Tag Archive for ‘Workflow’

First Impressions of Shortcuts for iOS

Shortcuts for iOS

Shortly after I requested access to the Shortcuts TestFlight beta, I received an email inviting me to join. Shortcuts was the most exciting announcement at WWDC this year and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. After a few hours with the beta, I thought I’d share some notes and observations on the new app.

  • Shortcuts may feature some new actions and tweaks to the interface, but it’s every bit the Workflow we’ve grown to love.
  • The app no longer has an in-app settings screen. Which isn’t a major loss. Workflow’s settings screen featured sync options, widget configuration, a link to the What’s New page, and a button to replay the app intro.
  • I assume that Shortcuts will eventually sync between your devices over iCloud, but I couldn’t find any evidence that it’s working in the current beta.
  • All of my workflows carried over into the Shortcuts app and I couldn’t find any that were broken.
  • Tapping on a Shortcut runs it immediately now, instead of displaying the edit/compose view. If you’d like to edit a shortcut, you’ll have to tap the ellipses button in the corner.
  • The gallery appears to be populated with all of the same items that existed in the Workflow gallery. The only difference I found was that they’ve created new images for the featured collections area at the top.
  • Shortcuts can still be displayed in the app’s widget, in the share sheet, and on the home screen, but can now be added to Siri as well.
  • The app does offer the ability to share shortcuts, but it looks like the option to generate a unique URL is gone. I hope this returns in a future release.
  • When sharing a shortcut as a file, it still has the old .wflow file extension.
  • IFTTT, Evernote, Slack, Instapaper, Pocket, and GIPHY actions are no longer available. Hopefully we’ll see them return. Especially IFTTT — it opened up an entire world of web services and applications that would otherwise be difficult to integrate with.
  • There are a number of new actions available in Shortcuts. Run JavaScript on Safari Web Page, Markup, Send and Request Payments, and Share with iCloud Photo Sharing are the most interesting to me. And with their newfound access to private APIs, there are now actions for toggling Bluetooth, Airplane Mode, Cellular Data, Do Not Disturb, Low Power Mode, and Wi-Fi.

I’ll continue to dig deeper into the app for any more interesting tidbits and if I find anything noteworthy, I plan to add it to this page. But if you have any specific questions regarding Shortcuts for iOS, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter and ask. I’ll be more than willing to answer all that I can.

Wayback Machine Workflow ➝

A new addition to The Toolkit. It’s a simple action extension workflow that opens webpages and links in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

How to Make a Workflow Run From Both the Widget and the Share Sheet ➝

A great tip from my buddy Matthew Cassinelli, writing for The Sweet Setup:

Sharing from another app using the action extension sends content as input into the workflow, whereas workflows run from the widget don’t have an input. Instead, you can create your own input point by using the clipboard. This way, you can copy something, open the widget, and run the workflow to accept the contents of the clipboard.

Instead of setting up two different workflows for each point of entry, you can also use an input check method that makes a single workflow more dynamic. With this, you use the Count and If actions to count whether there’s an input (1+ items) and, if so, use the Workflow Input coming from the action extension. Or, when there’s no input (0 items), it can use the Clipboard instead so you can run it from the widget as well.

This is one of those neat little Workflow tips that I take for granted when building my own, but I bet there are a lot of users who are completely unaware of it. If you want to build more dynamic workflows that can be run from a variety of locations in the system, this trick is worth learning.

The Toolkit ➝

Workflow is an essential app for iOS that lets users build script-like systems with a simple drag and drop interface. It’s powerful enough for experts, giving them the flexibility to combine numerous applications and web services into a single workflow. But its still able to maintain an approachability that allows novice users to find utility in it too.

The Toolkit is a collection of workflows for publishing on the web that I’ve developed throughout the two years that I’ve been using the app. As I add to the kit and refine each of the workflows’ functionality, I will be updating The Toolkit’s webpage with these new additions. I simply hope that you’ll find them useful, even if only to build off of or learn from.

iOS Widgets

Recently, I’ve become hyper-obsessed with iOS setups. I’ve always been interested in the topic and would regularly reorganize my iOS home screens, but I’ve taken it a step further over the past few months. As some of you may know, I’ve started documenting the changes I make to my iOS setup and Watch faces. But I’ve also started focusing on specific areas of my setup — reevaluating RSS apps, testing all of the power user email clients on the market, thinking deeply about what apps I use on my Watch to optimize my dock, and reassessing my device’s Today View widgets.

