Apple’s ‘Shortcuts’ (a new stock app in iOS 12) fascinates me. That’s probably because it allows a coding-phobic guy like me to figure out how to make my phone do things that usually require some knowledge of coding. What I intend to do is start figuring out how to use ‘Shortcuts’ for simple stuff. Once I get a hang of it, I will start trying a bit more complex shortcuts. In short, this post is a sort of a diary of my experiments on how to use shortcuts.
To sum up, if you’re trying Shortcuts for the first time, then this post is for you. I must add that Shortcuts only works on iOS 12. But the good news is iOS 12 works on all iPhones, from iPhone 5S onwards. So if you haven’t updated, please do so. Once you are done, let’s start exploring Shortcuts.
Shortcuts is Workflow, reincarnated
(You can skip this section if you’ve not used the ‘workflow’ app previously.) On first launching my Shortcuts app, I found what seems to be a dozen sample shortcuts under the Library tab. Something seems odd. So I check Shortcuts on my wife’s iPhone. Her library tab is empty. This is a head scratcher!
I take a closer look at the supposedly sample shortcuts, and suddenly recall playing around with the Workflow app around a year ago. In fact, I created a few Workflows, as Shortcuts used to be called then. I even wrote a post on Medium about my experience (I must confess here that I have forgotten whatever I learned during my Workflow experiments).
Are these shortcuts those workflows? A little digging around confirms this. Here’s a screen capture of the workflow widget on my phone a year ago, juxtaposed against the shortcuts widget of today.
As you can see, it’s mostly the same down to the shortcut icons and colors, with the app name being the main difference. My guess is when Apple relaunched the Workflow app (which it had earlier acquired) as Shortcuts, they released an app update, which changed the app’s name, and imported all existing workflows, as shortcuts into my Shortcuts app’s library.
I decided to start with something simple. Shortening URLs seems apt, as it’s useful but not too complicated. The thing is Google recently shut down goo.gl, their URL shortening website, which used to be my go-to url shortener. I need a substitute. To check if Shortcuts has a URL shortener, I open Shortcuts, tap on Gallery, then type in ‘short’ in the search bar on top. A ‘Shorten URL’ shortcut pops up. We are good to go.
I tap on the shortcut’s icon, then tap on ‘Get Shortcut’ to send the tongue-twisting ‘Shorten URL’ shortcut into my library.
Now let me try and shorten the URL of my previous post on Workflow. So I go to my browser, find the post, and copy its URL.
A shortcut for Shortcuts
However instead of going to the shortcuts app, I intuitively tap on the share button in my browser. Good guess. There is a shortcuts option in the share menu. Tapping on it takes me to The Shortcuts app, which automatically displays shortcuts that might be useful to someone who has copied a URL. I tap on the ‘Shorten URL’ option. One more tap. The shortcut does its job, copies the shortened URL to my phone’s clipboard, and quits. To verify, I open my Notes app, and do a ‘paste.’ The short URL is there alright. https://is.gd/9dJzuN.
I’ve attached a video of me using Shortcuts via the share menu. Please note the video is slightly different from what I described above as I copied the URL from the Medium app, instead of my browser as described above. If the video shows up as a thumbnail, just double tap on it to zoom in.
That wasn’t very hard. Let’s try another one.
A quick look at the Shortcuts menu shows a ‘Directions Home.’ That could be quite useful when I get lost while driving. The catch is the shortcut has to use Google Maps because Apple Maps is a no-go in India. Let’s have a look.
A short break for Housekeeping I open the Shortcuts app, and tap on the library tab. Looks like I need to do some housekeeping as there are too many shortcuts (handed down from my experiments when the app was Workflow). Scrolling through a long list of shortcuts defeats the purpose of having shortcuts. I need to keep this list down to one screen, say 10–12 shortcuts. For instance, the first shortcut ‘Send me an email’ is something I rarely need. So I tap and hold on the icon. It begins to wiggle, and a delete button appears on the top right. I tap it and it’s gone. That’s one shortcut less to scroll through. See first half of video below.
