Is Siri Shortcuts Just Misunderstood?

Some new Siri-supporting apps — including Airbnb — and capabilities have me rethinking the digital assistant feature

You may not use Siri, Apple’s voice and digital assistant, but, like an eager-to-please deputy, Siri is paying attention to your habits and busily creating shortcuts in the background that it thinks could make your life easier, or at least a little more automated.

When Apple introduced Siri Shortcuts at its 2018 World Wide Developer Conference, it wasn’t exactly the Siri overhaul we were looking for. More problematically, Apple introduced a confusing Shortcuts app that, at first blush, came across as a sort of erector set for more complex Siri Routines.

I’m beginning to believe, however, that Siri, its shortcuts, and even that app may be misunderstood. And now, with a bunch of apps adding fresh support for Siri Shortcuts, it might be time to reconsider Apple’s intentions and how we can get more out of the voice assistant that doesn’t get much respect.

At left, inside Shortcuts app and its library of pre-built routines. Center is the American Airlines Siri Shortcut and, at right, is the Drop app’s Espresso Siri Shortcut.

“Hey Siri, make an espresso,” we said to an iPhone. Over my shoulder I heard the sound of rushing steam. I got up and walked over to the very expensive, in-wall Bosch Espresso Machine installed in a demo space. The device is not Apple HomeKit enabled, but it’s smart enough to talk to the Drop app, which works with everyday home appliances like connected coffee machines (including more affordable drip models) and even home scales. Like many other apps I saw during a recent, private demo, Drop is set to integrate Siri Shortcuts in March. A shortcut is simply a phrase that, when spoken to Siri triggers an action in the app that can then tell, in this case, the Bosch machine to start making my coffee.

What’s notable here is that no one opened the Drop app or an app that showed specific Bosch Espresso maker controls. We uttered the phrase and Siri knew exactly what to do with the shortcut. If we chose, we could have recorded a different phrase for that action, something that’s useful when you have more than one Siri Shortcut-enabled app that can perform a similar action.

During the demo I learned about a few other apps that will be adding Siri Shortcuts sometime on Thursday, including American Airlines which has the intelligence to know that there’s a difference between asking about your upcoming flight when you’re at home and need to know how soon you have to leave for the airport and when you’re actually at the terminal and need to know your gate and how to get there. I especially liked the terminal maps — there’s nothing worse than running for a gate and then realizing you’ve been running in the wrong direction. Sadly, my Fly Delta app still lacks this level of Siri Shortcut integration.

I also saw Caviar, a food ordering app I’d never heard of that keeps track of what you order, from where and how often, and, with Siri shortcuts, lets you say something like “Hey Siri, order my usual pizza,” and the app will know to ask if you want to order from your favorite pizzeria. Oddly no one offered to buy me a slice.

Getting Siri to launch an action isn’t that surprising, but what iPhone and iOS 12 users might not realize is the extent to which Siri’s been watching them and using local machine learning to build up a potential library of Siri Shortcut actions.

It starts pretty simply. If you drag your thumb down on your home screen, you’ll immediately see a collection of 4-to-8 apps selected by Siri as those you use most often. There are also those Siri Suggestions that helpfully popup on your lock-screen offering to, for instance, initiate a call that its gleaned from your schedule. Go a little deeper, say under Settings/Siri & Search and you’ll see a short collection of app-specific suggested actions you’ve been doing over and over again. When you look at all your shortcuts, you see a vast library of your most frequent activities. Next to each of them is a plus sign that lets you add them as Siri as shortcuts with a custom phrase that you record using a large, red record button.

That Siri can create shortcuts for Apple’s native apps is neither surprising nor very interesting. The power is in the growing collection of third-party apps, like Drop, Smart, Dexcom, Merriam Webster Dictionary, and Airbnb, which is adding Siri Shortcut support next month.

I use Airbnb a lot and too often I’m digging through the app too quickly find the address of my stay or details on the house rules. When Airbnb launches Siri Shortcuts sometime next month, I’ll be able to say, “Hey Siri, My Airbnb stay” (or another phrase of my choice) and the Airbnb app will deliver the address, directions, check-in times. My first question when I arrive at my Airbnb is, naturally, the Wi-Fi password; I can use an Airbnb app Siri Shortcut to quickly access that info, as well. The best part is that I won’t need to open the Airbnb app to do any of this.

That ability to take deep dives into disparate apps without even touching your phone (and maybe even by speaking to your HomePod, Apple Watch, or double-tapping your AirPods to access Siri) is, as I see it, the most compelling aspect of Siri Shortcuts. I take a lot of photos and have mis-tapped often enough to miss many great shots. Saying “Hey Siri, take a photo” or “Take a Selfie” with an app like DSLR Camera would not only end that issue, it might result in better photos because I’m not shaking the camera or tapping it to get the shot.

A got an early look at how a new app called Halide Spectre integrates Siri Shortcuts to take some impressive long-exposure photos. Long exposure opens the shutter for a half a second or more, which means you have to stay perfectly still. Better to use a tripod and say, “Hey Siri, Long Exposure.” Halide’s other photography App, Halide Camera already integrates Siri Shortcuts, but, in the app, it hides them under Advanced Settings. In most cases, it’s easier to enable App-level Siri Shortcuts by accessing individual App Settings under your iPhone’s “Settings.” I used the settings to turn on Halide’s “Fire the Shutter” Siri Shortcut.

Hands-free operation comes in handy when, obviously, you can’t use your hands. The skiing-focused Snoww app integrates Siri Shortcuts so you don’t have to pull off your gloves, find the app and tap away until you find the beginning a downhill run action. You just say, “Hey Siri, Start Ski Run.”

A Siri Shortcut App routine, Streak’s Siri Shortcut on an Apple Watch (center) and a Webster’s Word of the Day Shortcut in action.

A while back when I was reviewing the iPhone XR, I used HomeCourt to analyze my hoop skills. They’re terrible, but what I remember most is running back and forth from the hoop to my phone that I set up with Homecourt to track my shots. With HomeCourt’s new integrated Siri Shortcuts, I could have said, “Hey Siri, Run Hoop Shot Test” or started a workout with “Hey, Siri, dribble workout.”

I can’t say I’ve warmed up to the Siri Shortcuts app, but perhaps it’s because I haven’t been thinking about it the right way. Where Siri Shortcuts is about single actions for discrete apps, the Shortcuts app is about building something potentially much more complex: routines that encompass Shortcuts across various apps.

The Shortcuts app starts with a gallery of pre-built routines, which simplifies the process of constructing, for example, your own Travel or Morning routine. Instead of hand-crafting all the steps, you get to edit existing ones. Apple showed me how a morning routine launched by saying “Hey Siri, Morning Routine” to a HomePod can result in Siri telling you your commute time to work, offering weather and news updates, and running some HomeKit and other app-enabled routines like opening the shades and turning off some lights. Eventually you build a library of voice-enabled routines that you can add to or change at any time. In my opinion, most people will prefer to start with these pre-built Siri Shortcut Routines rather than trying to build their own from scratch.

Coming at the home and life automation game through your phone and existing actions is virtually the opposite approach of how Amazon and Alexa passively wait for you to add in skills based on the hardware and routines you add to your home and life. It’s Apple taking advantage of its dominant position (over Amazon and Google) in the smartphone space and, perhaps, is a path to success for Siri and Apple in the smart home and automated life game.