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Why Siri is like skeuomorphic UIs: the magic is just skin deep


By now you've probably heard of the widely reported case of Siri's alleged pro-life stance. Walking the dogs this morning, I thought through what I hoped would be an interesting blog post about what I feel this means about Apple and our relationship to technology. I see an interesting link here between Siri and the heavy-on-the-texture UIs of Apple apps like iCal and Find My Friends.

Even before the response from Apple was published, it seemed more likely to me that this wasn't so much a case of Apple pushing a political agenda as it was a limitation of Siri making it look that way. Indeed, if anything Apple seems to have a a liberal, rather than conservative, political agenda -- for example, it donated $100,000 to the campaign to keep gay marriage legal in California in 2010. But, really, all this is incidental to what I was thinking of writing.

Then Adam Engst wrote a great post at TidBITS that stole my thunder by pre-empting most of what I had to say! The gist of his argument is as follows: that the problem with Siri is that, although it looks very much like sorcery at first glance (and although Apple carefully presents it that way in its advertising), it really isn't. It's just another computer program like all the rest -- and like all the rest it comes with limitations and drawbacks and bugs and issues. It doesn't help that the chattery nature of Siri -- the jokey responses, the easter eggs, the sly film references -- create a substantial facade that it really is a facsimile of a real person. But that's all it is: a facade.

Sometimes that facade cracks. For example, we've seen problems because of cloud failures -- or, indeed, if you have no data signal on your phone to communicate with the Siri data centre then it simply stops working. In the case of the searches for abortion-related matters, the problem appears to simply be a lack of information in the backing databases that Siri draws upon, like Yelp and Wolfram Alpha. I'm sure that this is only one of many such gaps in Siri's knowledge, albeit a highly politically charged one. For example, Siri's address lookups are resolutely US only, despite it being supported in many other countries (such as my native UK) and Yelp having a perfectly reasonable database for it to use.

Where I'd like to go further than Engst does is by drawing comparisons between Siri and Apple's recent trend towards so-called "skeuomorphic" UIs. This is the extensive use of real-world textures and imagery to underpin an app's functionality. Think of iCal on Lion, Calendar on the iPad, Game Center on iOS, or Find My Friends on the iPhone -- with leather bits, and little torn edges, and faux piles of poker chips, and stacks of pages in the corner of the screen.

I have a vehement aesthetic objection to the look-and-feel of most of these apps; I find them pointless, distracting and, frankly, a bit twee. This is merely my own tastes, though. Thinking more objectively I also have a practical objection. I believe that skeuomorphic UIs create false models of interaction. For example, in iBooks there is a stack of pages on the corner of the screen; a swipe across that stack turns the page. Seems logical enough, right? But the same stack of pages in Calendar for iPad on iOS 4 was not swipeable. It looked the same -- and clearly a real-world stack of pages can be turned -- but Apple seemingly just missed this feature out.

You might think that it's no big deal for Apple to implement that, and indeed the feature turned up in iOS 5 -- but I would humbly suggest that this is a hole with no bottom. The same stack-of-pages decoration still isn't swipeable in Contacts, for example. Look at iCal for Lion -- look at those little torn edges across the top of the page, where the virtual remains of last months page are seemingly left behind. Why can't I tear them off with my mouse and clean them up? That's exactly what I'd do with a real calendar that looked like that.

And even if Apple somehow made a UI that has almost every interaction a reasonable human being might expect of it -- a tall order, but let's suppose -- it's still only going to feel like a sheet of glass. As Bret Victor's fantastic essay on interaction design brillianty demonstrates, "pictures under glass" are never going to be anything more. If you can't smell the leather, or feel the grain, why make it look like leather in the first place?

Getting back to my original point, I see a link here. Skeuomorphic UIs resemble physical objects, but they cannot hope to emulate the myriad ways we have to emulate physical objects -- so they are always doomed to disappoint on some level if we let ourselves be fooled. Siri presents itself as a real person, a sort of "auditory skeuomorphism" if you will. But short of passing a Turing test one day that, too, is doomed to always disappoint. Sure, it looks like magic -- but so did the Wizard of Oz until Toto pulled back the curtain. Never forget that there's wires and gears back there making it work, or you'll be surprised when the abstractions leak.

Footnote: let's look again at Apple spokesperson Natalie Kerris's statement to the New York Times. She said "[t]hese are not intentional omissions meant to offend anyone. It simply means that as we bring Siri from beta to a final product, we find places where we can do better, and we will in the coming weeks."

I think it is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, I'm rather cynical about Siri's "beta" nature; I agree with Macworld senior contributor Glenn Fleishman, who wrote, "If you're advertising Siri as a feature, it's not beta." On iPhone 4S launch day, I spent ten minutes in an Apple Store enduring a low impact sales pitch from a Genius and he didn't mention the "beta" word once. Nor does it appear in Apple's TV spot. But then again, Gmail was in beta for six years; I'm not even sure I know what beta is supposed to mean any more, and I write software for a living.

Still, though, it seems to be that Apple are suggesting that as long as Siri has "places where we can do better" it'll be in beta. Well, hmmm. As I mentioned above, I'm not sure how -- short of some sort of Skynet-level breakthrough in AI tech -- Siri will ever be finished. With a field as complex as natural language processing, there's simply too much that can go wrong -- too many ways for humans to innocently throw a spanner in the works with their rich and wonderful languages. I do wonder if perhaps that statement to the Times was just a teensy bit rushed so Apple could nip the story in the bud. Not that I'd blame it for that, but it struck me as an interesting point nevertheless.

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