Dissecting a Shortcut
Apologies for getting sidetracked. Anyway, I need to know if I can get this Shortcut to work with Google Maps. I tap on the ‘Directions Home’ shortcut from the Shortcuts gallery tab. A window pops up to tell me the shortcut uses Apple Maps (the app icon is clearly Apple Maps). Nothing about using alternate apps to Apple maps. Maybe there’s an option further in. I hopefully type on ‘Show Actions.’ A new window pops up for me to enter my address. Still no Google Maps. I try scrolling up, and there it is! An option to use Google maps instead of Apple maps (see the screen captures below). Ok, this is looking workable.
Modifying a Shortcut
Though it’s simple, there are around sixteen steps. To avoid missteps, I’ll take you through each step to help you replicate what I did (If the video is too small on your phone, double tap it to make it fill your screen. In case, you can’t catch what I’m saying, you can turn on the captions).
My success with Siri and Google Maps, emboldens me to try another shortcut involving voice. A ‘speed dial’ to call my wife seems a good idea (it wasn’t but we’ll get to that).
Siri gets confused with my wife’s name, probably because it rhymes with ‘Hey Siri.’ This leads to the odd situation of Siri politely replying whenever I call out loud to my wife. (There’s a wild conspiracy theory at home about Apple trying to get me to digitally bond with Siri) Anyway, my solution is to use her initial ‘J,’ instead of her name, and record my voice command as ‘Call Jay.’
Accordingly, I tap on the Gallery and search for Speed… Speed Dial pops up. We are ready to go.
I tap on ‘speed dial,’ click the ‘get shortcut’ button on the next screen, select my wife’s name/number from my contact list, and tap done. The app saves the shortcut in the app’s library, as well as in my shortcut widget as ‘speed dial.’
Ok, this is just me being finicky. But I want that command to read ‘Call Jay,’ not ‘Speed Dial.’ So I go back to the new ‘Speed Dial’ icon in the library screen, tap on the ellipsis (three dots). In the window that pops up, I tap on the switch icon on top , which opens ups the settings window for that shortcut. I then tap on ‘Speed Dial’ and type in ‘Call Jay’ to replace it. I then pull down to check if the command has changed in the shortcuts widgets. It has. Great!
However this is still just a normal shortcut. I need to customise it to work as a voice command. I repeat the steps from above to get to the shortcut’s setting screen, tap on Add to Siri, and record my voice saying ‘Call Jay’ and tap done. That’s it. ‘Call Jay’ is now officially a Siri Phrase on my phone.
On hindsight, I think I had a duh moment there. It would have been far easier to just change my wife’s name to Jay in my phone book, and ask Siri to directly ‘Call Jay.’ Siri seems to have no issues about picking up the word ‘Jay,’ regardless of my accent or how fast I say it.
Well, I did say this was a learning process, and I did figure out how to fix shortcut icons and names. I also learned that Siri Shortcuts is more appropriate for situations where you need to run two or more actions/apps simultaneously, or in quick succession. So let’s do just that.
Creating a Shortcut to run two apps
(This is the shortcut in the video at the start of this post)
One of the things I badly need is a shortcut that will start up my running app, and simultaneously turn on my music app to play songs in shuffle mode. Ideally there should be minimum touchscreen interaction, which means all the above should be triggered off by a voice command.
So why do I need this shortcut? Well, India is a humid country, and that means sweating, an issue that’s exacerbated when I do some physical activity like jogging. The thing is Touch ID is touchy about sweaty fingers, and will absolutely refuse to let me access my phone if I’m sweating.
Now imagine me have just started jogging, swiping repeatedly at a bouncing screen, hopelessly trying to get my running and music apps going. This after lugging my large screen phone and a bluetooth headset to the jogging track. Very bad for my BP. Yes, Face ID would sort out the issue. But buying a new iPhone in India, where the basic 64GB iPhone XR costs $1055 (₹76900) is not a practical solution.
Makes more sense to make a shortcut. So let’s do it.
Now I need to test if the shortcut works. So I invoke Siri, intone ‘Run DJ’ and sit back to watch Siri do her thing. Really cool, I say.
Don’t bug me There is one unrelated issue, which is probably a bug in the iOS Music app. When I run the shortcut, it sometimes only plays one song, though I have set the shortcut to shuffle all songs in the music app. I have observed that this happens when the last song played on my music app was one which I searched for and played. My guess is that the Music app is not shuffling all songs on the phone. Instead it’s shuffling all songs in the last album, playlist or search. And since the last search only had one song, that’s all I get to hear when I run the shortcut. Like I said, this may be a bug. The workaround is to make sure you go back to ‘songs’ in your music app, after you do a search.
