I’ve been using iOS’s “Siri” feature since it became available, and I’ve always considered it to be a handy function to invoke when I’m feeling lazy: a convenience to use but not a functional necessity. It’s something I use regularly, but just as a short-cut, such as setting a count-down timer when I’ve put a roast in the oven, or getting my phone to identify a song at my local pub.
Siri’s a convenience rather than a necessity for me simply because I’ve used computers for so long it isn’t doing anything I couldn’t manually do already. I could open my phone and go to the Clock app to start a timer, but asking the phone to set a timer is faster. I could open my phone and go to Shazam to get a song identified, but asking the phone to do it is faster. I’ve used Siri for speed.
Last week my mother visited though and I gave her an iPhone 5c I’d previously been using for work. She was a little reluctant to start with, particularly since I was putting her on a plan I’d be paying for and she’s militantly determined to avoid costing her children any money. (When she visits I have to keep a constant eye out for random money she tries to hide for me to find later for supplying water, towels and breathable air.)
Then I got her to hold down the home button long enough to invoke Siri and ask, “will I need an umbrella tomorrow?”
Of course, it’s a stupid question to ask in Melbourne, the city of four seasons in 10 minutes, but it did show what Siri can do. She was so astounded it was like I was seeing Siri for the first time: through my 68 year old mother’s eyes, who only started using the Internet six months ago.
Then she learnt she could say, “Set an alarm for 6am”. Those five words blew away every objection she had to using a phone someone else was paying for. “So I don’t have to learn how to use it?” she asked me, “I can just tell it to do it for me?”
I’ve always been somewhat dismissive of voice interfaces: I can type at over 120wpm and my speech-therapy inherited voice/accent has always seemed to cause voice recognition systems to struggle for all but the basics. But last week taught me just how powerful voice interfaces are for people who don’t know computers.
Siri isn’t just about being lazy, it’s about opening up the ‘net and computing to a world of people who might otherwise be left behind: people who are afraid to use computers, or worried they won’t be able to keep up. For those of us who find computers and interfaces non-threatening and second nature, Siri is a handy luxury, such as in Apple’s iPhone 6S ads showing someone asking what Tortellini looks like. But for those scared of being left behind, who find learning a new application on a new phone challenging, Siri is practically magic.
On the night before she left, mum went to bed early to get a full night’s sleep before a long train trip home. Not long after she went to bed we heard her say from her bedroom, “Siri, please wake me up at 6am”. As a life-long geek, it was probably the most awesome thing I’d ever heard my mother say.