Personal assistant iOS app Donna puts your phone to work for you

Siri, meet Donna.

Donna is the name of a new iOS(s AAPL) app that blends location services, calendaring, reminders and push notifications to embody an actual personal assistant that keeps your schedule for you. It was created by the four founders at San Francisco’s Incredible Labs: former Twitter product lead Kevin Cheng, along with Scott San Filippo, Arshad Tayyeb and Spence Murray, who arrived from Gracenote, DoubleTwist and Netscape, respectively.

home-radial DonnaSiri is a voice-powered assistant — you ask Siri questions about anything, from directions to making reservations for dinner. Donna’s creators are less focused on search; this app asks the questions and triest to anticipate what you need before you even have to ask what’s next on your personal schedule.

In developing the app, they talked to personal assistants, executive assistants, and people who employ them to understand the attributes that makes for a good assistant. They didn’t just pick a random woman’s name — the app is named after an iconic television assistant: Donna Moss, the assistant to the Deputy White House Chief of Staff Josh Lyman on The West Wing —  and someone they think reflects the best qualities of a person in that position: proactive, strong, intelligent, Cheng said.
home-screen Donna

“Good assistants seem to be people who, you ask them something, and they give the information back to you,” Cheng told me in a call earlier this week. “But really great assistants are the ones that are a step ahead of you and gave you the information before you realized you even needed it.”

In that way Donna shares similarities with Google Now(s GOOG) — which is Android-only at the moment. That’s a search product, but it also uses location and user habits to anticipate what you want. But it doesn’t quite mimic the schedule-keeping of an assistant.

Putting an app to work for you

Based on all the stuff she does, it’s clear Donna is intended for really busy people — people who use an app like AnyDO or Wunderlist may see similarities, but with an added proactive element. It takes your appointment details from your phone’s calendar, uses your contacts, your location and the location of where you need to be next to tell you where and when you need to leave to make your next appointment on time. It cuts out fiddling with your phone to figure out directions, the weather or what’s coming next on your calendar.

It does other things to mimic a real human assistant too: you get a push notification when it’s time to leave for your next meeting; you get an update at the end of the day about what’s on the schedule for tomorrow; and if it’s raining at the location you’re heading too it’ll let you know to bring an umbrella.

But the app is designed so that you actually don’t spend that much time in it: you simply get a notification for what’s next (or a call, which is in the works). And in order to not be annoying it only notifies you with something that immediately needs your attention — time to leave, time to get on a Skype call or Webex discussion, time to wake up, etc.

From there it does a lot of work for you: swipe the notification for a conference call and it will not only automatically dial you in, it will put in the conference code and mute you as well — to mimic a personal assistant dialing you in.

The app is free and the company won’t have any ads in Donna — the info you share with your personal assistant should stay personal, Cheng said — but they do have a business plan in mind: subscription access. But that’s only if they can make themselves “valuable” enough someday to charge, he said.

Donna is launching in private beta starting Thursday, so you’ll have to sign up for an invitation. Cheng says he hopes to open the app to the public soon after.

Incredible Labs has raised $2.5 million in seed funding so far from Khosla Ventures, Betaworks, Maynard Webb, Crunchfund, Ashton Kutcher and others.