The Problem with Voice

On Star Trek, people are able to interact with the computer by merely speaking to it in plain English and it understands everything instantaneously and with almost 100% accuracy. This type of seamless voice interface has always seemed to be the dream of the future and what most people expect when using voice controls. With the introduction of Siri, many have discussed whether Apple has lived up to this dream. However, while most critics have pointed out all the reasons Siri does not live up to the dream, few have questioned whether the dream is worth having in the first place. Do people actually want voice control, even if it worked perfectly?

I’ve used Siri only a handful of times since I got my iPhone 5, and most people I know use Siri very sparingly, if at all. Part of the reason for this is Siri is slow, has limited functionality, and can’t always understand me. However, the more important reason is there aren’t that many situations where I need voice control. It’s a rare time that I want to actually start talking to my phone instead of simply using the touch interface.

Most people use their phones while out in public. Go to any public place and you will see phones everywhere – waiting rooms, restaurants, airports, parks, coffee shops, etc… While some people are actually using their phones as a phone and talking, the vast majority are using it completely silently. Now imagine all these people were using voice to control their phones – it would be a nightmare. Not only would it be unbearable to hear everyone else’s voice commands, I doubt most would feel comfortable saying some of their commands out loud. “Siri, what are the symptoms of herpes?”

Even apart from the public aspect of using voice control, most people would have no need to use voice control even in the privacy of their own home. People mostly use their phones for checking email, using social networks, texting, reading articles, playing games. None of these are very conducive to using your voice. Most interactions on a phone require you to already be looking at the phone, and at that point it is usually easier to merely tap a button or quickly write a few words. There is no need to use one’s voice, even if it worked with 100% accuracy. The way we currently interact with our phones and the internet is just not compatible with voice control.

I do agree there are a few limited circumstances where voice control is actually useful. The best example is driving, because
there is no other safe way to interact with your phone, and you are not in a public situation where talking to your phone would bother other people. Voice control can also be useful for asking quick questions on your phone such as “When is the movie playing tonight?” or “What is the weather for tomorrow?” However, most of the time using the normal touch interface of one’s phone is easier to use than one’s voice.

Voice control interfaces like Siri are a cool feature, and make one feel like they are living in a sci-fi movie, but are not very
useful for most people. Even if perfected to the point they work seamlessly (i.e. the computer on Star Trek), they won’t be revolutionary interfaces. They will be useful and convenient, but only in limited circumstances and for specific tasks.

If you have thoughts, please leave a comment below, email me, or catch me on Twitter .

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One thought on “The Problem with Voice

  1. How often do you interact (by voice or any other method) with human beings with 100% accuracy? I’ll answer for myself: not often. It is hard for humans and I would not expect great accuracy from Siri, either.Communication is difficult.

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