Apple Siri Shortcuts - Why They Matter

With iOS 12, Apple added Siri Shortcuts to the operating system and it immediately broke away many of the constraints that were holding Siri back. Hardcore iOS users jumped in right away, but there’s still a lot of people who aren’t familiar with what it does, or why it’s so important to the future of iOS and Apple. Or how Shortcuts and Siri have changed for HomeKit, home automation, and devices like the Homepod.

Let’s take a look.

Introduction

A very brief history.

Amazon has been dominating smart assistant integrations for several years now, and Google has been showing the world how machine learning can create a virtual butler for you with Google Assistant. While first on the scene with a voice assistant integrated into an operating system, Apple hasn’t kept pace with their rivals, and Siri Suggestions has never been as fully realized as Google Assistant. Until iOS 12.

Apple purchased the company that made the Workflow app for iOS in 20171, which was a very capable automation app for creating custom actions and workflows to automate repetitive tasks. Other iOS apps had to add integrations and hooks into Workflow, but once they did users were able to create some amazing things.

As good as Workflow was, it was limited by the operating systems security sandboxing rules and not being able to integrate into deeper areas of the user experience. That is until Apple bought them and integrated Workflow into the operating system in some surprising ways.

Enter Siri Shortcuts.

Workflow meet Siri

Oddly, the first thing you have to do is to install the Shortcuts app on your iPhone or iPad. It’s not installed by default, which I think is a major miss from Apple considering how much this can improve using your Apple devices.

Next up is to just open the app and check out the gallery. This will give you a good sense of some of the basic things you can do, as well as to see how they’re put together. A good example is the “Heading to Work” shortcut, which gets your ETA to work, tells you about your first calendar event, and starts playing an Apple Music playlist, as well as getting directions and traffic data to your destination. All of this just by tapping one button or asking Siri by voice command.

At the most basic level, you’re stringing together a series of Actions that you want to complete. The best place to start is to pick something that you do on a regular basis that requires multiple steps to complete. For me, I’ve often had to take screenshots of an app and then insert that screenshot into a phone frame for use in a video or presentation. Well, I’ve got a Siri shortcut that makes that painlessly simple. I can tap the iPhone X Frame shortcut, tell it which photo I want to use, and the result is automatically added to my Photos.

Any third party app can add hooks for Shortcuts and Siri Commands, like Stats for Tesla, Carrot Weather, Overcast, PCalc, and more. Many users complain about Siri not supporting Spotify, which is now something Spotify can add on it’s own with Shortcuts. I also find it pretty funny that Siri Shortcuts has actually opened the door to using Google Assistant on an iPhone or iPad. If you install the Google Assistant iOS app, you can add a Siri Shortcut with whatever Google phrase you want to use.2 That means you can activate Siri and have her pass off your request to Google Assistant ... kind of crazy. Create a good morning routine that turns on the lights in your bedroom and starts playing your favorite podcast in Overcast just by saying, “Time to wake up.”

iMore has a great list of 100 apps that support Siri Shortcuts, which includes everything from American Airlines and checking your travel details to Waze for getting the best route to your destination. I’ll put a link in the description and it’s worth checking out.

Why does this matter?

For several years now both Amazon and Google have been capturing mindshare and users around home automation and digital assistants. Google is king when it comes to taking everything they know about you from your search history, browser use, integrated services and apps, and your email to surface things you might want to know ... at just the right time.

Buy some airline tickets and Google will automatically add the flight data to your calendar because it saw the email confirmation. It will proactively let you know when to leave you house to get there in time for the flight, or if the flight status has changed. All of this is happening seamlessly in the background without user intervention, which, when it works, feels like magic. But you still can’t customize and mould Google Assistant to your will.

By comparison Apple’s HomeKit has felt rudimentary compared to Amazon, Google, or Smartthings. And Apple’s Siri Suggestions, which is meant to work like Google Assistant’s proactive communication, falls short because of Apple’s privacy first architecture. They don’t have the centralized cloud service processing all of your intimate details at scale. Instead they’re processing most of these Siri Suggestions on device, which has the benefits of Apple keeping your data at arms reach, but also makes their job harder for creating exceptionally useful assistants like Google has.

