Hey Siri, how should I name my devices?

There you are, having bought your first homekit device, you’ve opened the Home app to set it up. One of the first things you’re asked is to give it a name. You can, of course, just accept the default, but that’s rarely going to be meaningful to you, let alone Siri. It’s something that every HomeKit user muddles through, and I had assumed with reasonable success. It wasn’t until I saw a reputable tech journalist decrying Siri for not understanding what he was asking it to do that I thought it’s perhaps not obvious how best to name your HomeKit things.

When I undertook the naming trial-by-fire myself for the first time, I opted for a fairly simplistic route that, with some minor tweaks, has proved very successful. As a result, I had rarely encountered any issues causing frustrated arguments with Apple’s voice assistant. Getting this right relies on understanding how Siri is going to parse your command, and coupling this with some unambiguous syntax. 

Naming Contexts

The first thing the appreciate is that HomeKit has different naming contexts, and that these contexts all need to be interpreted by Siri when given a command. This provides for maximum flexibility, but can easily create confusion as well. For the purposes of voice commands, I consider there to be five of significance. These are Home, Zone, Scene, Room and Device. The first one, Home, is probably of less importance to most users, as they would only be working with a single Home in any case, but it’s worth calling out in case you have more than one (not necessarily yours, you may be an invited member of other households as well).

Zones are a thing, and ostensibly allow you to group devices into logical bundles.  A common example would be Upstairs and Downstairs. Zones have always been in HomeKit, but for some reason are not configurable in Apple’s own Home app. Third party apps do allow for creation of these contexts though.

More commonly, Scenes and Rooms are groupings you are guaranteed to use in any modestly populated smart home. While they both control groups of devices, they are very different beasts. Rooms are logical containers for devices, but have no stateful information about them. Scenes, however, specifically define state for a group of disparate devices. This may seem obvious, but it does have an impact on how Siri will interact with them.

Finally, Devices themselves need to have a name. This is probably the one that causes the most issues. There is a temptation to be explicit when naming a device, “Living Room Lamp” for a simple example. The issue with this approach is that it can create a conflict with Room, Zone or even Scene names. Siri then has an ambiguity in what is being referenced, and can easily choose incorrectly (Hey, she’s not a mind reader, after all). 

Command Syntax

Using unambiguous commands is also key to successful voice control. This isn’t to say that you have to be unwavering in your consistency, Siri is able to interpret a wide range of natural language commands, but as with naming, using verbs that can be misinterpreted can lead to frustration. 

I’ve trialed a few that feel natural and work consistently for common tasks. There are a few key ones that Apple has built in specifically. The default Good Morning and Good Night scenes, for example, will be enacted immediately. You need only say “Hey Siri, Good night.” And she’ll return the courtesy and activate the Good Night scene. 

For user-defined scenes, I find two verbs to be easy options. Either “Set” or “Activate” work well and make sense. For example, “Hey Siri, Set ‘Coffee Time’”, or “Hey Siri, Activate ‘TV Mode’”.  You can, of course, get more creative and be successful, but your mileage will vary.

Set is also useful for controlling devices with multiple attributes. Lights is the common example here. “Set the lamp to red” or “Set the bedroom brightness to 50%” works very well. You’ll note Siri will correctly interpret the latter to look for devices with brightness, so you don’t need to be precise with commands like this unless you want to target a specific device.

As a side note, Siri is able to correctly respond to a wide range of color words as well. Lime, tangerine, fuschia and so forth will yield the appropriate color and makes setting room colors by voice a simpler experience.

For on/off control, simply “Turn On”, and “Turn Off” work fine. “Turn on the TV”, “Turn off the fan”, “Turn on the lamp” are fairly straight forward, but this is where differentiating by naming context becomes important. With Scenes, the name is set and should be clear. You do still need to be aware of naming conflicts with Scene names, and this is where Siri handles things differently as well.  

Siri will happily activate (turn on) a Scene, but will tell you she can’t turn off a scene even though you CAN actually do that in the Home app. If you had a scene with the same name as a room (which I did) , this can cause issues. In my case, I had my front outside lights in a Room called ‘Front’, and also had a Scene called ‘Front’ to turn them all on or off together from the favourites gadget on my phone. I could say “Turn on the front lights” no problem, even if there is ambiguity the result is the same either way, but saying “Turn off the front lights” caused Siri to say she couldn’t turn off a scene, but (in helpfully) that I could make a new scene to turn them off.

Device Naming

This brings us to the matter of naming devices. Device naming in particular need not be specific unless you need to control a specific device in the same room separately from the others of the same class. Again, a common case would be lights, as you can easily have more than one in a room and need to reference them independently.

Keep in mind that the context of the device is clarified by the Room and Zone it is in, this is shown in apps, as well, and allows for a simpler approach to naming that is still very clear for both manual and voice control. 

Let’s say you have a ceiling light, and a floor lamp in the living room. You can name one ‘light’ and one ‘lamp’ and that will give you all the clarity you need. With that naming you can say “Turn on the living room lights” and both will turn on. You can also say “Turn on the living room lamp” to get just the lamp.  

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Using this approach, you would name lights throughout the house in the same manner. In the example of my front lights above, I have three Hue bulbs all named ‘light’, because I don’t need to control them separately.  If I did, I could name them something like ‘Left’, ‘Middle’, and ‘Right’, omitting the word ‘light’ as it would be redundant. Siri knows the devices are in the light class, and I can refer to them as lights and she’ll know what I mean.

Using the room name to differentiate devices keeps the device names simple, and avoids overlap in the naming.  While devices can be named the same Rooms, Scenes and Zones need to be unique to avoid confusion. These names will be used by Siri to disambiguate where necessary. By keeping those distinct, you can be sure you’re referencing the right devices in all cases.

A further example might be with smart switches. Say you have a smart switch controlling a TV in the Games room and the Living room. You can name both switches ‘TV’, then address them by room name. “Turn on the Games Room TV” for example, will provide a clear direction to Siri. Note that if you only had one switch, you can omit the room name; “Turn on the TV” will work just fine. 

OK, so that’s all good for control, but what about sensors? As sensor data is all sent to HomeKit as well, Siri is also able to query that for you by voice command, so we need to ensure the sensors are similarly unambiguous. Room level sensors don’t need to be named, temperature or motion for example. In these cases the room name is enough. “What is the temperature in the Games room?”, or “Is there motion in the passage?” for example. Where you can have distinct multiples though, you need to be more specific.  

Such a case might be a door/window sensor. For these, I go with the same approach. Keep it simple, use the room/zone names to distinguish. If you have a sliding door in your laundry, call the door sensor “Sliding Door”, for clarity. “Door” would also suffice, to be fair, if you didn’t have another one in the same room. With this you can say “Is the sliding door in the laundry closed?”, or “Is the laundry door closed?”. Both will work as expected and Siri will provide a status of the sensor back to you. 

By keeping things simple at the device level, and unique at the Room/Scene level, you can avoid unnecessary arguments with Siri and be assured of reliable responses to your voice commands. Just remember to distinguish devices by room or zone if there are multiples of the same name in the home. Siri is capable of some smarts by using the available device attributes and classes to determine what you are referring to, so you need not be more explicit than is necessary to disambiguate devices of the same name, or specify the room you want to act on.