One of the least-evolved features of your smartphone is the contacts list. Yes, it lets you designate certain people as favorites, for quicker access. It syncs across multiple devices. It may even show you the people you frequently call, text or email.
But, for the most part, it’s just an alphabetical list of people you’ve added to the app over time, with very little information about them.
In particular, the contact list isn’t much help when you can’t recall or spell people’s names, and you only remember where you met them, or where they live or work, or who their friends and colleagues are. The human brain uses all these things to identify people, but the smartphone contacts list doesn’t, unless you’ve spent eons filling out every detail of every contact entry, including notes — something few people do.
For the past week, I’ve been testing a new iPhone app that aims to create enough context around your contacts, automatically, so you can find them even if you don’t recall their names — only, say, where they live or work. It’s called Humin, and it claims to be an app “that thinks just like you!”
Well, kind of. Almost. Not every time.
Humin, from a San Francisco startup of the same name, is on the right track. But in my tests I found that it had limitations and some bugs that caused it to fall short of its goal.
Humin has grand ambitions. At its core, it is indeed a souped-up address book, but it really wants you to use it as your everyday phone app, instead of the built-in iOS phone app. The company even suggests that you replace the iPhone’s standard green phone icon on the bottom row of apps with the Humin icon.
That’s because, in addition to displaying contacts in a richer, easier manner, Humin allows you to initiate calls, texts or emails to those contacts right from within the app — though the actual calling, texting and emailing takes place in the standard iOS apps for those functions.
A rich Humin contact entry
The key to Humin is that it links your contacts to their profiles on Facebook and LinkedIn, and to your calendar. So, for instance, it can show you where the contact works, or went to school, or who your mutual friends might be, accompanied by a photo.
And it lets you enter search terms that correspond with how humans remember people, beyond just their names. For instance, you can search for things like “lives in Washington,” or “met at Re/code,” or “met last week,” or “works at Apple,” or “friends with Ina.”
When this works, it’s great. It can not only help you find the phone number or email address, or the correct spelling of a name, but also rapidly gather information that will help enrich a call or meeting. You might be able to bring up a mutual friend, or refer to a school the person attended.
Humin isn’t the only app doing something like this. My colleague Lauren Goode reviewed one called Refresh a while back. But Humin CEO Ankur Jain says his product is meant to be more of a light-duty tool than Refresh.
Sometimes Humin can be downright delightful. It can show you when a contact is visiting your city, in some cases. And it can very rapidly bring up the most relevant names when you type even a single letter into its search field. You can add a new contact by just entering an email address or phone number, and be rewarded with a rich entry filled with information drawn from Facebook or LinkedIn or your calendar.
An example: if I type the letter “k” into my standard iPhone contact app, I get a long list of text entries for people whose first or last names begin with that letter. If I do the same thing in Humin, I see entries, with photos, of people important to me, like my partner Kara Swisher, or my colleagues Katie Boehret or Lia Kennett.
But in my tests, Humin too often disappointed for me to trust it as my main phone app.
For one thing, it cannot show you completed incoming calls in its recent-calls log, or outgoing calls placed in the standard iPhone calling app. The company blames this on Apple’s restrictions, and says that its Android version, due out in beta in a few weeks, won’t have this problem. But it’s a pain.
In addition, I found that entering new contacts didn’t always auto-create a rich entry, something Humin blames on a server overload that it says is being fixed.
I also found that edits in contact entries either didn’t sync back to the standard iOS address book, or took a long time to do so. Again, Humin blames Apple for this, but it doesn’t matter. It either works well, or it doesn’t.
A contact search in Humin
And some of its human-like searches yielded results for me that were just plain wrong. For instance, when I searched on “Lives in the New York Area,” Humin included in the results three members of my family who neither live there, nor ever have lived there, nor said so in their Facebook profiles.
But the worst problem I found was that Humin was absolutely dumb about my calendar. In numerous tries, it almost never was able to say when I met my contacts last, even though these meetings were plainly listed in my iPhone’s calendar with the contact’s name.
And in other cases, it put in wrong information for when I met people. For instance, in some instances it said I had met them at the time I added them as a new contact, presumably because it assumes you have input the person’s information as a contact at or just after the meeting — not, say, when you later found their business cards, or got an email from them.
In one case, it mistakenly treated a contact’s birthday, drawn from his Facebook profile, as a meeting.
To me, this is a crucial feature of the app, and a perfect example of how the brain remembers people — something Humin is trying to emulate.
The company concedes that it has a problem interacting with Google calendars, which happen to be the source of almost all the information in my iOS calendar. And it says that it hopes to improve this in a revision coming soon.
What about privacy? Humin says it “severely” limits the amount of data that passes through its servers, and says your emails and texts “never touch our servers.” Humin says it collects only a minimum amount of data, and pledges never to sell or share personal info about you or your contacts. Passwords and other authentication information are processed only on your phone, not in the cloud. And information in Humin’s servers is kept anonymous and encrypted.
Humin has big plans. For instance, it says it has deals to be used in cars, so that when you drive somewhere, you can tell which of your contacts live there.
Bottom line: Humin could be great. But it needs work.