June 4, 2018

The Most Important Feature for Brands from the WWDC 2018 Keynote

Every year, developers make the Great Migration to Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC). This week-long event is where Apple announces all the latest tech and tools coming to the suite of Apple products. Like Google I/O, WWDC kicks off with a keynote that hints at all the things that are to come throughout the rest of the week.

This year, it seems many tech companies are focusing on “quality of life” (QOL). Usually the phrase “quality of life update” refers to a software update that makes many changes to an application or game to improve the overall experience – usually a combination of bug fixes, interface tweaks, performance enhancements, and anything else that improves someone’s experience with a particular piece of software. However, most recently, we’ve noticed more and more emphasis being placed on the user’s QOL rather than the software. Both Apple and Google have released features to help users spend less time on their phone and more time with those around them. Digital Health is not a new concept, but it does seem to have gone by the wayside in recent years. Although not the one key takeaway that we chose to highlight in this article (but it was a close second), we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the hot topic of app optimization. Quite a bit of time was spent covering how developers could and should optimize apps in every way possible – in file size, performance, and amount of time users need to spend in it to accomplish the desired task (which you should be doing anyway).

Speaking of QOL, Apple spent a majority of the keynote announcing new features for their apps and devices. Things like Search Suggestions for photos, updates and UI changes for several first-party apps, new workouts on the Apple Watch, and much more. They also announced that you could FaceTime with 32 people while using your own emoji, aptly named Memojies (below).

Tim Cook and other Apple employees using Facetime and the new memojies

A majority of these updates benefited the ultimate end users of Apple devices while some helped developers more easily and effectively build on Apple’s platforms. There was, however, one update that stood out above the rest as the “killer feature” for apps this year. And that feature, is Siri Shortcuts.

Siri Shortcuts

These. Are. Big. Siri Shortcuts will change how a lot of people interact with a lot of apps. Since the emergence of DVAs (Digital Voice Assistants), the biggest barrier for adoption has been the learning curve for users. “What can I ask it? Was it how I phrased it? I didn’t want it to open that app to do ____.” are all statements you may have muttered to yourself when trying to communicate with your Google Home, Home Pod, or Amazon Echo. But Siri Shortcuts are going to change that. Instead of adding voice-controlled features to an app that users may or may not ever discover, developers can now prompt users with a button to “Add to Siri.” This does not add a particular action to Siri­­, but instead it allows users to create their own custom phrase to activate a certain feature that the app allows. For example, instead of having to say “Hey Siri, play my ‘Running’ playlist in Spotify,” someone can create a custom phrase for “Hey Siri, I’m going on a run” and the outcome will be the same.

arrow pointing to an iPhone X displaying Siri Shortcut

This doesn’t sound like much, but this could change Siri’s role to many as a peripheral accessory of the iPhone to an app necessity. Instead of having to try several times to get a request to work, users can simply make their own. As we aren’t exactly sure on how this will work just yet, we are assuming it will be based on deep linking.

example actions in a Siri Shortcut series

Another reason apps need to be Siri-ready is that Shortcuts will not just be for individual actions, but for a series of actions. Seen above, when asked “how’s the surf,” Siri began running through the requests the user had previously set up – like checking the weather and getting directions to the beach. Other examples Apple provided were Siri Shortcuts for “time to go home” or “let’s go to work.” In the “let’s go to work” example, Siri automatically knew to order a coffee from Starbucks that the user gets on the way to the office every day. So, for example, if your brand allows pick-up for groceries, you may want to integrate Siri in a way that allows people to create a grocery list of common items they need each week so users can order with a simple phrase.

Platform State of the Union keynote slide explaining the best uses for Siri Actions

By creating useful Siri integrations that can become part of a larger, daily/weekly/monthly routine instead of a one-off request, branded apps can quickly become a necessity of life even if they aren’t being manually launched. Like in the example above, the user with the morning routine didn’t open the Starbucks app, but they still bought a coffee.

Stay tuned for more from Apple’s developer conference or contact us today to learn more about Siri Shortcuts and how your brand can best leverage them.

