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The Problem of Many Siris

Bryan Irace writes about one of the biggest challenges Apple faces with Siri:

It’s no easy task for a voice assistant to win over new users in 2018, despite having improved quite a great deal in recent years. These assistants can be delightful and freeing when they work well, but when they don’t, they have a tendency to make users feel embarrassed and frustrated in a way that GUI software rarely does. If one of your first voice experiences doesn’t go the way you expected it to – especially in front of other people – who could blame you for reverting back to more comfortable methods of interaction? Already facing this fundamental challenge, Apple is not doing themselves any favors by layering on the additional cognitive overhead of a heavily fragmented Siri experience.

I think Irace is right on in this observation – Siri’s fragmentation is a real problem.

On the more optimistic side, it could be taken as good news that the fix appears fairly obvious: create a single Siri that’s consistent across all platforms. This seems like it would be a clear net positive, even though such a change could reduce Siri’s accuracy in some cases; for example, I’m guessing Siri on the Apple TV is currently tuned to expect TV and movie queries more than anything else, so it can more effectively produce the right kind of results – tweak that tuning, and Apple will have to work even harder at helping Siri understand context.

One thing that’s concerning about the apparent simplicity of this fix is that Apple hasn’t made it yet, meaning, perhaps, that the company thinks there’s nothing wrong with Siri’s current fragmentation. This conversation would be different entirely if Apple had begun showing an increased effort to unify Siri across its platforms, but recently, the opposite has been true instead. The latest major Apple product, HomePod, includes a stripped-down Siri that can’t even handle calendar requests. And SiriKit, which launched less than two years ago, was designed in a way that fundamentally increases fragmentation. Irace remarks:

If the Lyft app is installed on your iPhone, you can ask Phone Siri to order you a car. But you can’t ask Mac Siri to do the same, because she doesn’t know what Lyft is. Compare and contrast this with the SDKs for Alexa and the Google Assistant – they each run third-party software server-side, such that installing the Lyft Alexa “skill” once gives Alexa the ability to summon a ride regardless of if you’re talking to her on an Echo in your bedroom, a different Echo in your living room, or via the Alexa app on your phone.

The only recent occasion that comes to mind when Siri has moved in the right direction – gaining knowledge on one platform that previously existed only on another – was when iOS 10.2 brought the full wealth of Apple TV Siri’s movie and TV expertise to iOS. This only happened, though, because iOS 10.2 introduced the TV app.

Until Siri can answer the same requests regardless of what platform you’re on, most people simply won’t learn to trust it. Users shouldn’t have to remember which device’s Siri can answer which questions – all they should have to remember is those two key words: “Hey Siri.”