Nfld. & Labrador

How an N.L. developer landed the voice of Siri for its new anti-smoking app

You might not know Susan Bennett, but chances are you know her voice.

Susan Bennett, the original voice of Apple's Siri, wants to help people quit smoking

Hazel Harrison turned her successful strategy for quitting smoking into an app. (Gary Locke/CBC)

A Newfoundland and Labrador app developer is getting an assist from one of the world's most well-known voices.

Susan Bennett — the original voice of Siri, Apple's virtual assistant — connected with Hazel Harrison, who wants to use technology to help people quit smoking.

Bennett is a former smoker herself.

"So I was very happy to be part of something that was going to help other people," Bennett said from her home in Atlanta, Georgia.

"That's something I'm hoping to do more of as the original voice of Siri, that is to be able to appeal to people, help them in some way or other."

Susan Bennett is the original voice of Siri, Apple's virtual assistant. She is also a former smoker. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

For Harrison, the app is a business, but it's also personal. She too knows first hand how hard it is to quit smoking.

"I tried everything on the market — the patch, the medications — and nothing worked for me," said Harrison, who lives in Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, outside St. John's. 

"So this one morning, I woke up and said, 'OK, I'm very, very determined to quit.' So I was going to have one cigarette every hour, and the next day, every hour and 15 minutes. And I gradually weaned myself down until I got to one cigarette. And at that point it was really easy to give up that last cigarette."

Harrison has turned her quitting strategy into an app called Quit My Way.

"You enter in the number of cigarettes you're smoking per day, the hours you're awake per day, and it sets up a customized algorithm for you," Harrison said.

"So, say you started off with 20 cigarettes per day, it'll notify you 20 times the first day. And the second day it might notify you 19 times, and 18, so if you're smoking about 20, it'll take you about four weeks to get down to one cigarette."

It's an example of what psychologists call a commitment device — a way to lock yourself into a plan that you may otherwise have trouble sticking to.

While developing the app, Harrison says she saw an opportunity to make it more effective by enlisting the help of a celebrity.

Siri used to smoke

"I was on Twitter about a year ago, and I was followed by a lady named Susan Bennett." said Harrison.

Like most people, Harrison had no idea that Siri was voiced by a real person. But when she checked out Bennett's profile and sent her an email, Bennett replied the very next day, saying she wanted to be involved.

Bennett wound up recording the narration for Quit My Way's tutorial video. In her famous Siri voice, she explains to new users how to set up and use the app.

"It was actually the most exciting part of the project for me," said Harrison. "Listening to her voice, from the human to the robotic voice was really, really exciting."

Smokers can use the Quit My Way app to develop a custom smoking schedule that gradually weans them off cigarettes. (CBC Archives)

Bennett says Apple uses other actors in updated versions of Siri, and also in foreign language versions of the virtual assistant. But she can still speak in the robotic, semi-snarky tone that she made famous. 

Bennett says the Siri voice does have power.

"People speak to Siri and Alexa and all these virtual assistants so much on a daily basis," said Bennett.

"And they do take instruction from these virtual assistant's voices. So I can only think it would have a very comforting and familiar, and kind of a call to action effect on people who hear it. At least I hope so, because quitting smoking is really, really tough."

Quit My Way is available on Apple's App Store and on Google Play.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Zach Goudie is a journalist and video producer with CBC in St. John's.

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