iOS Automation

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a shortcut of one step that would substitute for a repetitive task of multiple steps? Imagine a shortcut to take you directly to a specific email folder, to save a document to a specific (and deeply buried!) folder, or to open a regularly visited website.

Why should you have to do these robotic and routine tasks every time? Isn’t it more proper for you to give the order and have your fancy (and not so cheap!) iPad do the rest?

The good news is that automation is now a reality in iOS! There’s so much that could be done that many people aren’t aware of. In this article, we will explore some cool automation abilities of iOS. Specifically, we will look into three general ways of automation; Built in solution (Siri shortcuts), Apple add-on (the Shortcuts App), or third party solutions (looking at the example of Drafts app).

# Brainstorm shortcuts

First things first!

It is easy to get overwhelmed by all the cool automation possibilities. Therefore, it is essential to remember the importance of setting up the iPad to match your individual and unique needs.

For this reason, and before delving deeper into the automation, you need to brainstorm some ideas! Write down the repetitive tasks that you often do on the iPad and that you’d love to have shortcuts for. The list could include:

– Sending a standard message/email (specific people, specific words,…) you frequently do

– Searching your calendar for meetings that fit certain criteria (or to check your upcoming assignment deadlines!)

– Opening a specific file/photo/web page/document

After writing the list, continue reading about automation below.

# Siri shortcuts

The built-in solution for automation is Siri Shortcuts. Basically, Siri could run a task with one trigger, instead of having the user perform several steps.

By default, these shortcuts are suggested by Siri (in the Widget, or under Siri settings) based on your most frequent usages. It could, for example, suggest the following:

– Opening a certain app

– Opening a certain website

– Playing a particular Music playlist

– Viewing a particular photo album

Top Siri suggested shortcuts
Other Siri suggested shortcuts (depends on the user)

Once you click on a suggestion by Siri, it would ask you for a voice trigger. For example, Siri notices that you repetitively open the Inbox of one of the three email accounts you have on your iPad. It then suggests to add that as a shortcut, with the option of having you record a custom phrase as a trigger, like “Personal Email.” Once you create such a shortcut, you could then initiate Siri, say “Personal Email,” and it would open the Mail app in the inbox of your personal email.

Add to Siri: Set a Siri voice trigger for WordPress app

This is a simple way to start getting your iPad (or iPhone) to do a few steps on your behalf with one voice command!

# Shortcuts app

As part of iOS 12, Apple introduced the Shortcuts app (needs to be downloaded from the App Store), which is a powerful automation tool that integrates wonderfully with Siri. This is a more advanced automation level over the Siri suggested shortcuts discussed above.

In a nutshell, with the Shortcuts app, you could design an empowering shortcut that combines a sequence of steps and that is triggered by voice, the Share Sheet, the Widget, or having an icon on your home screen.

Here’re some examples of useful shortcuts I have:

– Shortening a URL

– Opening an OmniFocus list (a specific tag, project, or perspective)

– Paying parking fees! (iPhone shortcut)

I tell Siri, “Pay Parking,” and it sends a message in the right format (car plate number, & parking minutes desired) to the Municipality’s parking payment number.

– Silencing the iPhone during prayers in the mosque.

I tell Siri, “Prayer Time,” and it puts the iPhone in Do-Not-Disturb mode, to be deactivated when leaving the current location. It then says, “May your prayers be accepted!” (You could set up a custom phrase for Siri to speak!)

Here’s a video illustration of two web shortcuts; shortening a URL and creating a QR code of it.

# Getting and creating Shortcuts

To develop your list of shortcuts, you have two general options; Get shortcuts that are already developed, or create new ones.

There are loads of useful and cool shortcuts available. One quick way to get them is by navigating or searching the “Gallery” side of the Shortcuts app provided by Apple. Examples of shortcuts available are; Opening playlists, providing ETA (if Apple Maps is supported in your country), browsing top news, creating a photo grid, and speak the body of a web article!

The Gallery in the Shortcuts app

Another way to get shortcuts is to receive ones that are shared by friends. Here’re a few shortcuts discussed in this article (click the links to retrieve them into your device):

Make QR code

Shorten URL

Pay Parking

(You need to add your car plate number, and adjust the payment service number)

Prayer DND

The other route to have shortcuts is to create your own. Ok, the process is not very easy, but you get better at it with practice.

