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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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Comments About Beware of Siri Creating Alarms Instead of Timers

Notable Replies

  1. My standard watch face uses a timer complication, providing another way to check the timer has been set.
    incoming-2515EC92-865B-4F27-B4E2-DF676203F9EC

  2. This is not a particularly new problem. I tweeted at Apple a couple years ago when this was happening literally constantly with every single timer I tried to set, and it was even happening when the transcription showed it DID recognize everything I said. It then got somewhat better and I forgot about it. And lately, the “set a timer for X minutes” command has worked mostly flawlessly for me.

    I honestly don’t think Siri changes much; from what I’ve read about its internal workings, that’s part of the problem of updating it–the monolithic nature of it and how it was designed not terribly well back in the day.

  3. Thanks for the ‘Delete all my alarms’ tip. I had one for every minute of the day…

  4. You can say “countdown x minutes”.

    This works completely reliably for me.

  5. Apple actually put fixing this on the schedule when you first tweeted, but Siri took the “Set timer for 2 months” as intending the year 2102.

  6. Alas, that runs into the same problem. If you say “Countdown for 2” (or Siri hears it like that), it will give you an alarm for 2 PM.

  7. This is so weird. I’ve always said, “Start a 20 minute timer” and never run into this issue.

    Maybe it works because “minute” is in the middle of the sentence instead of the end and doesn’t get cut off?

  8. I guess I’ve always been lucky, though I also always use Siri to set timers on my watch. If I do it on the phone, I do it manually. The watch is great because you can have multiple timers running, optionally with labels, as will come to iOS 17 later this year. “Hey Siri, set a 25 minute timer for rice” for example.

    Generally the only problem I get is when Siri doesn’t work at all.

  9. Aha! That might be the best approach. When I simulated losing the last word, I still got a 20-minute timer.

  10. Not sure if this is common knowledge, but I’ve never heard anyone mention it, and I like to think that I wished it into existence some time back by trying it and it worked…

    You can name timers.

    So when I add the chemicals to my hot tub, I say “set a 20 minute Hot Tub timer” and it puts a label on the timer:

    incoming-046EB9D6-B063-4794-84A5-D42A5D158141

    Having labels is particularly helpful if you’re also using them for cooking and laundry at the same time… or if you just have too much going on and will plain forget what you were doing :smiley:

  11. That’s why I always say “countdown two minutes”. I might just be lucky that it’s not truncated my command, but it’s never failed me.

  12. Me too, except I’ve never bothered with ‘Start a’. I’ve always been minimal with Siri, never use ‘hey’ or its ‘name’. eg ‘20 minute timer’ has always worked for me, mostly via my watch.

  13. I have gotten into the habit of telling Siri, “2 minutes” (or n minutes, hours, etc.). It works and I have never had it translated into an alarm on my watch, HomePod or iPhone.

  14. Set timer 2 minutes works for me.

    Diane

  15. Great tip - thank you. I only recently began using multiple timers and if several go off at around the same time it is useful to know which is which.
    With Siri, the other issue to consider is that some of us (i.e me ) tend to speak the first word/syllable too quietly and this might change the context that Siri is trying to understand. Saying Hey Siri at the start tends to avoid this problem.

  16. I now see someone had already posted this. So count this as a me too.

    Something I’ve been have luck with lately on my iPhone 13. I just say, e.g. “four minutes” and I get a 4-minute timer. Simpler yet, but see last paragraph.

    Although I doubt it’s important, I don’t use “Hey, Siri” because other devices listen in too often. I use the push the right button method to summon Siri. But it may be important because Siri doesn’t have to first figure out I’m talking to her.

    I suspect Siri hears us all differently. I can’t reliably set a 50-minute timer. Ends up 15 minutes. Since I have an occasional need for a 50-minute timer, I try to remember to ask for a 49-minute timer. She hears 49 OK. Not much difference in pronunciation between fifteen and fifty. And I’ve had people misuse those if it’s a foreign language to them. But it was in French in Morocco where French is a second language. Although that pronunciation is more different. We were negotiating and fortunately I had a pen to straighten it out.

    Enough prattling on.

  17. I always say, “Begin 20-minute countdown.” Never had a problem with that phrasing. Probably because of using ‘begin’.

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