I plan on writing about all of those topics at some point, but today I wanted to discuss widgets. I believe iOS’ Today View is one of the most underutilized aspects of the system. There’s so much power in having a dashboard filled with shortcuts and relevant, glanceable information, but I get the impression that most users overlook the feature. In conversations I’ve had with friends and family — many of whom I would think of as “power users” — they usually only had a few widgets enabled and it didn’t sound like they used them all that frequently.

Today View Widgets on my iPhone

What makes Today View so useful is it’s ubiquity within the system. No matter where you are, you’re no more than two swipes away from your widgets. Whether you’re at the lock screen or knee-deep in a complicated spreadsheet, they’re always there. I do miss the good old days when iOS would remembered your place a bit better — displaying Notification Center or Today View based on what you most recently accessed. But the new normal hasn’t done much to slow my use of widgets.

Apple does place some restrictions on what developers can include in their widgets. But what they can do is more than enough to turn your Today View into an immensely powerful productivity tool. To emphasize that point, I thought I’d share my widget setup with a bit of commentary on what I use each widget for in my daily life.

I’d also love to hear about other iOS users’ widget setups. If you make use of an app’s widget, that I don’t have listed below, or use one of the widgets below in an interesting way, I’d love to hear about it.

Today View Widget Icon Grid

Fantastical for iPhone and iPad: This is my calendar app of choice and it features a great Today View widget. In the widget’s expanded view, it shows a full monthly calendar with event indicators and a list of the selected day’s events. I often use this view on my iPad — when I need to glance at a calendar when I’m in another application. But I usually keep Fantastical’s widget collapsed on my iPhone, which displays my next event or appointment.

WaterMinder: In the most recent update to my Home Screens page, I mentioned removing WaterMinder’s complication from my Apple Watch. I’ve added it to my Watch’s dock, but I wanted to increase the number of interaction points to ensure that I would continue tracking my hydration. Not only does WaterMinder’s widget serve as a small reminder to drink enough water during the day, because of how frequently I glance at my iOS device’s Today View, it also gives me an easy way to log my intake.

Workflow: A staple in every iOS power user’s arsenal and my most used Today View widget. Workflow allows me to convert the contents of my clipboard to title case, open the compose screen in Tweetbot, order food from my favorite restaurants, download YouTube videos, open my feature article template in Ulysses, and much more. It’s one of the most powerful, versatile applications on the platform and the widget gives you access to the workflows you use most.

Activity: I wear my Apple Watch everyday and like to keep a close eye on the activity data it collects. I could probably do more to keep myself physically fit — exercising regularly would be high on that list — but those three rings are great motivators to prevent a sedentary lifestyle. And although I have the Activity rings prominently displayed on most of my Watch faces, the rings are a less precise representation of the data. There’s a lot of scenarios where the rings tell me roughly how close I am to my goal, but it’s nice to see more concrete numbers from time to time. The Activity widget gives me a subtle nudge to remain active whenever I look at my device’s widgets and let’s me plainly see how many more hours I need to stand today or how many more minutes of exercise I need.

Hello Weather: This is my favorite weather widget, by far. It displays the current temperature in big, bold text alongside a clear icon for the current conditions. My only complaint is that I wish it displayed the hourly forecast when the widget is expanded.

Things for iPhone and iPad: My interest in task managers and to do list apps has always been fairly shallow. I used them, but I knew that my usage wasn’t as effective as it could be. Things changed that. I can’t exactly put my finger on why, but the app really clicked with me over the past couple of months. I use Things constantly in my day job to keep track of the tasks I need to accomplish and find it useful when tackling household chores and various Initial Charge-related work. Things’ widget displays up to eight items from the app’s Today list, which let’s me quickly check off items without leaving my current application and gives me the ability to see an overview of my tasks without even unlocking my device.

