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Shortcuts app on iOS: Everything You need to Know

by: - Last updated on: October 13th, 2020

In everyday life, there are a lot of redundant actions that you need to perform to accomplish some of the most trivial operations. To overcome this, developers work day-and-night to come up with apps that make automation easy. One such app is Workflow, which used to be a paid app on the App Store until it got acquired by Apple last year and was made available for free. With the new iOS 12, the Workflow app is now renamed to ‘Shortcuts’ and provides users with a lot of pre-defined ‘shortcuts’ and also the ability to create their ‘custom shortcuts’.

With iOS 12 released, and the Shortcuts app available for download on the App Store, here’s everything you need to know about the new app.

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What is ‘Shortcuts’ and how to use it?

Similar to the Workflow app that allowed users to create ‘workflows’ by stitching together different actions, the Shortcuts app is the same for the most part. Except, the ‘workflows’ are now called ‘shortcuts’, and come with an added support for low-level functionality to get better control over automation in addition to integrated-Siri, which allows the shortcuts to be triggered using Siri.

There are two types of ‘shortcuts’ in the Shortcuts app:

  • shortcuts‘- these can be executed with a tap and come with a lot of pre-defined templates to choose from in the Gallery, and also allow users to create custom shortcuts in case they wish to go overboard with automation.
  • Siri-shortcuts‘- this category involves shortcuts that are suggested by Siri according to the situation. For this, the device needs to learn from the usage behavior of users over a certain period of time, which helps it in suggesting shortcuts accordingly. These can be executed manually using a custom phrase, which can be assigned or re-assigned whenever required.

Since we are de-mystifying differences, we must address the difference between an ‘action‘ and a ‘workflow‘, which has a lot of ambiguity around it and causes people to use the terms interchangeably.

According to Apple:

  • an ‘action‘ is a single, independent operation that is initiated to accomplish a much simpler task,
  • whereas a ‘workflow‘ is a combination of several actions stitched together to perform a particular task.

To demonstrate this difference, let’s say you are running late to work and would like to inform your teammates for the same. In this situation, a shortcut would perform actions like fetching your current location, getting a URL for the map, and sending it via Message. This entire process involves three steps that come together to create a workflow. These steps are called ‘actions’,  and the combination of these actions is called a ‘workflow’.

How to get Shortcuts?

Getting the Shortcuts app on your device is as simple as updating your iDevice to iOS 12. Once done, you can go ahead and download the app from the App Store. However, if you have been using the Workflow app on your device on an earlier version of iOS, you just need to download the update for the app from the App Store, which replaces the existing Workflow app with the new Shortcuts app. Also, you don’t need to worry about all the existing ‘workflows’ you had on the Workflow app, because, as soon as you update the app all your workflows will automatically get migrated to the new Shortcuts app.

One thing to note here is that even if you don’t have the new Shortcuts app on your device, you will still receive ‘Siri-shortcuts’ from time-to-time. As for an example, consider a scenario where you are busy in a meeting and miss an incoming call. In this situation, if you have a device running on iOS 12, Siri will automatically give you suggestions on your lock screen reminding you to call the person. A point to note here is that it takes time for Siri-suggestions to pop-up automatically for different scenarios as it learns from a user’s usage behavior. And hence, it might not suggest you a shortcut the first time, but the more you use it, the more it learns from you, and the better it gets at suggesting the shortcuts.

How to run Shortcuts?

So far, we’ve covered what shortcuts are, what they do, and what are their different types. But the bigger question is, how to execute these shortcuts. Well, there are three ways to go about it:

Method 1– For the Siri-suggested shortcuts, you need to create a trigger-phrase which would be used to trigger the shortcut using Siri. This might sometimes require you to follow the on-screen instructions as well. Alternately, you can head to the ‘Spotlight Search’ and start typing the name of the shortcut you want to execute and select it as soon as it shows up.

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Method 2– You can directly go into the Shortcuts app and turn ON the ‘Show in widget’ option. Once done, you will see a list of all your selected shortcuts in the widget. However, if you don’t, check to see if you have enabled the ‘Shortcuts’ widget, for which you need to-

  • Swipe right from the Home Screen and scroll down until you see ‘Edit’.
  • Tap ‘Edit’ and you will be greeted with the next screen that says ‘Add Widgets’.
  • Scroll down until you see ‘Shortcuts’ and click the green add (+) sign.

