July 2023


Beware of Siri Creating Alarms Instead of Timers

I regularly use timers on the Apple Watch to remind myself about cooking times, ensure I don’t miss a meeting (see “A Call to Alarms: Why We Need Persistent Calendar and Reminder Notifications,” 11 May 2023), track how long to hold or repeat various exercises, remember to move the laundry along, avoid overdoing it by splitting wood for too long, and much else. My command is always the same: “Set a timer for 20 minutes” or whatever length of time I desire.

A timer failing to go off can be a real problem. Food might burn, I might be late, or the people performing a thoroughly evil core exercise with me might revolt. That’s happened more frequently in the past few months, but I didn’t know why until recently.

The first clue came when alarms started to go off on my Apple Watch every so often. That’s unusual; I seldom set alarms, and when I do, it’s always on my iPhone, not the Apple Watch. I didn’t think too much about the spurious alarms, chalking them up to cosmic rays.

The explanation came from a blog post by my friend Paul Kafasis. Paul had noticed the same problem, but he realized what was happening because he was paying closer attention to Siri’s visual feedback on the Apple Watch.

Something has recently changed with Siri such that it occasionally misses the final word—usually “minutes”—in the standard command, turning “Set a timer for 20 minutes” into “Set a timer for 20.” I have become so accustomed to timers just working that I hadn’t been looking at the screen like Paul had, so I didn’t notice that Siri interprets that second command as a request to set an alarm for “20” (8 PM.) As you can see from the scrollbar in the third screenshot below, I’ve ended up with a slew of random alarms in the Apple Watch’s Alarms app.

Apple Watch timer and alarms

They’re a little annoying to delete, too. You have to tap each one, scroll down, and tap Delete. I was hoping there would be a long swipe to the left, but I discovered an even better way, which was to tell Siri, “Delete all my alarms.” Way to go nuclear, Siri.

Deleting Apple Watch alarms

Initially, the fix eluded me because the command is correct—Siri is just missing that final word for some reason. However, I discovered other ways to ensure that Siri sets a timer rather than starting an alarm:

  • If you can retrain your brain to change your timer invocation command, rephrase it to move the unit to the middle, where it can’t be missed. In other words, say, “Start a 20-minute timer” or even just “20-minute timer.” Thanks to early commenters for this suggestion.
  • Look at the watch face after you speak your command to confirm Siri’s action. The screens for timers and alarms are visually distinct, so it’s an easy difference to spot.
  • Turn on Siri’s spoken responses, captions, and the transcription of your speech in Watch > Siri > Siri Responses. I’ve never felt these were necessary before (and the responses grate quickly), but they should reduce the chance of missing Siri’s mistakes.
    Siri response settings

Apart from the announcement that you’ll have the option of dropping “Hey” from “Hey Siri” commands, Apple said very little about Siri at WWDC, so it seems unlikely that significant under-the-hood improvements are coming this year. Nonetheless, we hope Apple addresses at least this problem soon because it’s exacerbating an already somewhat fraught interaction method.

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