The Steamship Authority board of directors is wary of making a good showing when the ferry service’s new website is launched.
During the Tuesday morning meeting, Steamship Authority general manager Robert Davis requested a change order to a contract with Boston-based software company ADK Group, who are working to redesign the authority’s website and develop a mobile app. The extended time on the project with this order is expected to cost $165,200. According to Davis, the information technology working group was established in January to find a consultant to assess the SSA’s overall information technology infrastructure and make improvement recommendations. The hope is to have these bids decided by early April.
“At the time, I mentioned that we were going to apply the brakes somewhat to the website developments until we had a better understanding of what is going on,” Davis said, adding that, however, ADK Group saw potential issues down the road based on many aspects of the project.
Steamship Authority communications director Sean Driscoll said during the meeting that user acceptance testing, which assessed the site’s functionality in a real-world setting, by the authority’s staff revealed 31 issues. These affected the setup of user preferences and booking functions, among others. Testing and training is planned to continue. Updates about the project are posted at bit.ly/41i1VUs.
Davis said the authority has a “small window” to roll out an improved website either in the spring or later in the fall. “At this point, we’re looking at a delay until the springtime and as a part of that, there is a continued cost for the developers assigned to this project … [who will] have some further testing and refinement of the online during this time period as well,” he said, expecting the delay to take seven weeks.
Board secretary and Martha’s Vineyard representative Jim Malkin expressed a need for accuracy on the website.
“I would hate to go to our traveling public with a better looking website that has inaccurate information, and a discussion that we’ve had was there are business processes behind the website that will feed the information to the website,” he said, asking whether a plan was being developed to make sure information from different parts of the authority’s operations gets the correct information onto the website.
Davis said while interim measures are being considered, Malkin’s concerns would fall under the consultant’s duties.
When board member and Falmouth representative Peter Jeffrey asked whether the delay was enough for the public launch of the website and mobile app alongside what the estimated costs would be for further delays, Steamship Authority communications director Sean Driscoll said the website launches would happen by mid-May or mid-June. If more time is needed, the launch would be in September or October to avoid having the big update during the busy summer season.
“I anticipate that would be roughly concurrent with when we get a report back,” Driscoll said. “If we want to then delay the launch of the website until we implement that, now we’re looking at problems for the 2024 openings.”
According to Driscoll, swapping out the backend systems for the website should be easy. “I think, personally, it’s in our best interest to launch it after the conclusion of the [request for proposal] process but then as soon as possible because we’re going to fix a lot of the issues that we’re seeing in the summertime and then we’ll be much better prepared for the general openings in 2024,” he said.
During the summer 2023 reservation openings, the authority’s website experienced issues that forced long wait times for many customers.
“We also get one opportunity to make a first impression in terms of our website and mobile app,” Jeffrey said.
Malkin pointed out that improvements to the website should be noticeable to the public.
“If the fix is visible and apparent to our customers, then the other issues may be minor,” he said. “If the issues aren’t obvious to the users, in terms of being fixed, then the new website will make the SSA … less than ideal.”
Driscoll said a part of managing public expectations will be based on properly sharing what the website will and will not fix.
“It’s not going to create space on the boats, it’s not going to build new boats,” Driscoll said. “The active management of the reservation system is separate from the interface of the website. So, what the website will do is have a more stable connection to the reservation system so that time-outs and errors while you’re looking will be greatly reduced … the website will be far, far, far, far more user friendly and [navigable] than our current website is, but it’s not going to fix all of the issues the IT working group is looking at.”
After further discussion, the board voted 3-0 to approve the order change. Jeffrey, who is also the information technology working group chair, abstained.