And that’s it! You should now see the ‘Shortcuts’ widget.

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Method 3– This method involves executing shortcuts with a tap, just like you would do to execute an app on the Home Screen. All you need to do is head to settings on the Shortcuts app and click on the button that says, ‘Add to Home Screen’, which will add a shortcut to the Home Screen (Springboard) of your device, just like an app which can be clicked to run the shortcut.

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Not to mention, you can also run shortcuts by going into the Shortcuts app and hitting the shortcut you want to execute. Running shortcuts this way makes sense only when you are experimenting or fiddling with the shortcuts, and defeats the whole purpose of automation in the first place.

How is ‘Shortcuts’ different from ‘Workflow’?

Both, ‘Shortcuts’ and ‘Workflow’ allow users to automate a lot of trivial tasks that otherwise require going through a series of steps to accomplish. At a basic level, both apps work incredibly well in this scenario and provide support for a lot of apps along with the ability to create custom workflows for almost all day-to-day tasks.

With that said, there’s an infinite potential for automation on both these apps, however, with the new Shortcuts app, there’s a lot more that can be taken advantage of due to the added support for low-level device functionalities. This comes in handy when you try to use Siri to execute the shortcuts. As for these shortcuts to be surfaced at places other than the app itself, there are a certain set of low-level permissions required. In technical terms, this process is referred to as ‘donating’ actions, and it takes place from the app to Siri, allowing the shortcuts to pop-up as suggestions or be readily-available for one-tap execution when needed. For example, suppose it’s your friend’s birthday the next day, Siri would learn from your usage behavior and the data it collected from your Contacts app over the period, and then pop-up a suggested-shortcut on the Lock Screen reminding you to wish the friend.

How to create custom-shortcuts?

In case you wish to create your own custom shortcuts, here’s an explanation demonstrating the entire process using a couple of example-shortcuts-

1. Show IP– If you are someone who uses VPN to keep their activity secure on the Internet, this workflow would really come in handy. When you connect to VPN using your client of choice, you need to make sure if the connection has been established successfully. For which you visit sites like ‘whatismyip.com’ to know your IP address. However, with this workflow, you can know your IP address with just a tap or a Siri-phrase. To create this shortcut, you need to:

  • Open the Shortcuts app and click on ‘Create Shortcut’.
  • Search for ‘Get current IP Address’ in the search bar and drag it to the window.
  • Next, search for ‘Show Result’ and place it right below the first action.
  • Hit the settings icon right next to the share icon.
  • Now click on ‘Siri Phrase’ and create a phrase that you would use to trigger the shortcut using Siri.
  • If you want you can also enable the ‘Show in Widget’ option or even the ‘Add to Home Screen’ option.
  • Hit Done.

2. Save to Pocket– While surfing the web, there are a lot of things that we come across daily. Some of which we wish to revisit at a later time but forget to do so. This shortcut helps with just that. It takes the link to your favorite article and saves it on the Pocket app. Follow the steps below to create this shortcut:

  • Open the app and click on ‘Create Shortcut’.
  • Search for ‘Ask for Input’ and drag it to the window.
  • In Question, type anything you like and select ‘URL’ as the Input Type.
  • Search for ‘Get URLs from Input’ and drag it below the first action.
  • Again search for ‘Add to Pocket’ and drag this one below the second action.
  • Hit Done.

3. View Recent– Just like you add something to Pocket with the help of a custom-shortcut, you can also view the most recently added link on Pocket. For this, you need to open the Shortcuts app and follow the steps below:

  • Search for ‘Get items from Pocket’ and bring it to the front.
  • Next, select 1 item in the ‘Get Item’.
  • In the type, select ‘Unread’.
  • Hit Done.

You must have successfully created a shortcut by now. To check if it works, you can try executing it directly from within the app and see if the resulting output is what you expected the actual output to be.

The shortcuts mentioned above are really simple and perform very basic tasks. However, if you wish to accomplish more complex tasks with the app, you can try several options under ‘Scripting’ sub-menu in the app. Some of these options include Conditionals, Variables, Complex Calculations, File Manipulation, Shell Access, Callbacks, Pythonista, etc.

How to use pre-defined shortcuts?

It’s always better to search for the shortcut first before hopping-on to create one yourself. Chances are there is already a shortcut for the kind of automation you are looking for. In which case, you need to open the app, go to the ‘Gallery’ tab and choose for shortcuts from the various categories.

For instance, let’s say you want to add a shortcut for creating a Photo Grid. You can do this by performing the following steps-

  • Go to the ‘Photography’ section in the app and hit ‘See All’.
  • Scroll down to find ‘Photo grid’.
  • Tap on it and hit the ‘Get shortcut’ button.
  • Go back to the ‘Library’ tab to find the shortcut you just added.
  • To further customize it, hit the three horizontal dots on the top-right and click on the settings icon right next to the share button. Here you can choose options like, ‘Add to Siri’ – which will bring you to the next screen where you can record the phrase that you would like to use to trigger the shortcut using Siri, ‘Show in Widget’ – shows the shortcut in widget, and ‘Add to Home Screen’ – adds an app-like icon on the Home Screen.

Here are some pre-defined shortcuts that you can use to save time every day-

 

  1. Dictate to chipboard: It allows you to speak-out words while they get transcribed and copied to the clipboard in the background. Once done, the copied text is ready to be pasted wherever needed.
  2. Combine screenshots and share: It works just like it sounds, combines multiple screenshots and stitches them together to create a single image, saving you the hassle of doing it manually. This can be further tweaked to use any photo instead of just screenshots. For this, tap on the settings and replace the action ‘Get Latest Screenshots’ with ‘Select Photos’ and enable ‘Select Multiple’.
  3. Zip and email: If you go around emailing a lot of documents, this shortcut can make things easier for you. It takes the selected files, compresses them into a zip file and opens up the ‘Send Email’ pop-up so you can send the email from within the shortcut.
  4. Running late: If you are heading to a meeting and get stuck in the traffic mid-way, using this shortcut you send a message to your team with a map of your current location, informing them you will be late for the meeting.
  5. Shorten URL: There are times when you need to use services like bit.ly to shorten a URL you want to share or attach somewhere. This shortcut takes the URL you provide as an input and returns the shortened URL as output.
  6. Convert burst to GIF: If you take a lot of burst-photos, you might want to try this shortcut. It stitches together all the burst-shots in a photo to create an amazing GIF.
  7. Resize photos: This shortcut is very useful if your work involves dealing with images all day. For this, all you need to do is select the image that you want to resize, and the shortcut will take care of the rest.
  8. Tip Calculator: You probably go to restaurants, and often find yourself in a situation where you have to decide on how much should you ‘Tip’. Well, this shortcut does it for you. It takes the billed amount as input, and according to the preset Tip-percentage, it performs a series of calculations to give you the Tip amount. However, there are some modifications that you need to do to start using it, like changing the default currency, changing presets Tip-percentage, etc.

Where else can you use Shortcuts?

With the advent of IoT (Internet of Things), a large number of devices are being connected to the Internet to allow for inter-connectivity among devices. Most of these smart devices are working towards reducing human interaction with some stellar improvements each day. The new Shortcuts app is no different and allows users to perform complex operations at the ease of using a ‘phrase’ or a ‘tap’, without having to perform the actions manually. In addition to that, users can also create their own shortcuts that they find themselves using more often than not at their home or workplace.

Here’s a demonstration from Apple at this year’s WWDC to get an idea of the scale at which the IoT devices can benefit from the Shortcuts app:

During the Keynote, Apple demonstrated a real-world use case scenario for the Shortcuts app, which involved using the app to remotely control the smart devices at home. To do this, the only thing that the demonstrator did was call-out the phrase, ‘Heading Home’ to Siri, which would turn ON lights and start playing the preset playlist as soon as you reach home.

With such potential, the new Shortcuts app holds itself right up the ally with a world of endless possibilities in the field of IoT and automation.

Who is this app for?

Everyone.

You might not be on the same page on this thought, but it’s true, everyone can benefit from this app. Whatever you do on your iDevice can be automated and simplified with the Shortcuts app to eliminate or minimize human effort, thus, allowing you to accomplish more while making the whole process efficient and less time-consuming.

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