First, open the Shortcuts app, tap on “Library” at the bottom of the screen, and tap “+” on the top right corner.

This will take you to the below screen, where you’ll see some suggestions for actions to add to the shortcut. You may grab an item and drag it to the right column of the screen.

Creating a new shortcut: Sample list provided

A more comprehensive list of actions is available upon tapping into the search box on the top left corner. You will see actions organized into content types (Apps, Calendar, Contacts, Documents, etc.).

Creating a new shortcut: An indexed and detailed list

To illustrate with an example, let’s say that you want to have a quick view of the first upcoming important meeting scheduled within the next seven days. Instead of doing the usual multiple taps, you want to just press a widget icon and have the meeting found and presented to you.

Here’s how to do create this shortcut:

1- Open the Shortcuts app

2- Tap “Library” then the “+” button on the top.

3- Tap into the Search box on the top left corner.

4- Under “Content Types,” tap “Calendar”

5- Tap the “Find Calendar Events” action (or drag and drop it to the right column).

6- Fill in the details as in the below screenshot, or according to your specific needs. (Note that the shortcut name was given here before the screenshot was taken. By default, the name given is “Untitled”)

New shortcut: Detailing the “Find Calendar Events” action

7- Tap into the search box, then type, “Show Result” and add it to the shortcut

8- Tap into the “Show Result” box, and select “Calendar Events” variable icon that has popped up at the bottom.

9- Tap the “Calendar Events” icon within the “Show Result” box and choose the option, “Title”

10- Repeat step 8, then choose the option “Start Date”

New shortcut: Highlighting specific result details

If you want, you could also have the meeting title spoken to you, by following the below step:

11- Tap into the search box, then find and tap “Speak Text”

New shortcut: Having the results spoken to you

Additional useful setups are available by tapping the settings icon (top right corner, to the right of the Share Sheet). Here you could:

– Name your shortcut

– Customize its icon

– Set how it would be triggered: Widgets, Share Sheet, Home Screen, Add to Siri (Siri voice trigger). In our Example, we will activate “Show in Widgets”

New shortcut: Additional settings

Congratulations, you have just developed your first shortcut!

The downside, evidently, is that the learning curve here is steeper than what we’re used to with Apple. This highlights the earlier emphasis of first focusing on the few shortcuts that you really need.

# Application example: Drafts

Automation on iOS is not only restricted to Siri shortcuts and the Shortcuts app. Other apps integrate with Siri Shortcuts providing their own custom actions. In addition, some apps have their own sets of useful automation actions.

One such app is Drafts. There are just so many actions you could customize and automate with Drafts. The most popular ones relate to: Things, Fantastical, OmniFocus, PDF Export, Twitter, and DayOne.

One demonstrative action I use repetitively is to email my students. The default (boring!) way to do that is through a university portal requiring multiple steps to reach the list of students and then write the email within a given box. One could also save students’ emails and then paste them into the “To” area (or “Bcc” as I prefer) of the Mail app.

With Drafts, and after a simple setup, I just type the subject in the first line, and start writing the email from the second line. I then tap on the actions lists of the app, and choose the proper email action (specifying which of my four sections of students to email).

Drafts: Email action
Drafts: Email action (2)

You will notice that this action automatically does the following:

– Adds my email in the “To” area

– Adds all students’ emails in the “Bcc” area

– Adds a custom prefix to the subject line (“DM:” in this case, signifying the Destination Marketing course)

– Adds my signature at the bottom of the message.

I then just tap “send” for the email to fly 🙂

I find this greatly empowering, especially if I need to send a standard email with minor modifications to multiple classes. I write, send to one class, modify, send to another class, modify, and send to the third class. Efficient, accurate, and even fun to do!

This is just one example of what I automate with Drafts (and I’m not even close to fully utilizing it!).

# Conclusion and other resources

You see, the automation possibilities are practically endless. They also need some getting used to. So, start slow with the most important shortcuts and then gradually build on that.

After you get the hang of the the tips on this article, you could take automation to the next level by following the Automators podcast or enrolling into the excellent Siri Shortcuts Field Guide course developed by David Sparks.

Happy automation!



Update: Checkout MacStories very useful Shortcuts Archive

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