When Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone, it was introduced to come with 3 main features being an iPod, phone and an internet browser. That was 11 years ago. Now the iPhone is packed with features, some more advanced than others. However, one thing that everyone forgot - which was initially the purpose of this device - is that it’s a phone. In most western countries no one talks on their phone anymore, communication happens mostly through text and selfies.
2011 was the year users started to talk a lot more to their phones again. It was the year the iPhone 4s was released, which included Apple’s recently acquired voice assistant Siri. It was previously a stand-alone app also available on Android and Blackberry but now introduced with a beta label as a core functionality of iOS 5. Since that moment the assistant saw some improvements but started lagging behind, especially with Amazon and Google competing head-to-head. Their voice assistants Alexa and Google Assistant are capable of doing way more than Siri can imagine. Their smart speakers are also finding their place in the homes of millions of users, making it more difficult for Apple to find their spot. Earlier this year they released the HomePod: sound system first, assistant second. The speaker got praised for its sound, but the smartness was missing. Siri needs to improve, fast.
Apple is aware they are lagging behind and announced during this year’s WWDC that Siri will be capable of doing a lot more. Siri Shortcuts - which allow app developers to implement custom Siri shortcuts into their software - is a smart move by Apple to make Siri smarter while letting developers do the hard work. However, none of that matters in the end, because the user will get a more intelligent and easier to use operating system.
Introducing Siri Shortcuts
Before you start dreaming about all the outstanding tasks Siri can complete for you, slow down for a second. While the capabilities will increase, the way Shortcuts are currently set up they don’t allow users to randomly start asking for all kinds of requests.
Shortcuts are literally just shortcuts to the most commonly performed task inside of your application. These can be unique to each user or general for all of your users. As a developer, you have to expose those tasks to the OS, which will index them and display them throughout the interface. They can appear as Siri suggestions in Spotlight, in Notification Center, you can use them as a workflow in the Shortcuts app or ask Siri to perform the Shortcut. When tapping or asking Siri to run one of these, you (as a developer) can decide if you want to run the task in the background or inside your app.
An example of an in-app Shortcut can be “Search for a recipe” in the shopping app MyColruyt. Since Shortcuts don’t allow a user to ask for specific parameters when invoking a Shortcut, you have to handle any specifics in the app. Right after the request, the MyColruyt app can be opened, and the recipe search can already be displayed. The user can then go on and look for a specific recipe.
You can, however, perform a task - which doesn’t require extra user input - in the background and display the UI in Siri. Say your an avid fan of MyColruyt’s “Inspiration” tab and you cook everyday based on the weekly menu. You can ask Siri “Show the daily recipe”, Siri can now provide a card with the recipe for the current date. Even if you don’t display UI, you can still perform the action in the background. Say “Turn up the fan speed”, and your Daikin air conditioning unit can increase the fan speed with a fixed increment. It will return textual feedback to let you know the fan speed has been raised.
These examples will need some extra work to implement, but some Shortcuts will come right out of the box when updating to iOS 12. This is the case when you are already using NSUserActivity to capture the state of your app, which allows you to do the handoff to other devices or make the content of your app searchable in Spotlight. These tasks will already appear when upgrading your iPhone or iPad, however updating and fine tuning these tasks might not be a bad idea. Good to keep in mind here is that your Shortcut can be run on an iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and HomePod.
Simplify your workflow
So how do access these Shortcuts? After you’ve created one or more Shortcuts, they will appear in Spotlight and Settings. They are deeply hidden in Settings. You first have to go to the Siri settings, before you see a long list of all possible Shortcuts. This suddenly makes it seem like a power user feature, which it shouldn’t be.
You can make your Shortcuts more discoverable, by integrating an element into your design to make it possible for a user to immediately add the Shortcut to their personal list of Shortcuts. This will invoke a native UI to record a custom invocation phrase. These are used for Siri to know what a user is talking about and make us all sound a little less like robots. The user can set their own phrase for each Shortcut, but you as a developer can already give a suggestion, which will be displayed in the native interface.
Once a user starts using Shortcuts or perform tasks that have Shortcuts created for them, Siri will start predicting when a specific Shortcut might be useful. Say you start watching the news daily at around the same time in the streaming platform Stievie. Siri can display a suggestion in the Notification Center or inside Spotlight to watch the news. If you select it, Stievie will open full screen on the right channel, allowing you to catch up on the news faster.
The power of Shortcuts
Single Shortcuts alone are already able to simplify your workflow (read: life), but combining them will make it even better. Last year Apple acquired Workflow, an automation app that allows you to join functionality from different apps and services. Making it possible to create a PDF from a webpage, upload it to your iCloud Drive, mail it to your colleague and print it. You can do all of this with one tap of a button.
