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What Makes Our iPhone Caller ID App Special?



04 Feb 2015

What do you get when you bring together dozens of the best public and private data sources for phone book listings and combine all that data with a community of users who compete to make sure the listings are accurate, useful, and comprehensive? Our iPhone app, CallerSmart.

Yes, there are already a handful of popular phone book apps in Apple’s App Store. Some are decent, while others really stink. What makes CallerSmart unique (and better than Hiya, TrueCaller, PrivacyStar, Number Guru, etc.) is that we've approached the challenge of solving the iPhone’s caller ID problem in a fundamentally new way: We made a game out of keeping a shared U.S. phone book up-to-date for everyone, and we made it fun so that our users actually want to help each other out.

Keeping the U.S. Phone Book Up-to-Date

Keeping the phone book up-to-date really is a daunting task. Between the business yellow pages and the personal white pages, there's a tremendous amount of "churn", which is when a listing becomes obsolete, outdated, wrong, etc. All this is happening faster than ever.

For yellow pages, new businesses start. Established businesses close. Businesses merge, change names, move locations, etc. For white pages, Americans move around a lot! Plus, there's a never-ending cycle of births, deaths, marriages, divorces, etc.

Nowadays, it's also easier than ever to get a throwaway burner number. Whether you want to protect your individual privacy or your business needs to robo-dial hundreds of people all at once, grabbing a new number, using it for a short time, and then discarding it is faster than ever. All of these factors combine to make it really challenging to keep phone book listings accurate.

Dealing With "Churn"

Multi-billion dollar companies like Lexis Nexis employ teams of thousands to try and do just this. As a bootstrapped start-up, we don't have that sort of cash or manpower available. Instead, we learned from the likes of Waze and Wikipedia, tapping into the collective wisdom of our users by making our app fun to use and rewarding people for helping one another.

Waze for Phone NumbersWaze produced a better map with more useful driving directions than Google, another multi-billion dollar company with a massive, centralized team. (That's why Google bought them for $1.3 billion dollars.)

Waze was able to achieve this by making it fun for their users to help one another outsmart gnarly traffic and hidden speed traps. They proved that thousands of real-time eyes on the road, when given the proper incentives and a fun game, were more insightful than a Google  car driving around with a camera on top mapping the same roads. We learned from them; except instead of roads, we've focused on phones.

(And like Waze, which provides their users with a solid map file they can edit, our app combs through over 600 million current U.S. phone records for our users. To make sure things are accurate though, we've enabled our users to edit and add to these phone records, just like Waze has done with their map.)

That's right, even though we've brought together the best data sources out there, it's not enough. For us, the optimal way to deal with the ever-increasing churn in the phone book is to provide our users with the best data possible and then engage their help to improve it even further.

An Incentivized Phone Book

To get our users involved, we've built several powerful incentives into CallerSmart to make it both fun and useful.  Using game mechanics, these incentives encourage some behavior (and discourage other).

For instance, users who help update our phone book get “Caller I.Q.” points. The amount of points depends on the action taken. That's because certain updates to our phone book are more valuable than others. A number which has already been tagged as a bill collector or a scammer by hundreds of our users is less important to the overall usefulness of our phone book than another number which we don't have any information on. To help us have the most comprehensive and up-to-date phone listings, we want our users to fix our results if they see something wrong or missing.

This ability to update our listings is part of what makes CallerSmart special. Because our app is collaborative, our users help ensure that our phone book is up-to-date for all. We are the first iPhone app to do so. (Lots of users search the numbers they know off-hand and update them for everyone else when they see that we've got it wrong.)

Every day, our phone book is being checked and updated thousands of times, all by users who are competing to earn more Caller I.Q. points. Points are rewarded for two sorts of phone book updates. One is for a useful comment on a number that’s called or texted them. The other is for an update to our listings, particularly for a phone listing that we didn't know anything about before.

In a nod to our competitive human nature, users are then ranked against one another, based on who has the most Caller I.Q. points. This is one of the reasons our users keep coming back to update our phone book.

Not only does a user gain Caller I.Q. points for taking certain actions, a user also gains or loses points based on the votes from others. For instance, if the feedback you submit about a number isn't useful, others will vote it down. Their down votes mean you'll lose Caller I.Q. points, which also negatively impacts your rank.

Setting CallerSmart up this way accomplishes two things: First, we automatically surface the most useful feedback for others who search the same number in the future; second, we reward you for submitting feedback that's genuinely helpful to others, based on their votes.

Beyond Caller I.Q. points and a user's rank versus others, there are additional unique incentives built into our app: Smart Badges + free in-app prizes.

Smart Badges

Our users get colorful Smart Badges as their Caller I.Q. score goes up. From the military to the Boy Scouts, badges have been used to indicate achievement for thousands of years. We’re using the same principle here, just with a twist. Not only is each badge named after someone inspiring, our Smart Badges incorporate a bit of humorous background information to help educate our users. After all, they're not called "Smart Badges" for nothing!

Second, our users get free prizes when they make a phone book update. (These prizes are provided by our partner, Kiip, and continue to be really popular.)

Not every user chooses to take part in the game of keeping our phone book up-to-date, which is fine. Many of us visit Wikipedia without ever submitting an edit or use Waze without ever reporting an accident. Some of our users care passionately about their Caller I.Q. rank. Others care about getting new Smart Badges. While others just want a free prize for helping out. Whatever the motivation, we like rewarding those who contribute the most. Because that way, together we can build a comprehensive phone book that's easily accessible and useful for everyone.

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