Kayak’s Paul English Out to Reinforce Good Behavior With Driving App

“Can your phone be used to retrain you?”

That’s Paul English, the co-founder and chief technology officer of travel search site Kayak. He’s talking about an emerging trend in mobile apps: software on smartphones increasingly is being designed to reinforce and reward good behaviors. Think nutrition, health, fitness, stress management, and sustainability.

Now add driving to that list. Last week, as a side project, English released an iPhone app called Road Wars that tracks a user’s speed, acceleration, and turns as he or she drives a car. Based on signals from the phone’s GPS and accelerometer, the app gives feedback on how safe a driver you are. It includes a database of speed limits throughout the U.S., so it can tell if you’re speeding and send you different feedback if you’re a little over the limit or a lot.

There is also a social “gamification” aspect whereby friends can compete to see who’s the best driver, who “owns” certain stretches of roads, and who gets rewarded or penalized for their driving behaviors. In particular, if you touch your phone while the car is moving—a big no-no—you pay a big penalty.

Ideally, the app could cut down on distracted driving. More realistically, English says, “It’s just a fun way to remind you, don’t touch your phone. The concept of driving lessons while you’re actually driving is an intriguing idea.”

The Boston-area entrepreneur had the idea for the app as he was teaching his teenage kids to drive. But the app has probably had a bigger effect on his own driving. “Now I kind of enjoy getting a call and not answering,” he says.

English has gone to part-time at Kayak after the company’s $1.8 billion acquisition by Priceline about a year ago. He’s working on a number of projects, but Road Wars has been occupying him for the past year and a half.

It’s always interesting to see what someone with English’s cachet chooses to do next, and how. I asked him about lessons from his 10 years at Kayak that he’s applying to the app.

He notes that he has been lecturing at MIT Sloan School of Management for a few years and mentoring young entrepreneurs in the art of startups. “Doing a new app allows me to say, ‘Does the stuff I talk about make sense?’” he says.

In particular, he zeroes in on “how to listen to users” as important. At Kayak, his team has a usability lab where they can track where users are looking on the screen, where they move their mouse and click, and what else they’re doing—and not doing—on the site. “If there are parts they don’t look at, we remove it,” he says. “The whole idea is to keep it as simple and clean as possible.”

English is trying to apply that “discipline of shedding stuff” to the mobile world, he says. That means the next version of the Road Wars app will be simpler and easier to use, he hopes.

Philosophically, he believes in listening to all users, but “it’s not like we’re going to respond to every piece of feedback,” he says. Rather, “we try to interpret the users and figure out, can we come up with a design that’s simpler? You ask them, ‘Why was that?’ and get them to tell you as much as you can.” He adds, “The first thing a user tells you isn’t what you should do.”

One key aspect: understanding the real-world use case and context. For example, parts of the Kayak interface may not be fast or simple enough to be navigated on an iPhone in one hand while a user is standing on a rent-a-car bus getting jostled and hanging on to his or her luggage.

So English constantly pushes his team to make the interface simpler, with less scrolling. That’s a lesson that applies to any kind of app. And it’s up to the developer to understand how the app will be used in the wild, English says.

“There’s no such thing as a stupid user, only a stupid programmer,” he says.

But back to that broader idea of using iPhones to retrain people in their daily lives. For now, English is focused on the driving app and all the nuances of the interface. It sounds like he does see it as an entry point into the field of behavior modification and intelligent personal assistants. So stay tuned.

“When people hear of a game you play when you’re driving, it probably sounds terrifying,” he says. “But it can reinforce good behavior.”

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