Don’t Deride the Delay: More Ventra App Testing Will Ensure Better Quality

CUTGroup #11: Expunge.io (Fenger)
The CTA is involving CUTGroup, an organization for testing civic apps in Chicago. Here, Fenger high school students test an app called Expunge.io that advises people on how to expunge juvenile records. Photo: Dan X. O’Neil

Earlier this month, the CTA, Metra, and Pace announced that they are delaying the launch of the Ventra mobile app from this spring until this fall, and that an independent civic app testing group will help vet it. Contrary to what Chicago Tribune transportation writer Jon Hilkevitch wrote, that’s not a sign that there are “undisclosed issues” with the technology. Rather, it shows that the transit agencies are being careful to thoroughly test the app before releasing it to the public. Given the rocky launch of the Ventra card two years ago, that’s a wise strategy.

The Ventra app, which I favorably reviewed in April, will let Metra riders skip lines at ticket counters and vending machines by paying their fares on trains, without being penalized by onboard surcharges. It will also allow Metra, CTA, and Pace customers to quickly recharge their Ventra account balances before boarding trains and buses.

The agencies’ news release stated that they will collaborate on testing the app with Smart Chicago Collaborative, a nonprofit that works to bridge the digital divide. The organization’s Civic User Testing Group will engage citizens in a formal process where they will test the app with their personal Ventra accounts.

Hilkevitch wrote a short piece in response to the news, in which he jumped to conclusions about the reason for the delay. The article quotes CTA spokeswoman Tammy Chase as saying, “The user experience, we don’t think, is there yet.” Hilkevitch assumed this meant the transit agencies are partnering with the CUTGroup because they need to “iron out undisclosed issues” with the app.

Just because the agencies are still working to improve user experience doesn’t mean there are currently problems with the app – none are referenced in the press release. Optimizing user experience is part and parcel of developing any app, and the partnership with the CUTGroup simply means that this process is being taken seriously. Rather than rushing to meet the spring deadline and releasing an underdeveloped product, it makes sense to push back the target date.

I’m a civic app developer myself, having built several apps related to bicycling, transit, and development. I partnered with the CUTGroup to test and improve Chicago Cityscape, a website I created where residents can find the status of building projects in their neighborhoods.

The CUTGroup’s testing methods and credentials are meticulously documented on its website. The CTA should be commended for collaborating with an organization that gives regular Chicagoans from every ward the opportunity to road-test new apps and provide feedback about how they can be improved. CUTGroup is always accepting new members.

Glitches are inherent to software development. Having a number of curious transit customers try out the new Ventra app is a good way to ensure that developers have squashed as many of these bugs as possible.

  • Lakeview Guy

    ANYTHING that the CTA, Ventra, or any City agency does is going to be pure garbage.
    The Ventra rollout was a complete disaster, and I would expect nothing but the same with whatever “ap” they are developing.
    The fact that when tapping your Ventra card at a turnstyle STILL takes milliseconds to register is terrible and really slows down the turnstyles during busy times.

  • Anne A

    Since we’ve had so many issues with Ventra, I’m glad that they’re doing more beta testing. There are few things I hate more than ending up as an unwitting, unpaid beta tester of a not-ready-for-prime-time product.

  • I hear you on the Ventra card rollout. Heck, the old Chicago Card system used to tell you how much money was left on the card when you used it, and the Ventra card doesn’t even do that.

    But let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater here. As Steven wrote, it appears that the transit agencies are performing due diligence to make the Ventra mobile app launch as seamless as possible. I suggest you give them the benefit of the doubt until you get a chance to try the app yourself.

  • Kim

    why don’t they work instead on making their website more user friendly, it hasn’t changed a bit since the launch nearly two years ago now. The CTA site still tries to send me to the defunct Chicago Card Site to answer my question, before redirecting me to the ventra site which has no user friendly way have answering of the same questions. I have to email and wait god knows how long for an answer.

  • R.A. Stewart

    Otherwise known as The Microsoft Experience.

  • Anne A

    Exactly – my inspiration for the comment.

  • duppie

    Agreed.
    It is a website that seems stuck in the early 00’s. The only other website in the transit sphere that is worse, is the RTA commuter transit benefit.

    Of all e-commerce sites that I use (dozens, at least) Ventra is the only one that requires the user to put in the CCV number of their credit card for every single transaction. This slows down the recharge transaction unnecessarily.

    Also, no matter how hard I try, I cannot delete expired credit cards.

  • jpcguy89

    I think an issue with this idea is this is, in part, meant to be a replacement for getting tickets from the metra ticketing agents and vending machines at Ogilvie. The problem with that is, Ogilvie has absolutely no reception with any major network, especially if you are ON the train, which most users will likely be when they try to purchase a ticket.

  • foxtown

    John – any news on when the app will be ready? I’m excited to use it actually. It should beat waiting in line at a ticket counter.

  • Fall 2015.

    Here’s a statement the CTA just issued us in response to your question.

    “To meet the very high standards that have been set for the first ever Ventra fare payment app for CTA, Metra and Pace, the service boards tested the app through the CUTGroup as well as through public testing to make adjustments and improvements. While we received great feedback from the CUTGroup this summer, by opening the app to public testing, we are able to broaden and diversify the test group so that we hear from as many voices as possible leading up to the official launch this fall.”

  • Anne A

    I really miss that feature from the old Chicago Card system. With Ventra, there have been a few times when I took a train trip that pushed me into a negative balance, then just had a feeling I should check the balance.

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