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How to get the most out of iOS 12 Shortcuts

How to get the most out of iOS 12 Shortcuts

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

In iOS 12, Apple introduced a new, helpful way of making your life easier by stringing together the things you do most often on your iPhone with an app called Shortcuts. Beyond automating daily tasks, Shortcuts even enables some new possibilities — tasks that you previously couldn’t get your phone to accomplish on its own. Some of these features could be programmed through third-party apps like IFTTT, but now they’re baked into iOS 12.

Shortcuts replaces Apple’s old Workflow app and makes Siri more powerful and useful than ever before. By recording custom phrases and adding them to Siri’s repertoire, you can trigger a sequence of actions involving multiple apps. Unlike a lot of Apple’s apps, however, Shortcuts isn’t entirely straightforward and can be intimidating the first time you open it. So here’s how to set it up. I’ll also show you some shortcuts you should check out to get started.

There are two ways to use Shortcuts. The best option is the Shortcuts app itself, which is where you can create your own workflows from scratch. The app also comes with a gallery of suggested shortcuts curated by Apple. Separate from this, Siri will recommend shortcuts based on your daily iPhone activity. You can see these in Settings under Siri & Search.

First steps

First install the Shortcuts app from the App Store.

The first time you open the app, your Shortcuts library will be empty. You can either choose to add a custom shortcut or tap the Gallery tab to browse pre-made shortcuts. Some of Apple’s picks include “Heading to Work,” which provides your ETA, tells you your first calendar appointment, and gets a playlist going for your commute. That all happens with a single tap.

You can tap on any Gallery shortcut to add it to your library. Some shortcuts require additional access and will prompt you for the necessary permissions to take control of various apps. From there, you can add a custom Siri phrase, rename the shortcut to whatever you want, and customize its icon. Curiously, Apple lets you use other app’s icons like Twitter, Trello, or even WeChat and Weibo for your shortcut.

Some of the pre-made shortcuts sound like recommended best living tips from a magazine. Do I really need a two-minute timer for brushing my teeth and a reminder to browse my favorite subreddits? Still, the novelty makes it fun.

Shortcuts to try

One of my favorite pre-made shortcuts so far is Say Cheese, which takes a photo automatically. If you tap Say Cheese, it runs without allowing you to preview the photo, however, once you modify the shortcut to add a custom Siri voice phrase, such as “Fire the shutter,” you can position your phone, with a selfie stick or some sort of mount, and take selfies through voice activation.

With the Samsung Galaxy Note 9 having an S Pen this year that can double up as a remote shutter, it’s pretty cool that a small shortcut like this can achieve the same effect. However, it does have its shortcomings. The further away your phone is, especially if the rear is facing you, the less responsive Siri is to “Hey Siri.” You can also switch Say Cheese to be front-camera only, as a quick fix to this problem.

Another great Shortcut to try is DND Before I Leave, which turns on Do Not Disturb while you’re having a meeting. Your phone will sense when you’ve left your current location and only then switch off Do Not Disturb mode, which is great for when you’re leaving a meeting or an important conference where you couldn’t take calls and texts. I tested out just how far you have to move for your phone to sense that you’ve left a location and toggle Do Not Disturb: approximately 0.2 miles, or three minutes of walking. That seems like an appropriate distance to travel from quiet meeting place to a louder venue where you can once again receive calls, so the feature seems practical and relevant.

In the month since iOS 12 was released, Apple has added new Shortcuts

Other recommended pre-made shortcuts, just to name a few: Play Playlist, Self-Destructing Clipboard, Running Late, and Convert Video to GIF. All of these are practical and currently work already, in a relatively straightforward way. Running Late involves having calendar events with preset locations, so if you don’t already use Apple’s Calendar app to set your schedule with specific location information, it’s less than helpful. Likewise, Play Playlist relies on Apple Music. The Self-Destructing Clipboard Shortcut, which proposes to delete your top-secret clipboard message in six minutes, is app-agnostic, and so is converting videos to GIFs, a skill that you previously had to rely on third-party apps to accomplish.