March 21, 2018

Creating your Voice Assistant Strategy

This piece was originally published at Forbes.com.

Voice interactions with digital devices are not new. Dragon's Naturally Speaking has been around since the late 1990s, and speech-to-text in some capacity has been on almost every device available since then. What has changed are the integrations and capabilities and, of course, the accuracy. Alexa is now able to order almost anything from Amazon, Siri can send messages and set up reminders and Cortana opens desktop applications and sends emails. The Google Assistant, for which I develop apps at Bottle Rocket, aims to provide a lot of this same functionality, with a few enhancements along the way.

NOW IS THE TIME

The number of voice interactions is growing exponentially, and the opportunities for companies to get in front of users are following suit. As accuracy and capabilities grow, so does consumer demand across every platform. When people look at new Internet of Things (IoT) devices, they're expecting integration with Alexa or Google Home. It's becoming more common for family members to ask their favorite voice assistant to play the music they want, instead of loading up their music app and searching for it manually. Even children are learning that talking to the assistant can result in faster answers than a browser search, even if the results are the same. If you want to create a voice-based app for your company, now is the time to start working on it.

CHOOSE YOUR PATH

When people think about your company, what do they think about as the primary interaction? This is a good place to start when building a voice-based app. If you’re a national food chain that focuses on delivery, your voice app needs to let people order food. If you’re not sure what people might want, ask your support channels about the users they connect with. They will likely know the top three requests off the top of their head.

Besides responding to user requests, you can also use a voice app to educate customers about other products and services you have. Maybe you want people to think about larger catering orders for their office, not just family-size orders. You can mention that as one option in the conversation, much like you would present it as an option in a smartphone app.

You’ll want to meet user’s basic expectations about your brand, but that doesn’t mean you can’t offer new ideas that help guide users to new areas or experiences. Regardless of which way the user goes, you’ll need to help them finish the task at hand or offer a way out if they feel like they’ve gone too far. If they get stuck, you can provide options on how to answer the current question, but you also should let them exit a conversation or start over if they decide they really don’t want to do something.

HOW MACHINE LEARNING FITS IN

Google has doubled down on using machine learning in all their products, and their assistant backend, Dialog Flow, is no exception. The best example is the machine learning of triggering phrases that start various actions. Many examples are entered, such as “start an order,” “place an order” and “I want to order,” and then Dialog Flow creates models based on these entries to help find the ordering activity. Then, even when someone says “Make an order,” the model will determine that the user probably wants to start the ordering activity. This means that users don’t have to spend as much time learning how to use the app.

But what if the user says something that doesn’t match any specific action? Your app won’t know what to do. This happens all the time in normal conversation -- we’re just used to dealing with it, and voice apps have contingencies for this. The Google Assistant calls these “fallback” actions. Maybe your Assistant should say “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.” It could also provide a list of valid options for the question it asked. For example, the list of toppings you allow that you were expecting the user to pick from. To make it more natural, you can vary these responses, so the user doesn't hear "I'm sorry, please repeat that" over and over.

Finally, all of the phrases people say to your app that aren’t understood are saved and sorted, so that later you can decide what to do with them. You can help train the AI model on new phrases you want to trigger existing actions, or you might create an action that helps explain to the user why it can’t do a common request that you’re seeing. Even more than that, you can see what people are requesting and use that to build your future roadmap.

A MORE PERSONAL INTERACTION

When it comes to voice interfaces, there is no wrong input, only unexpected input. People are going to say random things, and you have to be prepared for it. I’ve learned that the tools have gotten a lot better in the past year, and we’re seeing even more improvement on the horizon. Voice apps can help users accomplish the tasks they want quickly, but it can also be a tool to educate users on what’s possible.

People are looking for ways to have a more personal experience with technology, one that feels custom-tailored to their unique needs. Voice interactions can provide this if they really listen to the customer and take advantage of all the interactions you have across all your users. Your company or brand now has a very personal way to talk to your customers, so think about the personality you want to present and how you can help them, and you’re likely to end up as a trusted advisor.

