Apple accessibility: Siri Shortcuts to give people with impairments a boost

This week saw Apple’s annual World Wide Developers Conference keynote event where the company revealed everything we can expect to see in the new operating systems come Autumn; iOS 12, watch OS 5, tv OS 12 and mac OS Mojave. Siri has some new capabilities and one, in particular, should give those with a speech impairment a big boost. It's good news for accessibility.

A smart use of smart assistants

We all know that we can use Siri to get information, schedule appointments, send text messages and much, much more. Siri is far from perfect and arguably somewhat behind in the smart assistant stakes, but nevertheless, when it works, it adds significant convenience. If you have a disability and things may take a little longer than usual, that convenience can turn into a pronounced productivity gain. Factor in a learning difficulty or fatigue, then using your voice to achieve tasks could substantially widen your use of tech.

iPhone Screen showing message from Siri about appointment

If you can’t see (like me) or have reading difficulties, then Siri can easily be set to speak out the results of an action. If you can’t speak clearly then you can also train Siri to better understand you by tapping on the history of spoken commands and correcting what it thought you said.

If, however, speech is very tiring or challenging, then the new Siri Shortcuts coming in iOS 12 may be just the thing for you.

New Siri ‘Shortcuts’

Coming in iOS 12 is a new way of assigning quick phrases to the things you most want to achieve with Siri. A previous update to iOS gave Siri new capabilities to interact with non-Apple apps, such as being able to ask her to start a Skype call. Now it seems that many more third-party apps will be able to integrate with Siri by using the new ‘Shortcuts’ capability. App developers can define trigger phrases (such as “Start sleeping” for a sleep tracking app or “Post to VORail” to open this excellent audio-only social network app and begin recording a new post) and Siri will obey. This radically expands its ability to interface with apps and, understandably, the developer audience at the event were suitably excited.

But there’s more. As well as developers being able to define new phrases for Siri, I mentioned that you would be able to assign your own custom trigger phrases too. You do this using the new Shortcuts app.

The new Shortcuts app

There’s a new app coming in iOS 12 called Shortcuts. Looking a lot like the Workflow or IFTTT apps, you can easily pick from a list of common Siri tasks, as well as a gallery of all the new trigger phrases provided by the third-party apps you’ve got installed on your device, bring them together into a list of actions that will all be performed with a single Siri command and then assign your own custom shortcut phrase to trigger the listed actions.

Apple shortcuts logo

This brings Siri in-line with other smart assistants such as the Amazon Echo, which has had a similar feature called ‘Routines’ for some time now. Say “Good morning” to Alexa and she can give you your news update, the weather, the state of traffic on your daily commute and then play your favourite breakfast playlist - all with one easy command. Now with Shortcuts, Siri will have similar smarts.

Choosing trigger phrases to suit you

These new expanded capabilities are good news for everyone, but especially for those with a range of disabilities where efficiency and ease of use is everything.

If a speech impairment makes using Siri more of a challenge, however, then these new shortcuts will be a game-changer. Pick a phrase that is easiest to say clearly and you’ll increase the chances of Siri successfully understanding what you’ve said. If you also have an Apple Watch and find saying “Hey Siri” a chore, then coming in watch OS 5 is the option to have Siri listen automatically when you raise your wrist. This, combined with simpler commands, should make a big difference for users with speech difficulties.

Similarly, if you had a learning difficulty and would prefer simple phrases to perform certain actions, then simply set up a shortcut trigger phrase that is easy to remember for each daily task you would usually use Siri to assist with.

Robin Christopherson is head of digital inclusion for AbilityNet. Find more of his blogs here. 

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