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Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

By Request: Quiet, I’m talking to Siri

Subscriber Jim writes: How does voice-controlled digital assistants being next big thing gel with open floor plans becoming office norm? And Subscriber Matt writes: What’s the future of notifications in the era of wearables and mobile tech?

So Siri is coming to the Mac. But as I heard from a lot of readers, it’s hard to imagine Siri being useful on the Mac if you generally use your Mac when you’re around a bunch of other people. In fact, this is one of the issues with using voice interfaces in general. Talking is making noise. It can disturb the people around you. We’ve created all sorts of social rules about talking that are smashed to pieces by modern developments like cell phones and, yes, voice interfaces like Siri.

I’ve got an Amazon Echo sitting on the bar in my kitchen. Everyone in my family talks to it from time to time, but the communication is generally in the context of our home—turn off a light, play some music, what’s the news, stuff that’s going to affect everyone within listening range to some degree. It’s still a little weird, but it doesn’t feel terrible. But if my family was sitting nearby, I wouldn’t get on my phone to a personal assistant (digital or human) and spend ten minutes giving them verbal commands. I’d move to another room, or step outside.

Perhaps some of our conversations with digital assistants could be more acceptable, in certain circumstances, if they sounded more like conversations with real people. I’d be far more likely to have a conversation with Siri at a Starbucks if it was a conversation that sounded like a phone call, not like me shouting at the verbal equivalent of a command-line interface.

But in an office environment? Forget it. And that’s why there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of creating digital assistants. Siri—on the Mac and on iOS—needs to provide users with the ability to type in questions, rather than speak it. Because sometimes speaking is not an option. (You can actually type things to Siri in iOS, but only by making a verbal query and then tapping the Edit button. It’s an afterthought, not a primary way of activating the interface.

Adapting to context is important the other direction, too. Notifications need to change based on where we are, and what we’re doing. Sometimes, I’d prefer that my voice assistant tell me what’s going on—like if I’m running with headphones in, or driving. Other times, a tap on my wrist or a vibration on my phone might be enough. There’s never going to be a single approach that works for every person in every situation.

Putting Siri on the Mac is great, but it’s an irrelevant feature for most people who work in cubicle farms or open floorplans, because talking out loud to your computer all day is just not a very good option. I suspect Apple knows this, but I’m a little surprised that macOS Sierra doesn’t just merge Spotlight and Siri and let you type command-space and just start typing queries directly into Siri.

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