Some time back, Walt Mossberg wrote an interesting piece for the Verge stating that Siri seems “Dumb”, the gist of that article is that in the last 5 years that Siri has existed, it has done little to improve itself and that the inconsistency of the responses drives people away from the platform. Over the last few days, this has been a talking point on most podcasts and the consensus has been that Siri isn’t a great experience at all.
Listening to these shows and reading that Walt Mossberg piece, I’ve felt that I’m probably one of the few people who thinks otherwise; that Siri isn’t that bad and the fact that it’s got a lot of clever tricks up it’s sleeve which not a lot of other assistants do. And the fact that it I use it often to get work done.
Siri as a product.
So what does a virtual assistant do? Why do I need it? The first thing that comes to my mind when I hear the term “Assistant”, is the fact that it’s probably something that’ll assist me to get my job done faster. So theoretically, while I’m working on my device, I should be able to talk to it to get some of the ancillary work done, or speed up a process. Or on a platform like the apple watch or the Apple TV where multiple taps or swipes can be cumbersome it’s a great convenience to ask an assistant do some of the work.
In my use of Siri and other Assistants over the last few years, I have found that Virtual Assistants are currently great at doing two things: Provide Information and and accomplish small tasks which require minimum intervention from the user (start timers, play music, launch apps, using Shazam, etc.).
With Siri, whenever I’m willing to talk aloud to my devices I get a lot of this done. And it’s helpful in that regard. Over the coarse of time, there are things that I’ve developed a instinct to ask Siri to do, because the failure rate for them is practically zero. Exactly how is it useful to me? I have a few examples to show
Asking for Important Dates and Days
A lot of Indian festivals follow the lunar calendar, so they don’t usually fall on the same day every year, so whenever I want to lookup as to which Day or particular Date that Festival will fall on, I ask Siri. It’s usually the former, because it helps me manage my college breaks better 🙂.But it’s very helpful, regardless. Siri is just as helpful with most of the other major events. Here are some examples of when I used Siri to find information about different dates:
This is a new feature for Siri in India and something that I’ve been using for a while. I can ask Siri to search for Nearby Restaurants, restaurants near a different place, or just “great places to have coffee”, I’ve got a satisfactory response at all times. The accompanied Zomato ratings are a plus, as they are helpful in deciding between different cafes and restaurants.
But where this feature really shines, is the fact that I can ask Siri to call a specific restaurant in my vicinity to get my food home delivered. Home Delivery via phone isn’t the easiest thing to do, not all Restaurants have their web portals, and it’s difficult to keep a track of the different numbers for different branches. I can just ask Siri to make a call to the nearest Subway, or Starbucks and she does it without fail.
Using Find My Friends
A niche to iPhone users who have friends and family who use the iPhone as well, Find my Friends is a great feature to know where your closest friends and family members are, so you don’t need to nag them with phone calls. I don’t know the last time I used that app, because all I do these days is ask Siri where the specific person is.
“What’s the 20% of 32693500”, “Convert $400 in Indian Rupees”, “What’s the derivative of LogX plus 5 X squared plus 3?”, “Plot a graph for Log of Log X”, etc. are usual calculations which I rely on Siri for. This is probably a niche to Engineers but having the entire wolfram alpha library at your disposal to get this done is nothing short of amazing
Using Siri to do small tasks.
It’s probably the most basic of the toolset but Siri can do a whole lot of things, you can Ask Siri to remind you about something on a particular day, at a particular location, about different apps, different settings inside the apps, et all.
Moreover Siri does clever things, notice how when I asked Siri to set a reminder for “Tomorrow Evening” at 2:00 AM at night, it asked me if by “tomorrow” I meant Friday evening or Saturday Evening? She understood the nuance properly enough to realize that I could have meant the technical “today” even though I said tomorrow. This is something that other assistants don’t do. It recognizes the short names as well. So when I asked her to remind me about something when I reach NSIT, it understood that I meant “Netaji Subhas Institute of Technology”
Run Timers, Stopwatches and Set Alarms
I don’t remember the last time I set a timer by actually going to the Clock / Timer app. I use the timer functionality on my Apple Watch everyday and to me there’s nothing more Siri to do that. And while I’ve not used the Stopwatches and Alarms feature much, I figure it works the same way, and it’s definitely convenient to have this handsfree.