In the month since iOS 12 was released, Apple has added new shortcuts like Calculate Tip, Where Was This Taken?, and Dear Diary. Calculate Tip offers to automate one of the few bits of math we must quickly scramble to do on a calculator before we pay the bill. When you run the Shortcut, it prompts you for the bill total, and you can select what percentage you’d like to tip, beginning at 12 percent, which might be Apple trying to nudge you into good tipping habits. Where Was This Taken pulls up a map for where a photo was taken, if you had location services turned on when you snapped the shot. And Dear Diary, which requires having the Day One Journal app, asks you a series of questions about your day, and then creates a journal entry for you. If you have struggled to keep a diary on your daily thoughts, this shortcut makes it simpler to keep up with it.

The suggested shortcuts in the gallery can serve as a launching pad of templates to adjust and add more to. The main limitation is third-party support. You can technically summon any app you own through shortcuts, although you won’t be able to automate any actions besides opening the app. It’s still an improvement, though, because Siri previously only had permissions to open a handful of apps, like Apple Music and Safari.

Third-party app shortcuts

Apple’s Shortcuts only work with certain apps. So features that involve music work with Apple Music and not Spotify or Pandora. If you’re not a fan of apps like Apple Maps, Calendar, and Safari, and instead perhaps prefer Google Maps, Google Calendar, and Google Chrome, for now you’re stuck with Apple’s ecosystem.

Fortunately, Apple has opened up Shortcuts to third-party apps, but whether a particular app supports it depends on if its developer has built support for it or not. Apps like to-do app Things, Citymapper, Day One, the reminder app Due, and others currently work with Shortcuts, with likely more to come. The gallery will display options to create shortcuts with the supported apps on your phone; on my phone, I see suggested shortcuts for the note-taking apps Evernote, Bear, and Ulysses.

Creating a shortcut from scratch

The pre-made shortcuts are a start, but if you really want to get the most out of this new iOS 12 app, you’ll need to make your own. This is all about customization: tap the upper right toggle icon to start renaming everything, adding your own photo as the icon, and commanding Siri to read out your own custom phrases.

And the rest involves creativity and listening to the wider community. There’s a huge community aspect to it, because you can share cool shortcuts you’ve thought of through links (you just need to open them through Safari to add them to your library). There’s a popular subreddit for r/Shortcuts (formerly r/Workflow) that’s grown exponentially since the new app appeared, as well as people posting on Twitter about their latest inventions.

With a little messing around, you can get Siri to give you flight updates, remind people they owe you money, and organize a jam-packed morning routine. The last one is a particularly smooth routine you can open in Safari for your iPhone to run, you’d just need to do a few modifications. First, if you don’t have smart home connected devices, just delete that suggestion. Then, add in your name and zip code in the “Good morning” text field and the field that pulls up the weather from your zip. You’ll also need to get the Log your weight Shortcut from the gallery if you don’t have it already.

One of the all-time popular shortcuts in the subreddit simply adds text to a photo to make a meme. It’s a fairly simple concept that usually takes a couple of extra minutes to pull off on mobile. But with the shortcut, this process gets automated to take 23 seconds. Just run this link in Safari and the option to add this shortcut will pop up.

As you’re making your own shortcuts, you have plenty of options as inputs, including Apps, Calendar, Contacts, Documents, Health, Maps, Music, Photos and Video, Scripting, Sharing, and Text. You can also run a shortcut inside a shortcut, so say as part of your morning routine, you’d like to set a teeth-brushing timer of two minutes, you can add that. By using Text, and Speak Text programming, you can get Siri to say things like, “Seize the day!” and “You got this!”

Things I would like to see

Shortcuts is bursting with potential, but it’s still fairly common to bump into errors when trying to run your process. I’d like to see undo and redo buttons that would help in the midst of editing a granular list of actions. It would also be helpful if Apple somehow rewarded people for creating particularly useful shortcuts by spotlighting them within the app.

I would also like to see more helpful troubleshooting feedback, so if something fails, I can more easily figure out which part of the programming I messed up on. In particular, Slack integrations with Apple seem to not work right now, and neither does sending audio recordings directly.

Shortcuts can be as powerful or as simple as you want it to be, and it can automate basic actions you perform on your phone, provided you’re willing to put in the effort to set it all up.