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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.

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