Hey Apple — Keep Calm and Let Siri Speak for Herself!

If you haven’t watched it yet, just turn on the TV and wait for a couple of minutes and you will be certain to catch it: it’s all over the place and it features the universally beloved Cookie Monster engaging in what else but his most favorite of all activities: rambunctiously baking a large and delicious batch of cookies. And, assisting him in the task is none other than Siri, Apple’s already 5-year old Voice assistant, enrolled by CM to take on the crucial task of keeping track of cookie baking time.

Except that CM’s otherwise joyous enterprise is one that turns out to be less than a joyous occasion: for a whole minute, we watch poor CM impatiently awaiting his cookies, having set his iPhone timer to 14 minutes, with the balance of the commercial spent showing us CM engaged in all manners of time killing activities, indoors and outdoors, including swallowing his wooden spoon, putting on a puppet show, and compulsively turning the oven lights on and off, all played against Jim Croce’s appropriate enough classic, “Time in a Bottle.”

The first time I watched the commercial, my immediate reaction was one of dismay. I really felt for CM and was thoroughly unsatisfied that the commercial had ended and CM hadn’t gotten to violently revel in making short shrift of the batch. I also felt a tinge of anger for having been made to watch a commercial where CM was used like a tool to illustrate a mere product feature — and not just a mere product feature, but the humble timer that has existed on Siri since 2011. Worse, my intelligence felt a bit slighted with the proposition that it had taken less than a minute for CM to engage in all of those activities when the classic cinematographic time lapsed device was used to convey precisely the opposite: that the narrative time of the story was longer than the physical time that it was taking the story to be told. If it were any other feature, I would have felt OK with the trick — but for God’s sake, this is a timer, and a timer is supposed to accurately count down time.

Worse: as a product manager who takes use cases seriously, I couldn’t help noticing things like, hey, wait, I wouldn’t put my precious iPhone on a kitchen table top in a thicket of utensils and baking ingredients, with flour and chocolate chip cookies and a mixing bowl to boot, all dangerously surrounding my delicate iPhone (which, by the way, is sitting on the counter table, thin and elegant and fragile and without a case to protect it). And also: who plays their music on their iPhone speaker? CM apparently does, and enjoys it that way. Who knew.

So, what did the designers of this commercial intend to communicate with this minute long torture of CM? Did they want to educate me on the fact I can now say, “Hey Siri?” to engage with Siri without having to touch the device? Well, guess what: I knew that already, and I bet a good portion of iPhone customers who doled out the cool $400 (or more) for the latest iPhone 6S did too. I knew it already and guess what: I almost never use Siri that way. I almost never use it that way not because it doesn’t work, but because whenever I need Siri in my daily activities, she is already in my hands, and it’s easier and more convenient for me to just press the home button to activate her. And if I don’t have the iPhone in my hands, it’s usually too far for the “Hey Siri” trigger to work consistently.

Apple has been doing nothing less than an atrocious job communicating the value of Siri — a feature on the iPhone that, with a bit of customer education and a lot of honest, genuine evangelizing, could have been delivering true value to millions of human customers.

Instead, Siri and Voice interfaces as a whole are being undermined by a Marketing team that does not understand voice and does not even respect the interface. To wit this egregious crime of a video that shows someone asking Siri to do something that it cannot really do at all! How can one broadcast a commercial that demos a capability that is NOT a capability and one that anyone with an iPhone can discover is fake by asking Siri the exact same question. Watch and wince:

If you have an iPhone, go ahead and try it at home see what Siri gives you. Not good!

First, you won’t be able to invoke Siri so flawlessly. The recognition isn’t that good. Second, when it does recognize you saying, “Hey Siri, what’s AT&T’s latest offer,” the answer that you will get is this one — about AT&T’s declining stock— not the answer splashed on the commercial.

So why the lies — and why the gratuitous vaudevillian disrespect for the voice interface?

Now, in contrast to the noise and the needless lies, imagine this: you are in the quiet of your study or your home office or your living room, reading a blog, or a book, or writing an email, or perusing your Facebook, listening to quiet white noise music in the background, focused, flowing and in the zone, thinking and working. And in that flow, you want to know whether Duke had cleared on to the next round against Yale. So, without taking your hands off your keyboard, or your eyes off the screen, you just say, “Hey Siri, who won the Duke game?” and Siri would answer you with exactly the information that you need, since she is quietly lying by your laptop beside you. I just did this now and it worked beautifully. So then the question becomes: why haven’t I seen a commercial like this yet — one that quietly nudges me with a real life, CM-free situation that I can fully relate to, with a setting that lets me imagine myself in that situation rather than one that tries hard to make me chuckle and smile, but one that will not alter my impression that Siri is not something that will meaningfully enhance my life?

So, why haven’t I seen a commercial like this yet? Actually, that question has an answer, and the answer is that, literally and blindly and misguidedly following the core mantra of its already half a decade-departed leader, Apple doesn’t think it should be teaching you about what Siri does. At least it hasn’t until now, apparently. Things are so easy and intuitive, Apple has dogmatically believed, that no manuals or instructions or feature evangelizing are necessary.

Well, that may be true within a well defined interface and a given form factor, but certainly not when that same form factor is asked to engage the user in a perpendicular interface dimension. You don’t expect the user to go on discovering linearly when you ask them to radically shift how they interact with the device — i.e., when they go from touching, swiping and reading, to speaking and listening.

Imagine if Apple had come out in October 2011 (when the 4S came and Siri was born) with a series of one-minute commercials that showed real people quietly (and the “quietly” is crucial) using Siri in situations that we can easily all relate to. What if Apple had done such commercials with no blaring, distracting music tracks, no hungry blue puppets, no cinematographic tricks— just plain, humble words spoken by regular people in every day life situations, and Siri, like a reliable assistant, helping us live our lives with a bit less distraction and a lot more focus on those quiet things that enrich our lives and that matter.

In a twisted way, after all is said and done, the commercial did get me to try Siri’s hands free feature and I will use it more often from now on. But boy, does it feel like a lot has had to happen for this moment to arrive when it could have arrived a lot sooner. There is no shame in earnestly evangelizing openly, Apple — Steve Jobs did it explicitly and for two decades for the graphical interface as he laid down the foundation for an interface that ultimately did feel when it arrived in 2007 that it was that simple and that it just worked. Start evangelizing quietly and earnestly — no blue CM needed — and just let Siri speak for herself.

Ahmed Bouzid is Chief Product Officer at Witlingo, Advisor with Ignite-TEK, and former executive at Amazon.com’s Alexa/Echo group. His most recent piece on voice and the conversational interface space can be found at: http://opusresearch.net/wordpress/2016/02/29/we-hear-an-echo-sharing-economy-strikes-a-balance-between-artificial-intelligence-and-human-input/

Ahmed can be found @didou

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