In a perfect business world, we would all have plenty of time to over-research the people we’re taking meetings with.
But it’s not, and we don’t.
A new mobile app called Refresh wants to make your meeting life easier by providing personal “dossiers” on all the people you’ve squeezed into your workday. Refresh links to your iPhone calendar and culls a crazy amount of data from your various social networks to create these dossiers — which of course means that you have to allow it access to these accounts for the app to work.
I’ve been testing the free Refresh app on an iPhone for over a week now. I’ve used it mostly to get up to speed on people I’m calling or meeting for work purposes. But it has also been interesting to see what the app has had to say about friends.
Refresh was pretty useful — most of the time. It showed me snippets of public LinkedIn profiles before meeting with brand-new people. It told me which politicians my contacts follow on Twitter, and showed me sports trivia for people’s favorite teams. It even suggested that I ask about a friend’s Facebook picture that was, as it turns out, a picture of a relative that recently passed away.
The app’s “Explore” option — a search tool that lets you pull up a dossier about someone even if they’re not in your calendar — was one of my favorite features.
But (you knew there was a “but” coming, right?) Refresh won’t work for everyone, or in all situations.
It’s currently not available on Google Android. Also, Refresh wasn’t always super-smart. It all depended on how detailed my calendar appointments were.
If someone sent me a calendar invite, then Refresh was really good at figuring out who that person was. If I haphazardly entered in a name myself, all bets were off.
Lastly, and maybe most notably, Refresh requires deep access to your social accounts in order to work. This might not sound appealing to privacy-concerned consumers. In fact, if you connect your Google account when you first sign up for Refresh, you’ll have to grant the app access to “view and manage” your mail, because of the way Google’s app permissions work.
The creator of Refresh says the app does know who you’re sending mail to, who it’s from and email-header information, but doesn’t know the content of your emails. Refresh also says it doesn’t store any of your social network, calendar or Google account information on its servers.
When I signed up for Refresh, I linked my Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google accounts, and allowed it access to my smartphone’s calendar. It also works with Yahoo and Exchange calendars. Here are some examples of the information Refresh showed me about people I met with this week:
It told me that a start-up CEO and I have seven mutual friends and connections, and that we attended the same university. Refresh also suggested to mention that the school’s basketball team finished 19-11 for the season, although it didn’t specify whether this was the men’s or women’s team.
The app told me that another person I was meeting with used to work for Netflix, and showed me what the company’s stock was trading at now compared with the stock price when this person used to work there. After his name popped up in a meeting request, I learned that another person in my calendar apparently has a Pinterest board devoted to “Success and Greatness.”
Refresh told me some things I didn’t know about colleagues and co-workers. One of them took a trip to Paris last fall. Re/code-r Bonnie Cha is a fan of the Baltimore Orioles, and Refresh showed me the Oriole’s current record for the season. It told me that another Re/code colleague, Thomas Johnson, shares a birthday with Hillary Clinton, and that he interacts a great deal with Kara Swisher on Twitter (comment withheld about his affinity for strong-minded women).
Sometimes I didn’t even have to go into the app to see this info; a notification might pop up on my smartphone a few minutes before a meeting.
But here’s where Refresh works imperfectly. First, if you change a calendar entry through the Refresh app, the change won’t be reflected in your phone’s native calendar app.
When I entered my friend Kate’s full name into my calendar, Refresh created a dossier for another Kate with the same last name — someone I didn’t know at all.
And when I didn’t put full names in or send someone a calendar invite, Refresh didn’t always work. When I put “Meeting with Walt” in my calendar, Refresh didn’t figure out that I meant Re/code co-editor Walt Mossberg. When I simply put “Keith,” the name of a yoga instructor, into my calendar, Refresh pulled up “insights,” as the company calls them, for a random Keith. Again, this was someone I don’t know.
Arguably, these are cases where I wouldn’t want or need Refresh “insights.” I already know that Walt is my boss — and that he’s a Boston Red Sox fan. Do I need to say to my yoga instructor, “Did you know you share a birthday with Tom Selleck?” No. And do I need to brush up on my friend Kate’s career path, when we’ve known each other since last century? Again, no.
If I put “Gram’s birthday” in my calendar, and Refresh can’t tell me who 91-year-old Gram is (because she has not checked into Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter lately), then that’s fine.
When our obsession with tech gets so pervasive that we are relying on apps to remember how to be decent human beings, then downloading more “smart” apps onto our phones probably won’t fix our problems.
There are, of course, other mobile apps out there that have promised smarter business communication, whether by adding context to your Gmail contacts (Rapportive, now owned by LinkedIn), or by showing you relevant email threads in your calendar appointments (Tempo).
And you can always try to spend a little extra time combing through Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn yourself to get some topical information ahead of your next meeting.
But Refresh will do the job for you — provided that you’re willing to give it access to all of your apps.
Join the conversation: