How Siri Shortcuts Can Revolutionize iOS Automation

One of the nice things about returning home from the excitement of WWDC is a chance to reflect on what Apple announced and begin thinking about how it will change things, if at all. At the top of my mind is Siri Shortcuts.

First, A Little History

I was invited to the Workflow app beta pretty early. From the first install, it was immediately apparent to me that Workflow was one of those unique apps that could change everything. As the beta went on and on (and on), my biggest worry was that Apple would not approve the app. Eventually, they did, however, and Workflow gave us tools that, at least in some ways, exceed our abilities to automate on the Mac platform. 

Over time, it only got better. One of the primary reasons I work at an iMac throughout the day with an iPad always in arm’s reach is for Workflow. I’ve automated so much of my work using Workflow that I can’t imagine losing it.

That’s why when, in March 2017, Apple purchased Workflow, I freaked out a bit. Last year at Sal Soghoian’s CMD-D Automation conference, I gave a session on Workflow. As I was about to start my presentation, one attendee introduced himself to me and explained he was super-excited because he had never used Workflow before and was looking forward to me helping him get started. Then as I stood up on stage, I looked in the back row of the room to see the Workflow developers sitting, smiling. So my last thought before starting my first slide was that I had a room ranging from absolute beginner to the actual app developer and 45 minutes to satisfy them both.

Either way, that day I had a chance to talk to some of the Workflow team, and they continually emphasized that I tell readers and listeners to keep using the app. In hindsight, I believe they wanted Apple to see the usage so they could have the runway they needed to build what became Siri Shortcuts. The good news is that we indeed kept using Workflow and last week Apple announced its successor, Siri Shortcuts and it looks to be something quite special.

Siri Shortcuts

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Siri Shortcuts are Workflow plus so much more. This includes deeper operating system integration, more tools, and a better user experience with multiple ways to discover and use these shortcuts.

Deeper Integration

To begin, Siri Shortcuts allow app developers, through two different programming methods, to add the ability of specific views in their apps to become actionable Shortcuts that can be triggered by voice, through the operating system suggestions, or as part of the new Shortcuts app. I’m over-simplifying, but one method can be implemented, in some instances, with a single line of additional code.

Apple further created more comprehensive tools letting developers go even deeper with this. Specific application functions can provide the user information, take action, or go deeper with the application. The whole point is to simplify the process of getting Siri to do tasks and report back information that usually takes a user many taps and much navigation.

Also, going to the Siri Settings screen, a user can see a customized list of these commands that Siri pieces together from prior usage. Looking at my screen, I’ve got suggestions to create Siri Shortcuts for things like playing my West Coast Jazz playlist, texting a friend, setting alarms, listening to podcasts, making calls, see tomorrow’s calendar, show my wife’s location, and getting a Lyft to the San Jose airport. This is all on beta one before developers have dug in on things.

These changes are the first significant improvement over Workflow. Workflow, for all of its glory, was an app that felt like it was put together with scotch tape and chewing gum. The Workflow team, and the development community at large squeezed more automation life out of the URL scheme than anyone ever thought possible. This new version, however, lets developers make application functions much easier to automate and gives the Siri Shortcuts tools way more power than Workflow ever could have achieved when it was on the outside. Going forward, an App’s integration with Siri Shortcuts is going to be a significant factor in which apps I use.

Moreover, with some of my more complex Workflows, the current app sends my screen into fits as it jumps between multiple apps. With Siri Shortcuts, that will now all happen in the background and in some cases, entirely through a few commands and responses to Siri.

Voice Triggers

One of the easiest ways to trigger a Siri Shortcut is, not surprisingly, with your voice. The good news here is that Apple has not defined a specific voice control syntax. Instead, it lets the user record their own Siri Shortcut phase for any Siri Shortcut or chain of Siri Shortcuts.

Because the user defines the Siri phrase, it doesn’t have to be some crazy app-related syntax. A user can say, “Hey Siri, I’m heading home”, and this could trigger a string of Siri shortcuts to send a text message to a loved one, turn on the heater, play your favorite playlist, and display navigation directions home. Another person that happens to be a Star Trek fan could pull off the same tasks with the command, “Hey Siri, Go home, Engage!”

So in addition to operating system integration and power, this new system provides users is a simple method to create their own voice phrases to trigger automation. For a lot of people, this could just be a few, like ordering their favorite latte or controlling their HomeKit devices. For others, like me, this will turn into a library of user-defined phrases to trigger automation magic. For example, I plan to make one called “new client” that with just those two words will trigger two OmniFocus template projects, create an engagement agreement, and send off an email to my assistant about billing details.

It’s Not Just Your Voice

However, another bit of insight that comes out of watching last week’s Keynote and the WWDC Siri Shortcuts sessions is that this is not just intended to be something you choose to engage with your voice. The system can also plug into Siri’s predictive analysis of the user as she goes through the day.

In both the home screen pull down and the widget screen, Siri Shortcuts are looking at your local data and trying to help. If you routinely order the same drink every day, it’s going to offer to do that for you. If you have a meeting with location data and you’re not at that location, Siri Shortcuts are going to write a text message to the other meeting participant explaining you’re late and ask you if you want to send it. This could be the easiest way to pull in novice users if it works as advertised.

Regardless, you’ll get integration throughout the operating system that we could never have dreamed of with Workflow was an independent application.

Workflow is Also Still in There

Looking at some of the screenshots of the new Siri Shortcuts app, it becomes clear that this is the successor to the Workflow application. It appears to work exactly the same, with stackable actions, a library of existing workflows, and even the ability to look up and pass data between steps as the automation proceeds. 

The Shortcuts app is not in the current beta, but hopefully, it arrives soon. It’s not clear just yet that this app will have all of the functions of Workflow, but looking at the screenshots from the Keynote, it appears entirely possible that will be the case.

When you stop to think about the feelings we all had on the day that Apple announced the purchase of the Workflow app, it’s hard to believe a better outcome than what we got. Apple fully supported Workflow after the acquisition, and while building the new thing, Siri Shortcuts is clearly the successor using ideas from the original Workflow app and adding so much more with deep operating system integration, and this new version has voice-controlled and operating system triggers that would have never been possible before.

We’ve Got a Man on the Inside

I’ve always felt that the iPhone and iPad could be capable of so much more with deeper automation. For so long Apple showed no interest in automation, and I’d convinced myself that they were afraid to get that geeky all over their new mobile operating system. I’m not alone in this. However, with the Workflow acquisition, it feels like we have now embedded, inside Apple, a group of our brother and sister automation nerds and they are running wild all over the iOS operating system. I couldn’t be happier. I hope that when iOS 12 ships, Siri Shortcuts delivers the goods we’ve seen so far. I also hope Apple management never wises up to the automation revolution that may result.

Below is a slew of annotated screenshots from the Keynote. Take a look and you’ll get the idea why I’m so excited about Siri Shortcuts. Click to enlarge individual images and hover over them for annotations.