iPad Journal: Shortcuts Update

Many in the iOS user community really, really love Shortcuts. This is especially true of the iPad power users. There are some that have made Shortcuts a key component to most of their workflows.

Apparently I am not one of these users. Way back when it was Workflow I built out a few and downloaded a few. I usually ended up just using 2-3 of 20 that I had. And that’s fine. Sometimes you don’t know what’s going to prove useful and it doesn’t hurt to try. The app is now Shortcuts and is more deeply integrated and more powerful. I’m using it more than before but nothing like what some do.

A few thoughts. When I see what power users like Federico Viticci, Mathew Cassinelli and David Sparks do with Shortcuts I’m often not sure whether I should be impressed or if I should laugh. I’ll explain.

There’s no doubt Shortcuts is a powerful way to assemble workflows. But often what I see happening is the creation of Shortcuts that don’t seem to do much more than what an app can do on it’s own. Or, it may just be that the examples provided are un-relatable to my needs as they are often very specific to the workflow of the user. And for that user it seems they are very useful.

Something else I’ve noticed, and I’m sort of restating the above, but many shortcuts seem to just be solutions in search of a problem. Again, solving something that already is solved in the app. I can illustrate with an example that popped up on Twitter as I’ve been writing this post. Federico has tweeted that in this week’s Club Mac Stories he is introducing a new series on using Shortcuts with the Apple Music API. His tweet states that:

The first shortcut I’ll share lets you search the entire Apple Music catalog in 2 taps.

That’s pretty cool. But here’s the thing, I can do that right in Apple Music. If I long press the Apple Music app icon I can jump right into a search in Music. Or, I can Command-Space to open Music then tap the search icon at the bottom. His shortcut allows for first typing a search term then presents a list of choices: song, album, artist, and playlist then presents the result. I’m just not sure that’s any faster.

Much of what I see being presented by Shortcuts enthusiasts falls within this category of tasks that apps already do without a shortcut. That said, I think Shortcuts can be very useful. In my case I get the most benefit when I use it to do specific utility type functions that iOS itself does not do. Or, it provides a noticeably faster way to do something.

Here are examples of my current favorites and they are fairly simple and usually saved as widgets for quick access:

  • Unit price calculations. I use this one on the phone when I’m shopping to do quick comparisons of items. The shortcut asks for unit quantity and the cost then gives me the cost per unit. Very fast.
  • File converters. These only get used on the iPad, usually when I’m doing work on a website. I often need to convert a png or pdf to jpg and while I can use an app like Affinity Photo this shortcut is much quicker.
  • Switching audio playback. Apple Music, Podcasts, Overcast and any other app has an Airplay icon to send audio to a HomePod or AirPods. It’s easy to use. But it often takes a few seconds and if I’m on LTE I may also have to first tap once or twice to turn on and connect to my WiFi if, for example, I’m coming back from walk and want to switch from AirPods to HomePods. With a shortcut on my home screen or a widget I can tap once and my iPhone connects to my WiFi network and then changes audio playback to the HomePod. It’s not a huge difference but it is noticeably faster and it’s something I do often.
  • Reliability and consistency have been issues for me. Shortcuts sometimes just seem to fail. Or they work for a period of time and then stop working. Sometimes it would seem something should be possible and I’ll spend time trying to build an automation only to find out that it’s not possible. A recent and very frustrating example. I often want to use a screenshot on a website but the native png screenshot files are huge. I can save to Files then share the png to a Shortcut to convert to a jpg, set quality and size. But I cannot do this directly from the screen shot interface to Shortcuts. I have to take the extra step of saving the file then opening it up. Why?

Another example. With iOS 13.2 a new feature is handoff from iPhone to HomePod or HomePod to iPhone. Sounds nice but in practice that’s been very slow or unreliable for me. Instead, I’ve got a Shortcut which has the added benefit of also working with iPads. If I’m playing a podcast or music on iPhone or iPad I can tap a widget or icon on my home screen to very quickly send the audio to the HomePod. It’s quicker and easier than using the Airplay picker which sometimes seems to have a long delay. BUT, I have to tap. I should be able to use Siri. It would be very cool to step inside after a walk and just say “Hey Siri, HomePod” to have my audio hop over to the HomePod. But there’s an error and it fails. While I mostly want to do this from the Phone I’ve also tested with iPad and it fails there too. Again, why?

Oh, and a note about using shortcuts that have been saved to the home screen, this experience feels weird because it actually opens the app when it runs the shortcut. Why not just do it with a progress indicator in the icon similar to what we see when an app is updating? Having the whole app open up seems janky.

I love the idea of Shortcuts but in practice it’s still bumpy and still very much for the tech crowd. I’ve asked my extended family and of 16 or so using iPads and iPhones, ranging from young students to older, retired folks, not a one is using Shortcuts. Most of them don’t even know that the app exists let alone what it does. And really, I think that’s for the best. I consider myself a fairly advance iOS user and if I’m struggling with Shortcuts they would very likely have an even more frustrating experience.

All that said, with iOS 13 Shortcuts have taken a big step in the right direction. I hope Apple keeps pushing it forward. I’m not sure it will ever be an app for most people but there’s great potential there for power users if reliability and consistency can be improved.

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