Creating shortcut to share contact via WhatsApp
Here’s another simple one I made. People ask me to often share a contact’s phone number via WhatsApp. That usually involves a bit of hunting, copying, pasting, typing etc. Let’s see if I can make it quicker.
Well, that wasn’t too hard either. But are creating all shortcuts as simple? The answer, unfortunately, is “No.”
Limitations of Shortcuts
There are certain limits to what you can do in shortcuts without any knowledge of scripting or whatever. For instance, I love the ‘scan’ option that’s built into the iOS Notes app. The only problem is accessing it involves several steps. Unlock iPhone, swipe to Notes app, Open app, Open a new Note, Press the + symbol, at which you finally get an option to ‘Scan Documents.’ I would have loved a shortcut that starts up ‘scan documents’ in Notes, and lets me share the scan. The good news is I did find two workarounds, which involve 3D pressing the Notes app, or doing the same on the Notes icon in the iOS Control Centre.
The bad news is I can’t create this Shortcut, as there’s just one solitary entry of ‘Create Note’ for the Notes app in Shortcuts. This means creating that ‘Scan Documents’ action I want in Notes within the Shortcut app is not possible. Or maybe it it just needs some extra skills which I don’t have. So yes, there are limitations to what you can do in Shortcuts.
It may be possible to learn how to do that but I’m not sure I want to. I have a feeling that as the Shortcuts app improves, it may be possible to do more stuff. Why break my head figuring out scripting or whatever?
So when it comes to complicated shortcuts, it’s sometimes simply easier to download it from someone who has already created it, rather than create it yourself. Apple seems to encourage this. All the shortcuts ever created seem to be stored in iCloud, and Apple allows users to share links to download them.
Ok, so how do I go about sharing a shortcut? Let’s say I want to share my ‘Combine Screenshots’ shortcut. How do I do this?
Logically, sharing should be within the settings of the shortcut I want to share. I tap the ellipsis button on my ‘Combine Screenshots’ (more on this shortcut later). That takes me to the settings page of the shortcut. Nothing here. I tap the switch icon on the top right of the page. Got it. ‘Share shortcut’ is visible down the page. I tap it and this opens up the share menu, where I find a ‘Copy iCloud link.’ I tap it and my shortcut gets copied. The link is shown below.
You can see from the URl that it’s stored in a shortcut folder in Apple’s iCloud. https://www.icloud.com/shortcuts/49ea32aab42c4d07b63454d877136797
Let me demo how sharing works by sharing two customised shortcuts.
‘Share Location’ using Google maps The ‘Share Location’ in Shortcuts gallery uses Apple Maps, which is dysfunctional in India. It has to be Google maps to work for me. Unfortunately, the ‘Share Location’ shortcut doesn’t give an option to use Google Maps unlike the ‘Direction Home’ shortcut.
Actually, it’s possible to share location directly on Google Maps. But it’s quite a few steps to fire up Google maps, and figure out where the ‘share your location’ link is within the busy Google Maps setup. Besides Google can sometimes be over helpful, and confuse the hell out of me with an option to share my ‘real-time location’ instead of a link to my current location.
Anyway, I had created a version of the ‘Share Location’ shortcut that uses Google Maps, when the ‘Shortcuts’ used to be ‘Workflow.’ It’s a more complex you can see below. The 3-step version on the left is from the Shortcuts gallery , while the 15-step version on the right is my customised shortcut.
That version was automatically imported into my shortcuts library from my Workflow library when my app was updated and renamed by Apple. (You can read how I put together the Workflow, as it was called then, in my post — it’s in the chapter marked ‘Round 5’). I’m sure it should be possible to recreate this shortcut in Shortcuts. But it’s much easier to just use my shortcut.
Once you download this version into your library, all you have to do is tap on the ‘Share Location’ in shortcuts, which creates a quick link, that opens up into WhatsApp. You then select who you want to share your location with, and hit ‘send’ as shown below. Lot more easier than going to Google maps for sure. Here’s the link to download my ‘Share Location’ shortcut.
