by Clint Boulton

Why Dominos’ virtual assistant struggles to understand your orders

Aug 24, 2016
CIOCIO 100Consumer Electronics

Dominos CIO Kevin Vasconi is bullish on virtual assistant technology, but says that natural language processing and artificial intelligence technologies require more polish.

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Credit: Thinkstock

RANCHO PALOS VERDES — As pizza chains go, Dominos Pizza’s use of digital technologies to allow you to place orders from any computing device is among the most progressive in the U.S. But even an innovator can struggle to implement emerging technologies that some smartphone-toting consumers may not be ready to embrace. Such is the case for Dominos, which is running into some user experience hurdles as it attempts to process orders via voice technologies.

Dominos CIO Kevin Vasconi Clint Boulton

Dominos CIO Kevin Vasconi.

The problem, according to Dominos CIO Kevin Vasconi, is that most people don’t place their orders clearly when speaking to Dom, the chain’s homegrown voice-activated virtual assistant. And while ordering a pizza can hardly be compared to assembling a car in terms of difficulty, Vasconi says training Dom to recognize all of the different combinations with which people order pizza, wings and soda is no trivial task.

“While we would love people to go through that selection process in a logical linear fashion, people don’t always order food that way,” Vasconi tells on the sidelines of IDG’s 2016 CIO 100 event here last week.

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Dominos Anywhere: a hot, delicious platform?

Dominos has accelerated its digital service efforts as it slugs it out with Pizza Hut, Little Caesar’s and other quick-service pizza makers. It’s a competitive market and consumer loyalty can switch in an instant when the website or mobile app drops orders. Unlike a bank, which inspires stickiness through complexity — switching is not easy — picking another pizza provideris just a Google search and a few other keystrokes away. “If I lose them I might not get them back,” Vasconi says.

That minimal switching cost has Vasconi obsessed with ensuring uptime of its digital infrastructure, as well as meeting customers on virtually every digital platform. Equal parts technology, marketing and operational blitz, the company’s AnyWhere platform allows you to place orders through any internet-connected device, including smartphones, smartwatches and smart TVs, by entering orders into the Dominos website, and by tweeting and texting emojis. “Choice drives our whole mobile and digital platform,” Vasconi says. “Millennials love that.”

img anywhere Clint Boulton

Dominos’ AnyWhere platform lets you order your pizza through any mobile device. (Click for larger image.)

And then there is, of course, voice, which Dominos views as its next frontier. Consumers can place orders by speaking to Ford’s Sync in-dashboard service or Amazon’s Echo device via its Alexa virtual assistant.

Since Dominos launched Dom in 2014, consumers have logged more than half a million orders through the bot. Yet challenges remain with the technology as Dominos and its partner, Nuance Communications, work together to align the natural language processing and artificial intelligence behind the voice bot to the variety of permutations with which people order pizza.

Dom, which you engage by tapping a button within the Dominos mobile app, is a snap for consumers who offer straightforward orders, such as a large pepperoni pizza with extra cheese. But Dom also receives orders in which people say “I want a pizza,” forcing Dom to tease the rest — size, type, extras — out of them. Vasconi’s team, a relatively lean staff of 250, and Nuance Communications are building “logic ladders” that anticipate and respond to how people order. “The hard part is not voice to text or text to voice,” Vasconi says. “The hard part is the AI and the logic.

Another hurdle is the newness of Dom’s user experience. Consumers are used to speaking to a customer service representative, not an order-taking chat bot. For the uninitiated, the experience can be jarring. Halfway through the order, some consumers switch from speaking to Dom to typing in the order via the mobile app because they are having trouble ordering through Dom and fear their order won’t go through. Despite the challenges Dominos is sticking with this work in progress. “I am so bullish on voice technology,” Vasconi says. “That is the future of our interactions with computers because it’s so natural.”

For a speedy delivery, dial A-G-I-L-E

Because rapid iteration to deliver new digital services requires a lot of writing and rewriting of code. Vasconi is running a 100 percent agile shop. Vasconi also places a strong emphasis on DevOps culture for continuously building, testing and revamping features. “One of our most important assets is speed,” Vasconi says. “The agile method lends itself well to incremental releases and we can learn and get better very, very quickly.”

[ Related: Pizza Hut turns to algorithms and GPS tracking to increase sales ]

It’s not uncommon for Dominos’ developers to write code, refine it, and push changes through to the mobile app or other services in the course of a day. The approach also helps Dominos find, catch and fix mistakes quickly. “We have the ability to release features and when you get it wrong, you can fix it fast,” Vasconi says. “Agile gives you license to take calculated risks as long as you can fix what you get wrong really, really fast.”

The business lines –including marketing, human resources and finance — love it. And as any CIO who has orchestrated agile knows, getting business managers to buy in is vital for continued success and, ultimately, innovation.

CIOs talk a lot about aligning IT with the business these days and one way Dominos gets alignment is through its digital sales targets, which executives such as Vasconi, CMO Russell Weiner and CDO Dennis Maloney share together.

Their target is discussed, reviewed and reported to the board. In the ultimate form of accountability through transparency, part of their compensation depends on meeting the target. “We’re very big on alignment and it’s worked to keep us in lockstep in driving digital sales,” Vasconi says. “When you align two objectives at that level, it permeates through the entire organization.”

The formula is working. Last year, Dominos generated $4 billion in ecommerce sales worldwide, including $2 billion in the U.S. Of those orders, half came via mobile devices, including smartphones, tablets and smartwatches. In the July quarter, Dominos reported $339.3 million in sales, a 12 percent increase from a year ago. The company is also expanding domestically and abroad, adding 244 stores, mostly overseas.

Ideally, Vasconi says he’d like to make it as easy for people to order from Dominos as it is for him to pick up his dry cleaning or order a drink at his favorite bar. When he pulls up to the former, the dry cleaner recognizes his car and gets his clothes ready. And when he enters the bar, the bartender often has his favorite cocktail waiting.

Ordering pizza is much more complex today but Vasconi says that it doesn’t have to be, if Dominos finds the right formula of voice and natural language processing and multi-platform support to reach every consumer. “If we can get to that level of service, we are going to win,” Vasconi says. “We are going to clean up.”