Lookmark: Whenever I come across a new app recommendation, discover a new album from one of my favorite bands, or hear of a new TV show or movie I might be interested in, I immediately save the item to Lookmark. It’s a wishlist app for iTunes and App Store content and the Today View widget displays your most recently saved items. I can throw the app into a folder and interact with it, almost, exclusively through the app’s action extension and widget. And it works flawlessly.

Deliveries: I order a lot of items online, especially from Amazon, and I use Deliveries to track when they are expected to arrive. The app’s widget let’s me keep track of delivery dates without having to launch the app directly.

Launcher: This is a versatile tool that lets you build shortcuts to just about anything on your device. Right now, I have it setup with shortcuts to albums in Plex that automatically begin playback. I might be writing about this in detail soon, but in short, I built this workflow to generate links to music, movies, TV shows, or playlists in Plex. Use it from the share sheet in Safari when viewing the content in Plex’s web app. You can share the link with a friend or family member that has access to your Plex library or, as I’ve done, drop it into a new shortcut in Launcher.

Automatic: I received an Automatic Pro as a gift last Christmas and it’s a tremendous product. It tracks my driving distance, gas mileage, and offers insights on improving my vehicle’s efficiency. Automatic’s widget displays your car’s current status — which means it usually tells me where my car is parked, since I’m not often looking at it while driving. The widget could be a lot more useful, displaying my vehicle’s gas mileage and recent driving distance or offering a shortcut to log gasoline purchases would be nice. In its current form, though, the widget serves as a shortcut to the app itself and I’m sure knowing where my car is parked is going to be invaluable the next time my wife and I travel to a larger city.

Batteries: I can’t imagine using iOS widgets and not having this one enabled. It displays the current battery percentages of your iOS device, AirPods, Magic Keyboard, and so on. As an additional benefit to using this widget, I can remove the battery percentage indicator from my device’s menu bar and still have quick access to the data when I need it.

Downloading Files With iCab Mobile

One aspect of the iOS-first lifestyle that has been a bit of an issue, for many users, is dealing with files. Apple has done a lot to try and fix that with the Files app in iOS 11, but it isn’t fool-proof. One common pain-point for me has been trying to download MP3 files that exist behind a paywall. Luckily, a few must-have iOS apps are available to smooth out the rough edges.

Download in iCab Workflow

I subscribe to Wrestling Observer to gain access to their premium podcast content — because I’m a nerd who likes pro wrestling. I prefer to listen to these shows in Overcast so I can use the app’s Smart Speed feature and play it back at about 1.2x, but Overcast doesn’t have support for password protected RSS feeds. I’m holding out hope that this will be added in the future, but until then, I’ve been using iCab Mobile to download the audio files, which I can then upload to Overcast’s servers with my Premium subscription. And of course, Workflow is there to facility the process.

When a new episode of Wrestling Observer Radio appears in my RSS reader, I follow the link to the episode’s webpage. From there I long press on the download link, tap the “Share…” button, choose “Run Workflow”, and tap on Download In iCab.

The workflow takes the URL passed into it and makes use of iCab’s x-callback-url support to initiate a download of the linked file. In a few short seconds, the MP3 file is available for me to upload to Overcast’s servers for listening in the app — thankfully, iCab works well with the Files app as a document provider.

Downloaded in iCab and Uploaded to Overcast in Sidefari

This workflow is great on the iPhone, but it really shines on the iPad where I have Sidefari setup in split view alongside iCab Mobile. iCab downloads the file while Sidefari is configured to automatically load the Overcast Uploads webpage. Once the download is completed, I can start uploading to Overcast immediately. And when I’m done, I can use the system back button in the upper left to get back into my RSS feeds.

This workflow has been immensely useful for me over the past several months. The podcast I use it for is updated several times each week and I follow the steps outlined above for nearly every episode. It might not seem like all the tapping through various menus is worth the trouble, but I can assure you that the alternative methods for performing the same task are much more time consuming and frustrating to use.

I originally built this workflow in order to download audio files from the web, but I’m sure there are all kinds of oddball tasks that it could be useful for. I’d love to see iCab introduce an action extension that initiates a download, but until that happens, this workflow is the next best thing.

