Siri & Shortcuts in iOS 12

Easily the most impressive feature of iOS 12 is the integration of Workflow into the operating system as the recently-rebranded Siri Shortcuts. Apple’s on-stage demos of Siri Shortcuts have consisted of people explaining a half-dozen different actions these shortcuts perform, as funneled through one simple command. However, Siri shortcuts are also tremendously helpful at drilling down into an application to complete one task without opening that application when it would be inconvenient to do so.

For example, when I’m playing Clash Royale, which has been filling a strategic hole in my heart for some time, I often want to skip Overcast to the next chapter of the podcast I’m listening to. You can only take so many SquareSpace ads.

Before iOS 12, this meant flipping over to Overcast in the multitasking switcher, expanding the current podcast to fill the whole screen, and then tapping the next chapter arrow. Finally, I’d flip back to the game to see that I had lost one or all of my towers and the game was probably over.

In iOS 12, with Overcast 5, you can configure a list of shortcuts within the app to handle practically any function of the app from changing the playback speed to skipping the current chapter. That changes the scenario to one step, “Hey Siri, Overcast next chapter.” Siri isn’t always fast, but she is definitely faster than swapping to Overcast app and attempting to do the same thing.

There is a lot more functionality in Shortcuts that I haven’t even tried yet, and this example was only simplifying one task into one command instead of several tasks, but it feels obvious at this point that these programmable actions can alleviate some of the burden placed on users to adapt to iOS.

My main gripe with the Shortcuts functionality as it exists today, and with Siri in general, is that Siri takes over the whole screen when it isn’t necessary to do so. Many Siri activities that aren’t even shortcuts only necessitate a small confirmation that the requested action took place. The iPhone 6 Plus-sized devices (and especially the XS Max) cry out for a small window of the screen to pop-up a Siri response, then nobody will miss out on their game of Clash Royale just to skip a podcast ad.

Part of the problem that causes Apple to dedicate the entire screen to Siri may be the low confidence we all have in Siri to hear us correctly. Even today I couldn’t get my (Series 1) Apple Watch to understand a simple request for a timer (CW: misogynistic slur in text). The misunderstanding turned the request for a timer into a nasty message that I was surprised to read, then a few tries later it became a request for information about a movie I don’t want to see. Finally, I gave up and set the timer myself. On the iPhone a full-screen Siri response gives you the ability to see and edit the request if it was misunderstood like my 20 minute timer was on the Watch.

Once Apple’s confidence in Siri is higher, we may get that partial-screen response to our requests. I recommend keeping up with Shortcuts via MacStories.

Workflow Acquired by Apple

Matthew Panzarino has the scoop:

Workflow the app is being acquired, along with the team of Weinstein, Conrad Kramer, Ayaka Nonaka and Nick Frey. In a somewhat uncommon move for Apple, the app will continue to be made available on the App Store and will be made free later today.

This is terrific news. Workflow is an automation app that helps you get real shit done on iOS. I’ve used it to do things like clipping headlines out of articles and preparing a link in the format I use to link to posts like this one. Or you could use it for a simpler task like tapping one button to send a text message to your significant other and let them know how long it’ll take you to get home.

Workflow can do all kinds of things, but it is the kind of thing that it’s great to see Apple embrace because it means they’re serious about improving the functionality of iOS for more than reading, watching, and playing. If folks who grow up with iOS ever want to hope of being productive on those devices instead of learning desktop computing, this is going to be a tremendous start.