Apple’s Siri: The UI-versal Solvent

by jfjudah

Just as each tollbooth taxes the commuter, each UI/UX translation that has to happen to get from input to output presents a problem.

A calculator uses plain numbers for the main four computations. One input, one output — numerals — and what you type is what shows up without translation. An abacus may somewhat be more complicated in that the same type of bead has more than one meaning, with the only differentiator being color, size, or position.

Abacus on Wikipedia

Abacus on Wikipedia

More complicated tasks need modes. Calculating a specific tangent of a wave involves multiple calculator steps, such as pressing a button prior to, in the midst of, or after running a calculation to receive the answer in the correct format. On one calculator I have, when I divide 14 by 3 the answer given is 14/3. Useless for most purposes. It’s only after I press Casio’s S<–>D button that I get a workable answer of 4.666666667. I can do something with that.

Adobe’s Creative Suite is even more complicated due to its power. You can’t just write. You have to choose the text tool, select the destination, type the word, then format it by type choice, size, weight, and the like. These options thankfully open a wide range of possibilities.

Multi-touch made your finger the UI, doing away with the stylus for all but the most precise artistic tasks. The processing was hidden behind the multi-touch glass and all we saw was an application zooming to do our bidding.


Siri the Helpful

But modes don’t really exist with Apple’s Siri. Giving a command to Siri is just that. Speak a command to Siri and it responds verbally, accomplishing the task you’ve given it.

The beauty of Siri is that you are the UI. Your voice is the medium. No other mode is needed. Siri is the personal mediator, with the processing hidden behind a simple, helpful façade. Now, it’s not quite to the level IBM’s Watson is capable of — including understanding denotative themes and tying together only loosely related strands of thought — but Siri does away with the complex in a way we are only used to with other people. It takes all the layers of interaction that we once thought necessary and reduces them down to two: input and output, where the method and the medium are the same — your voice.

Apple has brought AI to the masses in its most basic form. The days are numbered for those dialog boxes that ask multiple times if we’re sure we want to complete such-and-such action. We now have a cascade of options for accomplishing tasks: keyboard, mouse, multi-touch, voice. And each one requires less interaction to get what we want done.

Less interaction, less mistakes; less mistakes, less frustration; less frustration, more enjoyment; and more enjoyment means more accomplishment and more interaction with those enjoyable tools. Apple was not the first voyager to the mineral springs of voice commands, but with Siri, Apple has bottled the universal solvent for much of our UI problems.