Hey Siri

Let’s not bury the lede. Siri is the worst product Apple makes. It may be the worst product Apple has ever made. It’s a frustrating exercise in incompetence and hubris that demonstrates all the negatives of Apple’s corporate culture. It’s development history has been marked by neglect and ridiculous prioritisation.

Apple clearly wants people to personify Siri. If we ignore the problematic aspects of giving a servant a default female voice in most markets1 the illusion that Siri is a person fails virtually instantaneously yet leads to a number of aggravating behaviours. Except for a very narrow set of circumstances Siri cannot carry on a conversation. It can’t handle complex instructions that Apple didn’t anticipate2. Yet it has an attitude and it gets snarky. It’s not nearly competent enough for that to be acceptable. If Siri fucks up3 and I swear at it then it’s not acceptable for it to get offended. It’s not a person. It’s a not very good voice assistant on hardware for which I have paid a lot of money. It has no actual emotions, it can’t take genuine offence. Instead some idiot4 has decided that the proper way for their product to respond to user frustration is to increase that frustration. It’s part of a very USian puritanism5 that pervades the organisation.

(As an aside if you are verbally abusive to service industry staff you are a terrible person. But those are actual people with real feelings. It’s not in any way comparable to venting at an inanimate object.)

Siri also just will not shut up. It’s not possible to get Siri to stay silent. There are a number of responses to situations you will here over and over if you’re doing something that can trigger them. There’s no way to indicate that you’ve heard a response before.

I live in a city apartment and WiFi congestion means my lights aren’t particularly reliable at times. I have heard Siri’s verbose notifications of its failure to fully apply light changes multiple times a day. The light failure is not Siri’s fault but the inability to adapt to a real world scenario absolutely is. I don’t need a speech when my lights don’t respond. I can tell visually. But I’m getting the speech anyway. Which is why I’m fairly sure if I had the stats the most common thing I tell Siri to do is shut up. It follows virtually every command.

This is why I found it particularly galling when the big new Siri feature being touted is a new voice. Which may not even be available if you’re not using the USian voice. How broken is Apple’s prioritisation that they have ignored the myriad flaws and decided that what people want is the voice Siri uses to misunderstand us to be slightly more natural? This is form over function at its worst.

Even as the voice gets slightly improved the recognition side continues to underperform. Accuracy isn’t what it should be. Worse is comprehension. So many instructions need to follow the One True Form™️ Apple supports. If I tell Siri “Text will be at the car to Jane” then it’s a fundamental failure to ask me which Will I want the message sent to. I’m a software developer. I’m fine with obscure syntax in the right context. A voice assistant with pretences at being for the general public is not an appropriate context.

There has been some improvement on Siri operating consistently across devices but what behaviour you get still depends on which device is responding. And it’s not good at co-ordinating which device that should be. Sometimes my phone will take over from the HomePod I’m actually trying to control. Just this morning the HomePod took over from my watch despite me explicitly raising my wrist and then the HomePod couldn’t even do the action that the watch could have handled.

Here’s what Apple needs to do with Siri6:

  1. Which we shouldn’t ↩︎

  2. They’re not very good at this ↩︎

  3. Again ↩︎

  4. I don’t know who made this decision but I’m OK with them feeling bad about their job performance ↩︎

  5. US attitudes to swearing and sex are not healthy and I do not appreciate being infantalised by devices I have paid a lot of money for ↩︎

  6. I’m aware they won’t pay any attention to my recommendations ↩︎

  7. I know he’s not in charge of Siri any more but his neglect is part of the reason we’re here. Is there anything he’s managed competently? ↩︎

  8. Yes this is hard. They’re a trillion dollar corporation. If they can’t manage this finding out after they’ve oversold Siri it’s probably too late. ↩︎