June 19, 2017

Top Takeaways from WWDC 2017 that Weren’t in the Keynote

While there were a lot of big announcements during this year’s WWDC Keynote, there were even more our Rocketeers learned during the sessions following it. Some of these barely made an appearance at the conference, but we think they’re some of the most exciting updates yet. If you are interested in learning more about these topics, you are also welcome to watch our webinar that aired Wednesday, June 14, 2017.  Click here to watch.

Business Chat Could Change Everything

Any business large enough to have a call center or customer support group should take note. Business Chat opens a support line directly in iMessages making it easier than ever help solve everyday customer problems with a tool that’s familiar to everyone. This interaction can begin from a button in an app, a link on your website, a CTA in an order confirmation email, or pretty much anywhere else you’d want to put it. Within the chat, you can share files, images, product images and/or videos, and much more. For example, let’s say a customer wanted to upgrade or change their seat on a flight – the airline could send them a layout of the seats available and can even charge for the upgrade through Apple Pay directly in iMessage. If you wanted to schedule a meeting, the details will be saved directly to the calendar.

Business Chat is available today and already integrates with LivePerson, Salesforce, Nuance, and Genesys.

CoreNFC Now Open to Developers

Near Field Communication (NFC) has been around for several years now, and the odds are good that you’ve used it and didn’t even know. NFC can be used for a wide range of applications, but to date it has primarily been used for mobile payment through apps such as Apple Pay. However, that may change very soon as Apple has officially opened the iPhone’s NFC functionality to developers. In true Apple style, they have taken every precaution to ensure user data remains secure. Each session must be initiated by the user and developers can only read, not write, data from an NFC tag. This means there will never be an accidental scan or possibility of someone pulling information from your phone. Brands will be able to leverage NFC for everything from presenting more information about a painting in a museum to adding items to an account in a hotel – but they will not be able to bill you directly from the interaction.

QR Reader Added to Default Camera App

In the United States, QR code sightings can be uncommon depending on where you live. In eastern markets, they are much more common. QR codes failed to reach widespread adoption in America because some didn’t know what to do with them and others didn’t see the value in downloading an app specifically for reading them. Now that Apple has integrated a QR reader into the default Camera app, that could change. However, western adoption of QR codes relies on content creators and advertisers just as much as, if not more than, users interacting with them. QR codes can be used for a wide range of applications such as sharing a playlist, opening a YouTube video, downloading an app, adding an item to a cart, and much more. The more interesting the experience, the more likely users are to give QR codes a try. To best leverage them, think guerilla marketing mixed with surprise and delight – people should feel as though they found something special rather than an advertisement, and where it takes them should almost be a reward.

CoreML Brings Machine Learning to the iPhone

The ways Google and Apple have approached artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are very different. One of the biggest differences is where the “magic” happens. Google’s approach is in the cloud while Apple’s is on-device. Processing the information on the iPhone itself not only provides a much faster experience but a much more private one. CoreML has three offerings at the moment, including Vision for image analysis, Foundation for language processing, and GameplayKit for NPC (non-player character) behavior, pathfinding, and more. While GameplayKit will mostly be used by game developers, Vision and Foundation can be used for a multitude of applications. For example, Vision can be used to recognize barcodes. You could use Vision to show more information about a product after a consumer scans the barcode or, with some training, teach Siri to recognize the product itself so that they can simply take a picture of the product to learn more.

Siri’s New Extensions

Three new extensions are now available to developers through SiriKit. For apps that allow you to make or check off items on a list, Siri can now be integrated into the app to allow users to take actions around those lists. The other two extensions, Points and Domains, can be leveraged for rewards and loyalty points. Points will allow users to ask Siri questions, such as “do I have enough points to book a flight to LA?” and Domains will allow users to scan visual codes such as loyalty points on a purchase to have them automatically added to your account in the app. With Siri’s new extensions, the customer experience in apps can be improved greatly as Siri makes it easier for consumers to keep track and add reward points to their accounts.

