Emu launched last week to a wave of great press. It’s no surprise. Emu is an iOS/Android messaging app that was built by one of the senior engineers on Siri. Emu’s premise: As you text with a friend, a smart robot jumps into the conversation to help.
“Want to go to dinner tonight?” That question launches your calendar in-line. “Yeah, how about Gino’s East?” Up comes Gino’s Yelp review, along with a link to directions and a phone number. Information that would normally require switching apps and Googling appears seamlessly within the conversation.
There’s little doubt that Siri and Emu are both very helpful. But Emu is different from Siri in an important way that defines how we as users experience “information.” At its most omniscient, Siri is a sage that you’ve subcontracted to read you baseball scores. Emu, on its best behavior, is a know-it-all who doesn’t know when to shut up.
You ask Siri the questions that you want answered. It’s similar to the way you go to Google and search. You initiate the conversation. You ask for help.
Emu is a self-starter: It guesses at the topics you’d like to hear more about during a conversation. It’s inherently a third wheel, inserting itself into your dealings.
Nothing’s wrong with this third wheel arrangement as long as Emu limits itself to basic functionality, like pulling up Yelp reviews, right? I’m dubious. What if you ask someone out on a date? Where? Here’s where it gets tricky. How about your favorite hole-in-the-wall Chinese place? Emu pulls up Yelp, and your date sees that your favorite Chinese place has, crap, one star. Some reviewer cries food poisoning.
It’s the potential downfall of TMI. Do you move the conversation forward or do you address the Yelp review? Do you have to devolve the conversation into how a lot of people hate this place but that’s only because, well, you get the picture. Emu can’t see if your potential date’s expression is charmed or “ugh.”
These strange moments will only compound if and when Emu grows more ambitious. The app’s premise is simple enough: It exists to be helpful. But should Emu chime in during a spat with your spouse and give you directions to the laundromat that’s closed because you forgot to stop by after work? And into the future, should Emu define a medical term of a family member who’s in the hospital? Should Emu tell you the calories in that hamburger? Should Emu tell you that you got last night’s baseball score wrong?
Siri and Emu highlight the power of designing around user experience. Even given the same information, there are vastly different stakes between a system to which you ask questions privately and a system that volunteers answers publicly.
How many times does Siri need to be wrong before you stop using her? A dozen?
How many times does Emu need to be so annoyingly or embarrassingly right before you stop using it? All of one.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Emu shared your calendar publicly within a dialog. In reality, your calendar appears on your screen but not anywhere else.