Workflow Update and Status ➝

David Sparks:

Last week when I was at the CMD-D conference I got to spend time with some of the Workflow developers and they were actively soliciting ideas and thoughts about the application from me. They weren’t acting like someone who thought their app already had one foot in the grave.

I’ve had the feeling for a while that Workflow was basically coasting on their existing feature set until the team was able to finish an Apple-branded version of the app with access to private APIs. But this note from Sparks indicates otherwise. I don’t want to get my hopes up for some huge update with a ton of new features, but I’m delighted to here that there’s more life in Workflow than I initially thought.

Using Workflow as a Site-Specific Browser

On macOS, there’s an application available called Fluid, which lets you create site-specific web browsers. Many of us use web apps everyday and Fluid allows you to run them side-by-side with your native applications without being sequestered inside of a web browser. Fluid is a handy little tool that every Mac user should have in their arsenal.

I’ve setup a Fluid instance of Overcast on my MacBook Air, complete with a proper icon, which let’s me treat Overcast just like any other Mac application. I didn’t have to wait for the developer, Marco Arment, to build a native app, I can just use Fluid to bridge the gap for me.

Shortcuts to my Site-Specific Browser Workflows

On iOS, Apple has built similar functionality right into Safari. From any webpage, you can tap on the share button and choose “Add to Home Screen”. Most websites have even setup a custom icon for this purpose, making sure their site’s shortcut doesn’t feel out of place alongside your native apps. But it’s not exactly a sweet solution.

Apple does offer developers a way to force these web apps to open in full screen without all of Safari’s browser chrome, but almost no one uses it. This functionality has fallen out of favor because it’s poorly supported by the system. These full screen web apps don’t use Apple’s latest JavaScript engine, which means they run much slower than they would if you visited them from within Safari, and they don’t save state between launches, which makes multitasking with these apps a nightmare.

Of course, you could always just save these website shortcuts to your Home Screen and let them open up in Safari, but that makes for a pretty mediocre experience. I want to treat these web apps like native applications and I don’t want to be forced to close a browser tab when I’m done using them — I always close my browser tabs when I’m done with them, it’s a sickness. But there is a solution and it’s made possible because of every iOS power users’ favorite utility — Workflow.

Site-Specific Browser Shortcuts in Workflow

To build these site-specific browsers, it just takes two simple actions — a URL action with the web app’s address and the Show Web Page action. When run, Workflow will open up the URL in a Safari View Controller, which gives you access to your action extensions alongside forward, back, and refresh buttons. From there you can give the workflow a name, set an icon color, and a glyph to fit the website or web application’s functionality.

You can run the workflow from within the Workflow app itself or you can add it to Workflow’s Today Widget. But if you want the web app to live alongside your native apps, I suggest adding a custom icon in the Home Screen tab and adding the workflow to your iOS device’s home screen. A simple DuckDuckGo or Google Image search for the site’s name and either “icon” or “logo” should turn up several options.

I’ve already built a handful of these site-specific browser workflows and I expect I’ll find more websites and web apps that I’d like to build them for in the future. Here’s just a few of my favorites:

  • Mint, Initial Charge’s analytics software.
  • Media Temple, the site’s hosting dashboard.
  • Instagram, because they still haven’t built a native iPad app.

Instagram in Safari View Controller

There is one major caveat with these workflows — they don’t scale well. You can use them while multitasking with native apps, but you can’t run more than one of these site-specific workflows at a time. Once you launch the second, it tosses out the first one.

You could open some of your web apps in Sidefari with its URL scheme as a workaround — letting you run one web app in Sidefari and another in Workflow. But in my testing, Sidefari often fails to load the web page if the app isn’t already in memory. It happens often enough that this workaround probably isn’t worth exploring. But if you’d like to test it yourself, just replace “http://” or “https://” at the beginning of the URL with with “sidefarihttp://” or “sidefarihttps://”, respectively, and swap the Show Web Page action for the Open URLs action.

But even with the multitasking limitations, being able to run web apps side-by-side with native applications is a neat experience. I hope you’ll find some utility in these workflows, even if you’re just looking for a better way to view Instagram on your iPad.