The App Store Gets an Overhaul

There are some big changes coming to the App Store. First off, Apple has completely redesigned the store and added several sections to improve the app discovery experience. There will be three primary sections to the store – Apps, Games, and Today. To make it even easier to decide if you want to download an app, Apple has also added the option for developers to upload up to three videos to showcase gameplay, features, and more in apps. What’s even more exciting is that Apple now allows developers to decide if they want to reset their reviews when uploading a new version of an app. Believe it or not, some developers would allow bugs to go unfixed for weeks if they had high ratings for their app to avoid having the ratings potentially drop. Now hotfixes are much less stressful for brands and developers as they can effectively push out several builds of an app and retain their ratings and reviews.

Check back for more updates as these new features and tools become available. In the meantime, please feel free to contact us with any other questions you may have.

June 2, 2017

WWDC 2017: What We’re Excited About

Just as our Rocketeers are coming down from Google I/O fever, Bottle Rocket’s iOS Engineers are gearing up for Apple’s 2017 Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). We’re sending some of our Rocketeers to the event where they anticipate announcements regarding Siri and many other surprises that present and potential clients can use to grow their businesses and further connect with customers. We’ve asked some of our Engineering Jedi (our lead engineers) what they hope to see at WWDC this year. Here’s Russell Mirabelli, Ryan Gant, and Josh Smith with expert insight (and plenty of tech talk).

Apple’s Siri-enabled Speaker

As a potential competitor to Amazon Echo and Google Home, this speaker is rumored to be powered by one of Apple’s own A-series arm processors and run a variant of iOS. It is also thought to use some form of Beats technology and support AirPlay. Expected to carry a premium price, the speaker could feature high-end audio with one woofer and seven tweeters built in. If Apple does release its own smart speaker, our clients could easily leverage the code already written in their iOS apps and bring them into the home. This could be yet another platform our clients could utilize, as it opens up conversational interactions between brands and their customers.

Utilizing machine learning, or SiriKit, within an app could make the difference between having the next new thing, or having an app that'll be outdated and underused in five months. So, brands should watch for the addition of a Siri-enabled smart speaker closely, since there’s a pretty good chance Siri will get some improvements to support it.

SiriKit Improvements

It's a safe bet that we'll get quite a few new intent domains for SiriKit, which will bring Siri integration into many new applications. When Siri expands, it brings with it a whole new way for users to interact with your apps. Imagine asking Siri for something and your app giving you exactly what you want. There’s a good chance Apple will expand SiriKit to include more domains outside of the current Ride Booking, Messaging, Photo Search, Payments, VoIP Calling, Workouts, Climate, and Radio.

If these enhancements occur, we would be able to leverage Siri in both the speaker and on iOS devices in these ways for clients:

  • Order your favorite food with just your voice
  • Instantly play an episode of your favorite show just by asking
  • Determine the newest videos available on your favorite TV anywhere app (or what comes on tonight)
  • Ask Coca-Cola Freestyle to pour a saved mix by voice
  • Perform a search for a flight or hotel and book using only your voice

Developer Tools

Steel yourself—this is straight developer talk. Our iOS developers love new tools. We know what's next in Swift for this year because it's been developed in public, but it will be nice to have those updates rolled out to our developers. Object serialization being incorporated as a language feature has our iOS team excited—this will lead to more consistent code across all our projects.

And, of course, we're about to get some new goodies in Swift. Updates to the compiler will not only help with compile times but, with any luck, we'll also get more useful error messaging, which will increase development speeds and quality of life. Our Rocketeers would also love to see another one of Apple's main apps become more open to extension. Last year we saw a little opening into Apple Maps, and it would be great if they continued expanding that. Something else we hope for, but don't really expect, is easier keychain support. Some developers avoid storing data in the keychain because it requires some C-level API usage. Apple could revamp that interface for easier accessibility via Swift. This would serve all of Apple's users by ensuring that more apps protect user data.

One area that we might see some improvements is in the persistent caching of objects in a local store. Core Data, although powerful, is cumbersome to use in Swift, and writing your cache in a keyed archiver is prone to errors. It'd be fantastic to have a solid solution that's capable of adapting both NSObject subclasses and Swift structs into a lightning-fast storage file format.

