Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Siri-an Revolution

I used Siri for the first time a week or so ago, and I was exquisitely underwhelmed. It's basically a somewhat decent speech recognition system attached to a crappy version of Eliza, which was a simple question-and-answer artificial intelligence program written over 30 years ago. All of which begs the question - why do people love it so much?

Simply, Apple succeeded by humanizing Siri and then marketing the hell out of it (her?), even so far as to inspire various parodies such as the husband and wife argument. I've watched people use Siri with fascination, trying to tease out "sassy" responses, and searching for Easter eggs beyond what was reported in the press. In fact, I've seen this use case much more than actually useful things. But it's interesting anyway to compare with Google Voice Search, which has been around way longer and shares a similar feature set.

Google Voice Search is the best speech recognition system I've personally used. It's been getting increasingly better over time, and even learns how different individuals pronounce things differently. Android also added "Voice actions" a while back that essentially do what Siri does. So what's the problem? Why doesn't it get the attention that Siri does?

The problem is that most people don't even know these features exist. And the people that do know aren't compelled to use them. In both Apple's and Siri's cases, the feature sets are similar (Siri arguably has a larger vocabulary and better understanding of "natural language", but not by much). But in the case of Siri, people have an emotional connection, and perhaps it's this connection that pushes them to use what is clearly not yet a polished piece of technology.

What's curious is that Google has also shown the ability to connect emotionally with users, some examples being the absolutely brilliant "Search On" campaign that included the "Parisian Love" commercial shown during the Super Bowl, and most definitely the tear-jerker Chrome commercial "Dear Sophie". But in these cases, the marketing was much more general than "small feature of mobile operating system in order to convince people to buy my phone". This was by design, of course, but a notable difference nonetheless.

From a usability point of view, Apple unsurprisingly wins. How do you use Siri? Raise your phone and start talking after the beep. Yep, pretty darn simple. How do you use Voice Search/Actions (great name, btw....) on Android*? Well, there's a little microphone in the IME (that's "input method editor", for the inquisitive), in case you want to speak instead of typing. And there's a big microphone on the home screen next to the search box. And you can also press that big microphone button and tell it do something like, "Send a text message to Bob". And there's also this thing called "Voice Dialer" which does essentially a small part of what voice actions can do. Etc. Which experience would you feel more comfortable explaining to your parents? Yeah.

I always love observing how marketing and usability affect product outcomes, and since the battle between Android and iOS is only heating up, I can't wait to see what comes our way in the new year.

*I haven't seen ICS yet, so these comments are for older versions.