Apple’s new Shortcuts app is an iteration of the philosophy of Workflow, but now it will be more deeply integrated into iOS. Voice and suggestions are the prime examples of this. To create your own Shortcuts, you just drag and drop different functionalities together from native Apple apps or shortcuts built by third-party apps. After completing your Shortcut, you can choose a Shortcut Phrase, to activate the Shortcut with Siri.
This will make it possible to get your current location, calculate the ETA of when you will be home, send a message when you will arrive, start your favourite playlist, start tracking a biking activity in your fitness app and open maps which will automatically navigate to your home address. Just like Workflow, all of this will be possible with a single button or voice request to Siri. Your life will be so much easier.
Not only will this improve the workflow of all regular users, it is good to keep in mind that this will be a simple integration to allow users who required some more accessible features to complete tasks from your app faster.
How to build a great Shortcut
Now you know what Shortcuts are and what they are capable off, it’s time to start implementing them into your application.
Define your app’s main tasks
Start by defining your app’s most used functions, either by analytics (preferably) or just gut feeling. Once you’ve made a list of these tasks, you can define whether it might be useful to make them accessible outside of your app. Keep in mind that you can’t ask for specific requests like “Show me a recipe for Lasagne” or “Log a home to work trip of 15 km”. What you can do, however, is using general requests. If a user for instance makes lasagne every week, it might be useful to create a Shortcut out of this action.
Select the right intent
Before iOS 12 was introduced, there already was a limited set of domains that could be used to perform tasks using Siri.
These domains are audio and video calling, CarPlay integration, fitness, lists and notes, messaging, payments, photo management, ride booking, vehicle integration and visual codes. If your app is active in one of these domains, make sure you use these intents before creating custom intents. This will allow iOS to know better what type of task will be performed, which can be used to suggest Shortcuts.
New in iOS 12 are native media intentions which will make it possible for apps like Spotify and Netflix to integrate with Siri to play their content with voice control. So if you’re creating a media app, try to implement these integrations first.
For custom intents Apple introduced new categories, select the right one to make sure it is rightly interpreted and suggested.
- Generic: Do, Run, Go
- Information: View, Open
- Order: Order, Book, Buy
- Start: Start, Navigate
- Share: Share, Post, Send
- Create: Create, Add
- Search: Search, Find, Filter
- Download: Download, Get
- Other: Set, Request, Toggle, Check In
When creating an intent, you can choose whether it’s required for a user to confirm the requested action. This can be useful when handling payments or critical information. You don’t want to send your money to the wrong recipient, because Siri didn’t understand the user well enough.
Choose between background or in-app interactions
If the chosen action is able to run in the background, implement this option because it will result in a more seamless integration. If you require a confirmation from the user or more information is requested, you can display the UI inside the Siri interface. Say you ask “Where is my dog?”. Your pet tracker app can get the location of your dog, and it can display a map with the current location of your pet indicated. When you require more actions from a user - like confirmation when and where to deliver groceries - you can open your app on the right screen, pre-fill information and let the user handle the rest.
Describe your Shortcut
When you're creating Shortcuts, you donate information to iOS. You can for instance include a title, subtitle, image and suggested invocation phrase. When choosing a title, make sure it represents what happens when the users run the Shortcut. You should only include a subtitle if there is additional critical information the user might need. Make use of images to differentiate multiple Shortcuts, try not to use your app icon for every Shortcut, because it might make it more difficult for users to select the right Shortcut.
Apple also has some general tips when composing your Shortcuts:
- Keep the title short and concise
- Include critical information (Price and location when you place an order)
- Include a verb in the title of the Shortcut
- Localise your Shortcuts (make sure all your app’s languages are supported)
- Don’t include your app’s name in the title or subtitle
- Avoid duplicate info in the title and subtitle
- Don’t use quotation marks, only when you will send a specific message, such as “I’m on my way.”
Provide custom interface
When you want to create a seamless integration within Siri, but still want to provide the user with enough information, you can make use of custom UI. Make sure you only display what is necessary, this will enable the user to see everything at a glance.
Apple provided some guidelines for UI in Siri:
- Make sure the interface integrates well with Siri. You can use branding colours, imagery and other design elements. But try to maintain some kind of resemblance with the Siri UI.
- Provide enough margin and padding. Make sure there is enough space between the edge of the interface and the content you display.
- Minimise the height of your interface. Try not to make the interface taller than the device’s screen so the user can view all content without scrolling.
- Don’t include your app name or icon. It will automatically be provided.
(Almost) Everything is possible now
Siri Shortcuts might not be the future of voice assistants or automation, but it’s a great start to give developers a more in-depth integration within iOS. It can’t go head-to-head with Alexa and Google Assistant just yet, but it allows Siri to grow even without the help from Apple. Also, it enables users to perform their most common tasks faster, and all kinds of new integrations will suddenly be made possible.