52: The need for smarter reminders

Reminders on iOS have gained several new features since their introduction in iOS 5. When Reminders launched, it was almost difficult to use. Setting a reminder meant tapping through several screens to set the task, due date, and location. Siri sped up the process significantly, making it possible to set a complex reminder with a single spoken sentence. And the Notification Center widget made viewing time-sensitive reminders just a swipe away, system-wide. In fact, those augmentations are almost exclusively how I set and complete reminders; I rarely open the app.

Since the Reminders widget is my primary visual interface, I want it to be as smart as possible. It tries to selectively show upcoming and past-due reminders, so your entire Notification Center isn't overwhelmed with to-dos. But I find it's notion of what reminders are due "soon" to be far too permissive. I've set a daily recurring reminder to water my plants at 5:30, around the time I get home from work. Every morning at breakfast, there's my reminder that I don't want to think about for another nine hours plus. A shorter upcoming window would fix this, but even better would be the ability to set smarter reminder criteria.

That's literally the opposite of when I get home.

That's literally the opposite of when I get home.

It's always been possible to set both a time and location trigger for reminders, even by tap-and-swipe in the pre-Siri days. But those triggers don't interact with each other; they just sit side by side. Asking for a reminder to repeat "when I get home tonight" just means it will fire off at 7:00 PM and whenever I arrive home, even if I go home for lunch. The time can't act as a gating factor on the location, which is what we mean in natural language. This is because while features have been built on top of reminders, their basic structure and capabilities haven't improved in five years.

Yes, I could resort to other apps to gain some of this functionality. For example, I could set a recurring OmniFocus task with both a start and end time to restrict its visibility. But barring the introduction of a Siri API, I would never be able to do that with my voice. Having smarter reminders built in isn't an unreasonable request, and Apple's line can't be that simple reminders are good enough when what you say is not what you get. And if Siri is to truly become a smart assistant, it would be great if it could use contextual information it already has access to, taking commands like "remind me to put out the trash bins before it gets dark." These kinds of improvements should be on the iOS team's radar — or in their Notification Centers — they're due soon.