Siri has some good Music Control options if you use Apple’s Music app frequently. You can ask Siri to play songs from a particular artist, play a particular playlist, play a particular radio station, etc.
If you are on an Apple Watch, one of the small but extremely useful features of Siri is the ability to have playback controls Like play, pause, increase the volume, etc. Something I feel that’ll be very helpful while using AirPods.
Another aspect of the Apple Watch where I use Siri everyday is to ask it to start specific workouts. Siri does this without much of a problem, and can understand fairly detailed commands, allowing to use the entire spectrum of the default workout options.
Apart from being really productive in everyday tasks, I really like Siri for it’s extra layer of whimsy that it provides. It makes the entire experience feel more natural. The small talk, the one liners, it’s ability to understand that I’m just talking without purpose is a major design win in my opinion. It definitely makes me feel comfortable talking to my phone and It gives Siri a personality, the sort of design detail we’re used to seeing from Apple.
While I like Siri a lot, Siri definitely has a lot of drawbacks to it as well. A lot of times, it’s able to understand my query but unable to generate a useful response, at which point it does a ‘bing’ search! Which is equivalent to not providing anything at all. One of the key reasons it does this, is because I don’t phrase my queries in a specific manner. In a different manner it might generate something useful. It’s inability to decipher all forms of natural language input at this moment is a major let down and I wish Apple had a better way of doing it.
Another key area where Siri is missing out, is Sequential Inference, which is basically it’s ability to remember what it did last and then generate an adequate response for the next query. What’s even more disappointing about this feature, is the fact that it exists, but only in a few places. So you’d occasionally see Siri understand Sequential commands, but a lot of times it won’t. Inconsistency does more harm to Siri over here, than not being able to.
Siri cannot understand multiple commands either. So if I were to ask Siri to “Send a message to my brother telling him that I’m leaving for work, and book a uber for my workplace, in 15 minutes.”, it won’t be able to understand that I asked her to do two different tasks One after the other. Moreover, Siri could utilize this to become an automation powerhouse. Just look at the Workflow app. It’s an app that’s meant to be integrated with Siri. I should be able to ask Siri to “Select the last 15 images, Convert them into a PDF and Share it with my brother on Whatsapp”, If Siri could do all this, It’ll be a truly useful service. Adding a third pillar of automation, right besides it’s ability to provide information and accomplish small tasks. But alas, it cannot.
The biggest problem though, is Siri’s inconsistency of providing information. So, it may know about hundreds of popular events, but occasionally it’d have no idea about an event or two, it may have no idea about the unpopular ones and so when it fails to get that information, it’s annoying. I would attribute this to Siri’s reliance on just one particular service for a lot of these things. So, lets say Wolfram Alpha has no idea about a lesser known event. Siri wouldn’t have any idea either. It doesn’t even look for other sources Who may be able to complete it’s knowledge spectrum. Relying on one or only handful of services for information, makes Siri less consistent And Inconsistency is probably the worst Heuristic Violation one can think of for a product. That’s the case with a lot of things that Siri does, once it fails a couple of times, my reaction is to do it myself, instead of figuring out how it’d accomplish the task.
Even after all the drawbacks that Siri has, In my opinion, it’s unfair to call Siri dumb or an underwhelming experience. For the last five years, Siri has tried to improve upon it’s skill set. When it launched initially, Siri couldn’t do a lot of these things, overtime Apple focused mainly on two things, first to improve on the Speech Recognition (which is somewhere in the 90s for English with an Indian Accent), and second to add the ability to do more of the smaller tasks with Siri. (The deep integrations with Settings is a relatively new trait).
Yes, focusing on one, has led to the neglect towards other things like Sequential Inference. But I wouldn’t call say that Siri is useless, crappy or even dumb if it fails sometimes, but succeeds a lot of the other times. Apart from Some of the Inconsistencies, I’m fairly certain that Siri would know what I mean by “tomorrow evening” when I say it at 2:00AM in the night or the fact that I don’t have to search for Restaurant contact details if I need to get food home delivered, or that I don’t have to do a lot of searching to simply get the derivative for a complex mathematical function. That’s enough of a reason to keep using Siri over other virtual assistants.
But Like I said in the beginning, I must be doing something wrong here, because everyone else feels that Siri is stupid And not compelling enough to regularly use, while I think that even after the drawbacks it’s a fairly useful experience.