December 24, 2013

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WSU Students Design Software for Special Needs Restaurant Employees

Press Release

December 24, 2013

Ogden – A team of Weber State University computer science students has created a new system to help a local restaurant fill orders more smoothly. Runway Ruby’s, located on Hill Air Force Base, primarily employs adults with special needs.

Walking into the restaurant, you wouldn’t know that the employees have any disabilities,” said Richard Fry, WSU associate professor of computer science. “But when the employees get flustered or things go totally wrong, you really see the stress and the problems.”

The team developed a Web-based queuing system to address those problems. Designed with the special needs of the employees in mind, the system will enable lunch rushes to flow more efficiently, increase customer satisfaction and lower employee stress levels.

The restaurant currently completes all orders by hand. “It’s an opportunity for confusion, and it’s time consuming,” restaurant manager Scott Preston said.

In addition, little organization exists when the tickets reach the employees. With the current system, the tickets are hung up in a line, giving the employees too many options. “If an employee likes to make turkey sandwiches, and a turkey sandwich comes up, it doesn’t matter if it’s the 10th one in line,” said Frank Eddy, WSU computer science student. “He or she will make the turkey sandwich and forget the pastrami one that’s first in line.”

The 10-member group of students had a number of issues to address. With a grant for equipment from Pioneer Adult Rehabilitation Center (PARC) — the non-profit foundation that owns the restaurant — the group set out to create software to meet the employees’ needs.

We went through a couple of iterations of the design,” team member Jake Stokes said. “One of them had pictures the employees could click on, but we took it to them and they said they didn’t want the pictures. They liked the words.”

In reevaluating the system, the team took into account feedback from the employees as well as learning styles for people with special needs. The final design was simple, plain and structured in a familiar format.

After an order is entered into the system at the register, it is digitally queued to the appropriate production line. The next order in the queue appears on a mounted tablet, and employees tap on the item they want to complete. Once an employee selects a menu item, it disappears from all other devices, eliminating the chance of an item being prepared multiple times.

On the tablets, the orders appear and move in a circular motion like a clock.

These individuals are trained to be very structured, so that rotation is what they are keying in on,” Eddy said. “It keeps it in a familiar format, so it is easy to train and easy to follow.”

Once the items are complete, “runner” employees receive notifications on cell phones to indicate the order is ready for delivery to the customer.

I’m very impressed with what the students have accomplished,” Fry said. “In two and a half months, they bonded as a team, learned the technology, interviewed the client and created the project. The design of the custom queuing and interface is really novel. It hasn’t been done in traditional restaurants.”

The team will launch the project and train employees over spring break. Team members also will provide ongoing support over the final month of the semester.

Preston is optimistic about the outcome for the restaurant and its employees and customers. “Customer service — that’s the business we’re in,” he said. “And PARC’s goal is to grow and develop the employees. This project is going to help solve problems.”

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