Meet Donna, Your Mobile Personal Assistant From Khosla-Backed Startup Incredible Labs

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Don’t have a “custom-designed, one-of-a-kind bespoke app… to communicate and collaborate” with your assistant through? Hell, don’t even have a personal assistant? Well, that’s all about to change, thanks to a wonderful new mobile application called Donna.

Donna is a mobile-based personal assistant from a funky little startup called Incredible Labs. And according to “Incredible” co-founder and CEO Kevin Cheng, it “she” wants to help make sure you get to all your meetings on time, thanks to a combination of design and data.

Life without Donna

My first-ever meeting with Kevin, about a year ago, was a total mess. He and I had settled on meeting at a cafe that was in-between our offices, but one that neither of us had previously been to. I lost track of time before the meeting and left my office late. Of course, I biked to the wrong location, since there were multiple cafes with the same name in downtown San Francisco. I used no less then three different methods of communication — Twitter, SMS, and voice — trying to relay the message that I was going to be unforgivably late. And when we finally both arrived, we realized that the location we had agreed to was too busy to suit our needs.

If only I had Donna way back then.

In a chat over coffee last weekend — one which wasn’t delayed by all of the miscommunication of our previous meeting — Kevin told me that before getting down to the serious work of building Donna, the team first interviewed a bunch of personal assistants to determine which traits were most essential to their jobs, in order to incorporate them into the app. What they found was that more than anything else, the ability to anticipate what their bosses needed before they asked for it set apart “great” assistants from those which were merely ok.

What’s in a name?

The West Wing's Donna Moss

The West Wing’s Donna Moss

It’s that anticipatory nature that helped get Donna its her name, and helped define what Incredible Labs ended up building. Donna’s personality was a key component to building the application, and as a result, they have anthropomorphized it. When talking about Donna, Kevin refers to “her” rather than “it,” talking about what she does, not what the app’s features are. It’s a bit disarming, but it also speaks to the care they took in building Donna.

There are lots of personal assistant names they could have gone with — like Alfred or Jeeves, for example. But instead, the app is named after West Wing character Donna Moss, who begins the show as an assistant to the Deputy White House Chief of Staff but eventually rises in the ranks to become the First Lady’s Chief of Staff. Along the way, she proves herself invaluable by taking care of things and cleaning up messes before they happen.

That proactive but anticipatory approach is what the Incredible team have tried to build into Donna. More than just a so-called “smart calendar,” Donna is designed to not only alert users of when they have to leave for a meeting or what’s the best way to get there. But also over time, Donna is trained to take users’ personal habits and preferences into account when providing them with that information.

If I think back to that first meeting with Kevin, Donna could have helped me to leave on time, simply by sending me a push notification based on where I was and where I needed to be. Since Donna would know that I bike everywhere, she could have approximated how long it would take me to get there. And she’d make sure that I went to the correct location, in part because she would have double-checked which cafe we were supposed to meet in before I just assumed I was heading to the right one. Oh, and if all that failed, she probably would have known the best way for me to get in touch with Kevin, instead of me pinging him by phone, SMS, and Twitter.

How Donna works

notifications-meetingIn a nutshell, Donna is there to simplify the complicated process of knowing when and where we need to be, and to help us to get there. But she does more than just provide this information based on where we are at a given time and estimating time and distance only when we open the app — because frequently, then it’s too late.

In the background, Donna collects a ton of information, taking into account stuff like transportation method (whether you’re walking, driving, or biking), on-the-fly traffic data, and even how long it will probably take you to park, in order to get you to meetings on time.

For meetings that happen by phone or online, Donna integrates with your phone app to dial straight into conference calls, or allowing you to link directly into Skype, GoToMeeting, or WebEx apps.

Over time, it she also takes into consideration a whole bunch of personal habits in order to simplify the process of setting up meetings. She might know that you have a favorite Starbucks, for instance, and will default to that location. That is, unless you tell her not to. But if Donna is unsure about something — the particular location of a meeting, for instance, or your mode of transportation to get there, she’ll ask you about it.

An “Incredible” Team

Donna is the first application from Incredible Labs, which was founded in early 2012 to build a mobile personal assistant. To achieve that goal, the company has raised a total of $2.5 million from a group of investors such as Khosla Ventures, Betaworks, Maynard Webb, CrunchFund, Ashton Kutcher, and a group of other angels.

Its founding team is made up of Cheng, who designed Yahoo Pipes and was Twitter’s product lead for #NewTwitter and Discover; Scott San Filippo, who worked with data sets at Gracenote and Oracle; as well as Arshad Tayyeb and Spence Murray, veteran engineers who had spent time at DoubleTwist and Netscape. Along the way, they recruited Bloom founder Jesper Andersen and Droplr founder Josh Bryant to join them.

But more impressive than the list of investors or team members might be the app itself. Donna works by seamlessly grabbing data from your existing calendars and visualizing it, providing a view into how long it’ll take to get from one place to another, what the best route is, and how much time users will actually have between meetings. Visually, Donna provides a ton of data to the user when he or she needs it, but she also does a good job of getting out of the way and notifying users only when they need to be somewhere.

The next frontier of personal productivity

event-details-mapDonna isn’t the only app to try to win over users who need a smarter way of managing their time. After Mailbox revolutionized the way many people think about email, smart calendars have become the next frontier for improved collaboration and productivity. That has led to the rise of mobile apps like Sunrise and Tempo, both of which also integrate with users’ existing calendars to provide a better view of a person’s day and what they need to be prepared for.

Where Donna seeks to differentiate from other apps is in the amount of data that she provides and the user experience in doing so. There’s also the amount of learning that can be done to make her even more proactive and personally suited to each user. And, of course, the amount of training users might have to do to get the most out of Donna. Just as getting used to Mailbox’s “dictate, delay, or delete” process for managing email made me change my habits for the better, knowing that providing a greater depth of information in my calendar entries has improved my experience with Donna.

Over time, Kevin says there’s an opportunity to build in more features to make Donna more relevant to users. For those who have push notification fatigue, the team is working to build in a feature that would have Donna call you to interrupt a current meeting and make sure you’re moving on to the next one. Or to give you a wake-up call when traveling. There’s also the possibility of adding in the amount of time it takes to call a cab, if that’s what you plan to do. Or maybe integrating with one of the e-hail apps to know how close the nearest car is and get a ride on demand.

That’s all stuff for the future, though, and for the Incredible Labs team, it seems the sky’s the limit. In the meantime, Donna is becoming available in a private beta beginning today. Users who want to try her out themselves can sign up at http://don.na.