Shortcuts For Delivering Frictionless Applications With Siri

(Contributed by our own Mobster Alessio Roberto, Senior iOS Developer @Mobiquity. Original blog: here)

One of the most common questions our clients ask about their mobile apps is how to keep users engaged after they initially download the app. After all, if a brand is going to invest precious resources into its app, it wants to ensure this investment is paying off!

Key to retention is delivering features that users actually want to use. While this might sound simple, users are often forced to follow a long journey to even discover the functionality that an app has to offer. They must:

  • Pick up the phone
  • Unlock the phone
  • Open the app
  • Explore the app to find these features
  • And finally, use the features 🤯

The implication of this long journey is that most users do not take the time to complete it, meaning they quickly stop using the app.

Apple and Google are aware of this issue and are actively trying to improve iOS and Android to reduce the gap between the user and the key functions of every mobile application.

For Apple, the solution is made up of two new features in its newly announced iOS 12 that allow users to use Siri to interact with their apps.


Siri — Not Just A Voice!

Before we jump to these features, let’s take a step back. Since iOS 7, Apple has made attempts to help users easily access the applications they need. Its first attempt involved improving Siri so that she learns how we use our devices and suggests applications based on the way we interact. Apple’s second attempt was opening Siri APIs to third party applications that support a specific and limited set of functionalities so that these apps respond to voice commands. For example: “Siri, book me a car ride,” or “Siri, send money to my friend.”

Interesting to note, these interactions happen only on the device side. No information is sent to Apple. All of the information collected by Siri stays on the phone, and developers cannot access it.


Siri Shortcuts And Custom Intents

During its WWDC this year, Apple presented its third attempt to help uses access the applications they need: Siri Shortcuts and Custom Intents. Compared to past attempts, this one marked a huge step forward.

Check out the key points:

  • For Shortcuts, applications will inform Siri when the user accesses a specific section of the app.
  • For Custom Intents, applications will inform Siri when the user completes a specific action.
  • Siri remembers every time the application shares user actions. Over time, she starts to recommend these actions to the user when and where it seems that the user would want to take them.
  • The user can assign custom voice commands for interacting with an application without opening that application.

The last two points are the most relevant when it comes to providing a frictionless user experience. Apple is creating a direct connection between users and applications’ key functions. Whether through a voice command or a Siri notification, users will now get recommendations on when and how to use an application without opening the application itself.


Digital Health Application: A Perfect Use Case

As Apple’s engineers explained during the WWDC tech talks, the best use cases for the new Siri functionalities surround actions that users frequently take. Among the many types of applications that work well are those in the digital health environment.

Keeping down this path, I developed a demo application that focuses on one specific task that patients frequently carry out — taking a pill — to illustrate the new Siri features. I watched two sessions from Apple, Introduction to Siri Shortcuts and Building for Voice with Siri Shortcuts to implement the necessary logic. It’s a simple process, and Apple provides a full example here.

TakeUrPill

I called my app TakeUrPill. It’s a simple iOS application and an open source project that you can clone or fork from here. It has three functions:

  1. Set the pill name and dosage
  2. Record when the user takes the pill
  3. View the pills a user has taken

All of this functionality is accessible from the homepage, but only the second function is carried out in this section of the app. The other two steps take place in two different sections.

Home View

App Flows

To set a pill name and dosage, a user needs to:

  1. Open the application
  2. Tap a button in the home view
  3. Insert the information
  4. Save

The flow is the same for checking when a pill was taken in the past.

The flow is more seamless for recording when a pill was taken. In this case, the user will just open the application and tap a button.

I described the flows because they hint at which new Siri function aligns with each. A repetitive action with some parameters (pill name and dosage) is a good match for Siri Custom Intents whereas accessing a specific section of an application is a perfect case for Siri Shortcuts.

In the first case, every time the user taps the “took my pill” button, the application sends to Siri the intent the user took [pill amount] [pill name], where the values are parameters previously defined by the user. In the second case, Siri sends the Shortcut “pills taken by the user” every time the user opens the “pill history” section of the app.

The new intent definition configuration files the application’s intents and responses. As you can see, it’s possible to set parameters and different Shortcut types for every intent.

The new intent definition configuration files the application’s intents and responses. As you can see, it’s possible to set parameters and different Shortcut types for every intent.
SiriService struct in TakeUrPill

After the user first uses the app, she can even associate voice commands with the Shortcuts created by going to Settings > Siri & Search > More Shortcuts. Users can also be permitted to create new Shortcuts directly within an application.

Press the red button and record your specific voice command

You can also allow the user to create a new shortcut directly from your application (much better 😉)

There is a specific API to open the Siri Shortcuts setting, with also a default button UI from Apple

Siri Suggestions

To test Siri’s suggestions, developers can go to Settings > Developer when working on an application. If you want to see Siri give real suggestions, you’ll have to be patient. 🙂

Apple’s documentation doesn’t note how many times an application must send data back to Siri before she has enough information to suggest a Shortcut. Based on my experience with TakeUrPill, Siri started to show suggestions after a week. These recommendations depend heavily on a user taking actions that are repetitive and consistent, like “take a pill” every day at the same time for a week.🙂

Shortcuts from Siri Suggestions widget
I used to ask Siri to show me the list of my pill in the morning, so only in the morning Siri showed the suggestion in the Lock Screen or…
… in the open applications list.

Conclusion

With iOS 12, Apple is taking a big step forward towards reducing the friction between users and their applications by opening Siri to developers. Most importantly, Apple’s effort is not only about voice commands but also about the predictions that Siri makes about when a user would use a specific function of an application based on her previous behaviour.

From the developer perspective, it’s very easy to implement this new functionality, and Apple’s training videos and examples are very clear. This is why I completely skip a code example for now. In just a couple of hours, you can completely upgrade your application, integrate Siri, and give your users a new, effortless experience. My hope is that this means we’ll see a lot of brands quickly incorporate the new Siri functionality, much to the delight of their users.


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