Shortcuts is a fascinating approach that keeps the power in the users hands and lets all of us craft anything from simple to complex workflows that addresses common problems we run into every day. One of the major shortcomings of iOS is the cumbersome nature of jumping between apps and activities. With Shortcuts you can remove a lot, if not all, of those rough edges to get jobs done with a tap.

Unzip an email attachment and save it to a folder on Dropbox and then display the contents. Let your partner know when you’re leaving work and how long it should be before you get home, then start warming your car and prep your music playlist. And with something like the Homepod, which was derided as a dumb smart speaker when it launched, you can now activate by voice most of these Siri Shortcuts you create ... which has dramatically changed the usefulness of the Homepod.

Even better is how easy Apple has made it to share Shortcuts with others. They have a pretty good gallery built into the Shortcuts app, but you can share a shortcut over email or text message with a friend. There are even some shortcuts galleries that have sprang up, like the Shortcuts Gallery and a great Reddit group. One word of warning though, when grabbing a Shortcut from a public forum like that, make sure you scan through each step in the shortcut to make sure it’s doing what you expect.

Where does it go from here?

As amazing as Shortcuts is for iOS, it’s not solving all of the workflow issues at making it a primary OS platform for something like an iPhone and iPad only lifestyle. There’s still only surface level file system access and no external storage support at all. Complex Workflows will pop open the Shortcuts app and you’ll actually have to watch it churn through each step.

HomeKit support in Shortcuts is also still very basic. While you can trigger a scene as part of a Workflow, you can’t go any deeper than that at the moment. Being able to create more complex scenarios, like when a certain family member arrives at home to trigger a HomeKit scene and then run a specific Workflow, would push this system into a realm all its own. You’d be able to pull off complex and useful actions automatically without any user interaction that would normally require coding or services like IFTTT or Stringify.

Apple usually plays the game of skating to where the puck is going and not where it is. If you look at their history they slowly build out the individual features of a grander plan over time, and when they have all of the building blocks in place they drop the new big product of feature in our laps. This is what this looks and feels like to me. With iOS 12 the addition of Siri Shortcuts was another building block to something bigger for the iPad and HomeKit. It will not surprise me if iOS 13 brings many of the missing features to iPad, like external file support and a rethought home screen & app screen, as well as deeper Shortcuts, HomeKit, and Siri integrations.3

Final Thoughts

As my iPad has become more of my primary computer, I’ve found myself using more and more Shortcuts and workflows. It’s making my iPad computer experience so much smoother and more productive that I don’t miss using a Mac or PC ... with the exception of something like Photoshop or Final Cut Pro.

My obsession with smart speakers, voice assistants, and home automation has been primary in the Amazon and Google realm ... until iOS 12. I’m able to do a lot more with Siri now than I have ever been able to do before. To the point where I can do all of the same features I use most often on Amazon and Google. From my experience Apple has nearly caught up on the voice assistant front for how I use them, and Shortcuts has so much potential ahead of it that I can see a time where I would want to transition over to Siri and Shortcuts for everything.

Amazon has recently released Alexa Blueprints that lets you build custom skills, which is a great start, but is fairly skin deep for what you’re able to do.4 Google doesn’t seem to have anything like this built for users, but they do have skills that app developers can easily add into their apps to tie into Google Assistant.5 There’s nothing like Shortcuts on either platform at the moment, and I find the different approaches fascinating and great for consumers. There’s no one right way to handle, and having so many different approaches will spur ideas and competition.

If you’d like to learn more about Shortcuts, I’d strongly recommend checking out Christopher Lawley’s YouTube Channel, The Untitled Site. He has a great series of Siri Shortcut how-to’s and introductory videos that are extremely well put together. I’m also continuing to experiment and play around with the system myself and will probably put a video or two together on how I’m starting to use Siri Shortcuts for home automation.


1: https://techcrunch.com/2017/03/22/apple-has-acquired-workflow-a-powerful-automation-tool-for-ipad-and-iphone/

2: https://www.theverge.com/2018/11/20/18105693/google-assistant-siri-shortcuts-feature-iphone-ios

3: https://www.theverge.com/2019/1/30/18204230/apple-ios-13-dark-mode-ipad-home-screen-features-rumors

4: https://blueprints.amazon.com

5: https://developers.google.com/actions/extending-the-assistant