To be honest, Apple Maps links work when shared with Android users (the ‘Share Location’ version in the Shortcut Gallery creates Apple Maps links). That’s because Google automatically redirects Apple Map links sent to Android to the Google maps app. Smart Google. They are aware that 99% of mobile users in India use Android.
Ironically enough, that Apple Maps link won’t work if sent to iPhone users in India. It will open up in Apple Maps, which is more or less dysfunctional here.
Making ‘Live Photos’ just work I often find myself wanting to share iPhone’s ‘Live Photos,’ which are short videos (2–3 seconds). Unlike still photos, these tiny videos capture a whole lot more ambience. Unfortunately, sharing ‘live photos’ does not work on WhatsApp (India’s default messaging service) as they are simply converted into still photos. Most laymen aren’t tech savvy enough to solve this. Which is why few Indians shoot or share ‘live photos.’
The ‘Convert Live Photo to Video’ shortcut in my library solves this problem (I think I downloaded it from the net). All I have to do is tap on ‘convert live photo to video.’ Shortcuts then opens Photos, and I select the Live Photo that I wish to share. It’s quickly converted into a video (you can identify it by the play button on the converted video). I then tap the share button, choose WhatsApp, and share the short video. Easy-peasy.
Here’s the link to download the ‘Convert Live Photo to Video’ shortcut.
A short diversion Just in case you have an iPhone but aren’t using ‘Live Photos,’ you should. It’s no different from shooting a still, but is so much more (just make sure ‘live’ is turned on). Here’s a 3-second live photo that I just converted to a video using the ‘shortcuts’ app, and then uploaded to YouTube using the YouTube app. The whole process, including the upload, barely took a couple of minutes.
Let’s get back on topic.
Though the Shortcuts app has just been launched, users have already begun sharing their collections on the net, like this redditor.
Shortcut for song lyrics Here’s me downloading from the site a shortcut to get the lyrics of a song playing on my phone. The sound is turned off on the video below, as I need to play the music app in the background for the ‘shortcut’ to hear it.
I had a look at the shortcut settings to see if I could understand what the app was doing but it was all Greek to me. What does ‘Set Variable’ mean anyway? And why is some URL being encoded? Forget it, I don’t want to know. Just goes to prove that you don’t need to know coding to be able to create a program.
Shortcut to combine screenshots This is a perfect example of a tool that demonstrates itself (a kind of ‘wheels within wheels’ sort of thing). I first take four screen captures to show the four steps to download the ‘combine screenshots’ to your app’s library. I then go to Photos and use the ‘combine shortcuts’ shortcut to combine the four screenshots in two sets of two each.
You can also tweak the shortcut’s setting to combine the photos vertically, horizontally, or in a grid.
I was also a bit curious if the shortcut would combine photos, and not just screenshots. It does, but crops landscape photos oddly as it seems designed for vertical screenshots. I wouldn’t recommend it for combining photos.
Borderline legal shortcuts The Redditor’s list includes a shortcut that allows you to download a youtube video to your camera roll without using any external websites (which can get the job done, but put you at risk of being infected with viruses). Also, Google stands to lose ad revenue by this, and they would probably disable it. I check the shortcut and it wasn’t working for most YouTube videos. I’m guessing that Google has put some level of protection on those videos. But it may work for you.
‘Add to Siri’ Shortcuts
Developers have realised the possibilities of shortcuts, and are now including them in their app downloads and updates. For instance, my Camera+ app suggests I use the Siri Shortcut ‘open camera’ to open the Camera+app, which sort of makes it the default camera app (voice) on iOS. Sneaky, I say.
Other developers are following suit. This DSLR app suggests I use the Siri Shortcut ‘Raw shot’ whenever I want to shoot a raw photo. The guy’s English may not be perfect, but he’s got the idea alright.
Ok, that’s it. This has been a longish story. It was actually part of another article about how Apple cleverly persuaded me to train Siri. Then I told a friend about Shortcuts. He was fascinated, and requested me to show him how to use Shortcuts on his iPhone. I thought there might be others like him, and decided to flesh out the article with details, and post it as a separate story.
Finally, this post is an amateur or layman’s perspective of shortcuts. If you want a real professional’s perspective, check out this guy on YouTube.
Good Luck with ShortCuts.