Siri, I Trust You. Mostly.

Just as I keep track of the status of Pages on the iPad (as compared to the Mac) I also like to check in on the experience of using Siri. I recently browsed through a short thread on the Mac Power Users Forum and was reminded that I’d not written about the Siri experience in awhile. That thread was quite negative about Siri and in fact, most of what I seem to come across on the internet in regards to Siri is usually negative. Siri is like Lucy holding that football for Charlie Brown. In the early years many people learned that trusting Siri was just a set-up for failure and frustration.

Well, it’s been a few years now. Can we trust Siri?

I’ve been using Siri fairly consistently over the past three years and continue to use Siri many times a day from a variety of devices and generally find the experience to be helpful, usually successful and increasingly pleasant as the voice of Siri is improved to be less robotic. But it’s been a process getting here.

How I use Siri

I make Siri requests from the full ecosystem of devices ranging from an iPhone X to 3 iPads to the Apple Watch and HomePods. Also, occasionally to the AppleTV via remote.

At home most of the requests are handled by the HomePod as it generally takes precedence over other devices in the room. When I’m out it’s the iPhone via AirPods. On occasion I’ll also use a button push on an iPad I’m using to ensure that my interaction is with that iPad though that’s not all that common. I think I’d likely use Siri directly on the iPad if there were a dedicated Siri key or keyboard shortcut.

The Apple Watch and Apple TV are probably the least used Siri devices I have. One feature that may not be immediately obvious to some is that when using HomePods as the audio for AppleTV, it’s possible to control playback via voice, no remote needed. Just issue commands such as pause, play, rewind 20 seconds and the HomePod will control the video. Very nice!

As for the Watch, I’ve tried a few times and it does not work nearly as well as the HomePod or AirPods. More often than not I just get a long delay followed by “I’ll tap you when I’m ready”. Mostly, I’ve stopped trying but it’s no real loss because I’m always within earshot of the HomePod and if I’m not I’ve probably got the AirPods in my ears.

My common uses range the full range of what is possible with Siri. Early on I got in the habit of occasionally reading through the possible actions and check every so often to see what’s been added. As a result of being aware I’ve been able to take better advantage. From timers to adding calendar events to tasks to audio video playback to smart home devices such as heaters and lights. Before I list out more I’ll contrast this with a recent poll I conducted via a persistent group iMessage with my extended family. Here’s what I asked them:

  1. Do you currently use Siri regularly? If yes, how many times per day.
  2. If you do not, have you ever tried it in the past? If yes, why did you stop using it?
  3. If you do use Siri regularly what device(s) do you use to do so?
  4. What are your most common uses/requests?
  5. If you are a regular user, are you generally happy with the experience?
  6. If you are not a user do you think you might at some point try it again? Why or why not?

The results varied. An elderly uncle reported that he uses Siri two times a day from his phone and is happy with it. My aunt reports using it 4 times a day on her phone and she likes it. My dad uses it 10 to 15 times a day on his phone. He uses it to open apps, play music, make phone calls, ask sports questions and set reminders. He thinks it’s great.

My mid-20’s nephew doesn’t use Siri much, only once a day or so. He stopped because she often “can’t immediately answer some of my questions and sends me to Safari.” When he does use it it’s to activate maps and directions or to call people on the phone. My brother uses it in his car to play music. He also reports being turned off by the fact that he’s often sent to Safari after a query.

The last response I got was from my niece, also in her 20s who reports using Siri 10 or so times a day via her phone. She uses it to play music and control playback. She uses it to make calls, ask about sports information, send texts, set timers and check the weather and the time. She uses it while driving for hands free. She concludes by saying that for the most part Siri works well for her and notes improvement in that it picks up her voice better, possibly do to a newer phone.

So, a mix of negative and positive. The negative seems to center on being kicked out to Safari results after a Siri request. What isn’t clear from the responses is what questions are asked that lead to that result. I took note that the two most positive responses, my dad and niece, both specifically indicated a broader range of Siri requests and I think that touches on something important in regards to voice-based computer usage, in this case Siri. Both of these users have made it a point to use voice requests over a broader range of activity. Put another way, it seems that they are being more deliberate and, as a result, are getting better results. My guess is that an interest in using Siri results in more persistence and more practice and, not surprisingly, better results over time.

Of course, it’s just a tiny pool responses from one family but it seems an accurate reflection of much that I’ve read on the internet.

In my own experience I’ve found that over the past 3 to 5 years my usage has certainly increased both as Siri improved and as I learned more about getting better results with the service. This seems obvious if we view Siri as a tool, as a form of interaction that can be improved upon by users over time, but I think because of it’s personal nature of the technology and the sense of possible embarrassment or frustration with failure, we don’t quite view it the same as we view the development of other skills.

By design, Siri and other voice assistants are presented as just that, assistants. They take on a kind of personal role, a sense of relationship. Apple and others have made it a point to make voice assistance sound increasingly human and natural in their interactions and I think one result is possible frustration and embarrassment when we encounter failure. It reminds me of Charlie Brown trusting Lucy to hold that football. Of course, she pulls it away at the last second and he flies through the air. When we trust Siri and she fails us there’s an element of frustration that we went out on a limb to trust that she could help. I think there’s also an almost “out of body” observation we make of ourselves. Oh, how silly, there’s me talking to my phone again and there she is making me look even sillier with her failed response. I may be getting too far out in the weeds here but there may be something to it.

I’ll wrap up with a list of my most useful Siri interactions. And to reiterate, I think this list is getting longer all the time and that the success rate is, in my use, almost always improving.

  • Reminders: I constantly add items to various lists. Both via HomePod and AirPods. This is 100%.
  • Calendar events: This is also 100%. Almost everything I add to my calendar is via Siri.
  • Timers: All the time and it works perfectly.
  • Weather: All the time and again, it works perfectly.
  • Phone calls: I don’t use my phone as a phone much but when I do make a call it’s via AirPods to phone and it’s 100%
  • Sending and replying to texts. This one has gotten much better and I use it all the time when walking, again via AirPods to phone.
  • Audio playback via AirPods when walking is excellent. Pause, play, skip, fast forward, initiating playback of an artist, playlist or album. The hardest part here is my ability to remember the names of things. Great with podcasts too.
  • Control of Homekit devices. All day everyday. About 95% success here. One of my favorite things relates to the fact that I live in a rural area and have an outside well-house that has to stay heated in the winter. In the past I’d go out and visually check on things to confirm proper heating in the cold weeks of late December thru February. Now I can simply ask Siri: “What’s the temperature in the well-house?” It’s the perfect compliment to the Home App.

My Siri Wish List

Right now, at the time of this writing, I’ve got just two big things that I’d love to see and they both are iPad related:

  1. On the new iPads Pro with FaceID, there is no Home Button which is a pretty convenient way to access Siri on older iPads. Even better, when using an external keyboard with older iPads a long press of the keyboard home button activates Siri. Very conducive to using Siri on those devices. For some reason this does not work on the new iPads Pro and so I find I don’t use Siri as much on device as I used to.
  2. When activating Siri on iPads, is there a reason that Siri should take control of the whole screen. Might it be better to do something similar to the Mac and have a smaller Siri window pop-up? Maybe the size of a slide-over window? Or, at most, a half-screen split-view.

I’m sure there’s more to be done to improve Siri but those are the two I’m hoping to see.

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