WWDC 2018: A Guide to Siri Shortcuts

The Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) took place last month, and was full of new software. In recent years, Apple has used the conference to focus on updates to their main four platforms: iOS, macOS, tvOS, and watchOS. This year was no exception. Although there were many exciting announcements across these platforms, I will be talking about just one for iOS and watchOS: Siri Shortcuts.

A shortcut is a new abstraction that represents an action a user performs in an app. Shortcuts can be understood by apps, Siri, and users. Let’s dive in to how each of these understands and interacts with shortcuts.

Apps

Apps are responsible for registering and defining shortcuts that can later be used by Siri and users. From an app’s perspective, a shortcut is a wrapper around either a user activity or an intent.

A user activity represents the state of an app at a moment in time. These have been used for some time and are not new to iOS 12. Other features, such as Handoff and Spotlight, also use them. New in iOS 12, shortcuts will be implicitly registered for these user activities and seen throughout the system. This means user activities can be used by Siri and users for many of the new use cases without developers needing to change anything. There are, however, a few use cases that must be enabled explicitly by developers.

When a user uses Siri to make a request to an app, this request is called an intent. Like user activities, these are also not new to iOS 12. Traditionally, these intents have been limited to specific domains including messaging, ride booking, and payments apps. In order to register shortcuts for these intents, an app must “donate” an interaction a user makes with an intent. For example, a ride booking app can donate a ride request intent to Siri whenever a user requests a ride in the app. This registers a shortcut for the intent that can now be understood by the rest of the system.

New to iOS 12 is the ability to create custom intents that do not belong to any of the predefined intent domains. These can also be donated, resulting in shortcuts being created for them. Unlike the domain-specific intents, custom intents have no other capabilities beyond shortcuts.

Apps can also tell Siri about relevant shortcuts that a user may perform in the future. For example, a meditation app may suggest to Siri that the user has a daily meditation routine every morning. Siri can take this information, along with other shortcuts donated by apps, to make suggestions to users.

Siri

Once shortcuts have been donated by apps, Siri can suggest relevant shortcuts to users from either the recommendations an app gives ahead of time or by learning from donations. This is called Siri Suggestions. They can appear either in notification center or on the lock screen.

 

Because of how apps donate shortcuts when the corresponding action happens in an app, Siri can take the surrounding context to learn the appropriate times to suggest a shortcut to that action in the future. Possible signals include time of day, location, motion, etc. Of course, this is all done on-device. Nobody, including Apple, can track the shortcuts being suggested to or actions being taken by a user.

After just a few days of using Siri Suggestions, I stumbled across a great use case. I often watch an episode of TV in the evenings, usually around the same time. I also use a website to track the episodes I have seen and see my progress. After the episode ends, I normally open the website on my phone to mark the corresponding episode as seen. Siri quickly learned this and started suggesting to me to open the website around the time I normally end an episode. It most likely learned this from just the time of day, but it may also recognize that I am sitting at home.

Siri Suggestions currently only works for built-in apps in the iOS 12 beta. I also have yet to see any lock screen suggestions. The possible use cases are obviously much more interesting when Siri can start suggesting shortcuts to actions in third-party apps. And as with many new technologies, most of the exciting use cases cannot be seen ahead of time. Nobody, including Apple, can foresee everything Siri will learn about its users. Only time will tell how useful these suggestions are.

Users

For the more tech-savvy, power users, iOS 12 also includes a few ways for users to interact with shortcuts on their own.

Users can assign Siri voice commands to any shortcut. This can be done either in the Settings app or inside a third-party app. Apps also suggest phrases to users for their shortcuts. These voice commands are currently the only way to use custom intents with voice, something that has caused a lot of confusion among developers. This does not allow apps to integrate their own voice commands with Siri. Every command must be explicitly enabled by the user.

Apple will also be releasing a Shortcuts app in the fall. This will allow users to compose shortcuts from multiple apps and create powerful workflows. These workflows can also be assigned voice commands. The Shortcuts app beta is currently available to a limited number of developers, so I have not had the chance to use it. But, this appears to be the most powerful automation tool that Apple has ever brought to iOS.

Whether you are a developer or end user, I hope this quick guide has given you a better understanding of Siri Shortcuts and the potential new use cases it may bring to iOS and watchOS. Keep an eye out for how Hiya may take advantage of Siri Shortcuts in the future!

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