This is exciting stuff! Is your brand ready for what may come from WWDC? Keep an eye on our blog for the latest from WWDC, or get in touch and share your vision for engaging your customers via mobile or voice.

June 23, 2016

5 Key Takeaways for Brands from WWDC 2016

There was no shortage of announcements made this year at Apple’s annual World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC). We’re going to take a closer look at a few updates coming this fall to Apple’s suite of devices. For a detailed recap of the announcements made at WWDC, read our WWDC Keynote Recap.

Hidden amidst Apple’s announcements of their updated apps is the emergence of a new theme in iOS: extensions. Maps, Messages, Siri, and even notifications received robust updates that allow developers to engage with users in more ways than ever. What Apple seems to be heading towards: extensions are the new apps.

What are extensions? Think of them as add-ons for Apple’s first-party apps, such as Maps and iMessage. These add-ons will range from shortcuts to extended functionality. For example, with Maps, you will be able to look up a location, see hotels in the area, and book a room without having to ever leave the app.

 

Extensions add new touchpoints in iOS

Maps extensions are critical for restaurants, transportations services, hotels, retail and more since users will be able to book dinner reservations and request a ride to the location – all while using Maps. While message extensions are not practical for every brand, they should be considered as they will be a great benefit for those who can find a connection with their product or service. There is even an iMessage App Store, which means iMessage extensions have a dramatically increased chance of being discovered. Siri extensions currently have limited uses, but they are certainly an interesting start to a new line of features. Also, with previews available for notifications, it’s important to consider what these interactions will look like for your app while also considering the user’s privacy.

 

Better UX on watchOS

The latest Apple Watch update will allow it to learn which apps are used most and prioritize updates and processing power accordingly. Improved launch times and background updates make interactions almost instantaneous. No more raising your wrist, waiting for the app to load and waiting for the content to refresh. Also, widgets are now available to developers. Brands must consider whether widgets are a valuable add-on for their app as users will now be able to basically save and scroll through their favorite apps on the Apple Watch.

 

Single sign-in on tvOS

Authentication can be an infuriating process when using the same account across multiple apps. Now, for pay-TV channels on Apple TV, users will be able to sign-in once and access all of the apps available to them through their cable provider. This may not be big news for individual content creators, but for any brand with a TV channel, it’s a vast improvement for accessing your content. Users who originally “didn’t feel like taking the time to log-in again” will now simply have to download your app to enjoy the content.

 

Improved mobile communication with macOS

OS X, now macOS, mainly received quality-of-life improvements in the Sierra update. The Apple Watch now allows auto-login on macOS and ApplePay is available online with mobile authentication. This added continuity and communication between devices creates opportunities for new interactions. One industry that will specifically benefit from ApplePay’s new online presence is e-commerce. Consider this: someone’s shopping online and they’re ready to check out, only to realize they need to enter their credit card information and they left their wallet in the bedroom. With ApplePay, they’ll be able to login to their account, a confirmation request will appear on their iPhone, they approve their purchase, and that’s it. Not only does it provide added security, it cuts down on time spent making online purchases; especially on websites that a user may not have previously visited.

Information is becoming easier to share between devices and is a vital factor in user experience between screens. If there is a mobile app equivalent of a macOS application, consider how to leverage this new functionality for added use between devices; if there is not a mobile companion app, you may want to consider creating one.

 

Siri is now available to developers

Integrations are limited at the moment, but this is a very interesting update. One subtle announcement made that makes this even more exciting is the ability to include speech recognition in any iOS app. This furthers the trend of omnipresent interfaces, such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home. Instead of having to physically interact with technology, omnipresent interfaces allow interaction with a device without having it near you. Apple is heading towards a connected home and further connected ecosystem in their suite of devices. By integrating Siri into apps and macOS, seamless transitions between devices and nearly conversational control of them are on its way. What form this will take varies by app and brand, but it’s an exciting addition for future opportunities nonetheless.

 

Contact us today to learn how your brand or app can benefit from the latest updates in the Apple ecosystem.