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Virtually Speaking

Siri doesn’t need sass, she needs accuracy

Posted by Jen Snell on Jan 22, 2013 1:41:12 PM


“We're looking for a uniquely creative individual to help us evolve and enrich Siri, our virtual personal assistant. Siri's known for 'her' wit, cultural knowledge, and zeal to explain things in engaging, funny, and practical ways. The ideal candidate is someone who combines a love for language, wordplay, and conversation with demonstrated experience in bringing creative content to life within an intense technical environment.”

Apple’s latest job posting – spotted by Jordan Kahn of 9 to5 Mac and quickly picked up by The Atlantic and others – has people talking. It seems that the trendsetting tech giant is looking for a writer to give Siri’s dry, utilitarian personality a makeover, spicing up her responses with witty repartee.

Do we really want our virtual assistants making puns and cracking jokes?  Apple thinks so and will continue to focus its efforts on it to differentiate Siri.

But, is personality enough to differentiate from competition? After all, the virtual assistant's duties aren’t just limited to festive occasions, and the potential for disaster is ample. Say a user on the way to a funeral needs information from Siri – a wry, witty answer is likely to come off as flippant, and the experience that was intended to build interest and trust will instead alienate. And while virtual-agent technology is too young to have provided us with a good example of brand-persona gone wrong, we only have to look back to Chrysler’s disastrous “Dr. Z” campaign to be reminded of how truly harmful a bad personality can be.

On the other hand, a well-developed persona does indeed go a long way toward making a virtual assistant more relatable and the experience more credible. Take SGT STAR, the virtual-assistant that Next IT developed for the U.S. Army. His responses are written in-character, with a voice and phrasings that are all “his” own. But to access his wit and humor, the user must ask either a flippant or humorous question about his personal life. (Go ahead, try asking him to drop and give you twenty.) The Army knows that SGT STAR is used as a tool to help guide life-altering decisions, so his personality has been constructed with tact.

More importantly to potential recruits and their families, SGT STAR’s answers are highly accurate. And if Siri really wants to keep users coming back, perhaps that’s where Apple should focus its efforts.

In the meantime, though, we hope that Apple has found a writer who realizes what a task it is to do justice to a persona – there is a fine line between trusted friend and close frenemy .

Topics: Intelligent Virtual Assistants (IVA), Natural Language Understanding, User Experience, Technology