *gasp*… fun?

Ok, I know what you’re thinking. Making the application process “fun” currently ranks pretty low on an overflowing higher ed priority list.

But think about this: in the midst of the “big data” revolution, continued success in higher education relies on collecting, retaining, and interpreting student data. This data enables a university to diversify, predict yield, improve student retention, optimize financial aid, and engage alumni. Obtaining this data should be the top priority for every institution. In fact, a recent Eduventures blog suggested investing in a Chief Narrative Officer to consolidate data storytelling:

“Often, information is shared with the board from these disparate sources with varying degrees of competence and depth. Because of these information silos, there are, in most cases, multiple versions of the truth.”

To tell these truths, however, administrators must prioritize the application process and set data expectations for students and staff. Which is why companies like DecisionDesk work with institutions to reduce document scanning and missing recommendation letters while providing quantitative student profiles that dive deeper than test scores and GPA, frontloading the data narrative with a rich set of variables.

What’s more, user experience improvements often carry tangential benefits, as Domino’s discovered:

“Digital ordering has advantages for consumers, including quickness and accuracy. And for Domino’s, digital tickets are on average larger than phone orders, in part because customers can see the chain’s entire menu at a click.”

For example, a cleaner application experience yields stronger students and serves as a soft marketing tool. Higher education is rightfully reluctant to view education as a product, or students as consumers. And I’m not saying institutions should rush to adopt a Pizza Tracker® model to attract more applicants. But administrators who continue to ignore the massive benefits of a digital, data-driven academic narrative are unlikely to retain happy students. Along the way, it’s a chance to inject some fun into a task as mundane as applying to college.