iOS Automation Tools for Productivity

Seems daunting to start using iOS Automation Tools

I’m sure a lot of people will find this to be the truth about automation. You’d like to get into automating your actions on your computer or your iOS devices and you find out what options there are. You get your hands on something like Workflow or Launch Centre Pro and then delve into how it all works. Making the simplest of automation is easy, but doesn’t take you very far with iOS automation tools. Before long you realise it’s going to take quite some movement along a steep learning curve to get into the really useful stuff. The other little matter is you need to have an imagination as to what is you can automate in the first place. You begin to wonder if you have time to make the list of the things you do regularly worth automating. You also wonder if learning all this stuff is just going to take too long and you might just be better off to do those things manually after all. I’m sure I’m not the only one who got that far and let themselves get distracted from the original idea of using iOS automation tools. It all just seemed too hard. I think it is worth persevering and making automation happen.

Sharpen the Axe First

Sharpen the Axe

I look upon this dilemma in the way of a man wanting to cut down the tree and is willing to take the time to sharpen the axe before getting started. It’s the same with computer processes and if you can be organised it’s well worth getting things properly set up for a few automation processes. It will make sense in the long term even if there is a little pain to get past initially. Starting simple is a good idea. When you search for examples of workflows to learn from, check out the easier ones first. If you jump straight to looking at the more complicated workflows, you’ll only end up being frustrated. This post is a story of how I got past the first look at using automation on the iPad and iPhone. I was delighted to have a real world problem I could try and improve with automation. In my job I wanted to add a couple of pieces of information into an ongoing text file. The final result had to be quick and simple. I didn’t want to be fiddling around searching for number keyboards or having to move the cursor around to get the right place for entry of the data. The task had to be done in as few taps on the screen as possible. So let’s jump in and have a look at the applications, the iOS automation tools and the workflows I considered.

Using iOS Automation Tools

We now have some fantastic iOS automation tools available to us to get things done quicker and easier on our favourites devices.

iOS automation tools

Which of these iOS automation tools you use depends upon your plan to use the automation.

  • What is it you want to do?
  • Do you have any special requirements such as needing to use the right keyboard to input number data?
  • Seeing as you’re considering automation then most likely doing things quickly is going to be an important requirement.
  • Where is the data going to reside in the end
  • Do you want to start from an app on the home screen or from within an app.

My requirements from iOS automation tools for this jobUsing Air Table

AirTable database appWith the iOS automation tools I have available I want to be able to add the text as quick as possible. Two of the data fields are numbers, so I want to have immediate access to the number pad keyboard. If I was using the application AirTable I could set this up very easily and just have numbers on the keyboard. The AirTable database application is not where I want the data to end up, so this is not going to work out for this iOS automation. I like Editorial as the application for the final resting place of the data.

 

Where do we start?

So we need toconsider the starting point for our automation. Do we want to begin in an application like Drafts or Editorial? Or will it be better to start from the home screen of our device. There is an in between option, which is to use a launcher application and for this I’m thinking about Launch Center Pro. If we are going to start in an application, it reduces the options we have for the automation. In the real world set up for an automation I wanted to use in my job, I need to add data quickly. The data is only text/numbers and can be done in a text application. For this it is quite easy to use snippets. This is where you type in a couple of letters and the automation adds a whole lot of boilerplate text which you can add to. So for example when I need to put in the date and the time all I have to do in Editorial is to set up a snippet. The snippets are easily accessed from an extra row on the keyboard. Tap on the snippets button and you have a pop-up list of snippets available. A second tap somewhere in your list will insert whatever it is you want. The snippets also have textbased triggers. So with the date I just have to start typing the letter D twice and I’m offered the snippet for the date. I have a similar setup for time and another one which will insert both the date and the time.

You’ll get access to TextExpander snippets in a similar way. TextExpander will offer other options like fill in fields and choosing from a list. I’m going to be inserting the data using my iPhone and sometimes it can be fiddly to position the cursor exactly where I need it. This means it’s better if I can use an iOS automation tool using defined fields. It’s simple to set up a fill-in field for the data, although I have found I had to do that on my iMac rather than within the iOS version of the application. The TextExpander snippets synchronise to my iOS devices and I can use those in both Drafts and also in Editorial. It works better in Editorial if you enable the option to suggest completions. You can have it suggest completions after the first letter is typed or after two letters are typed. After two letters is the default and for me that works the best. By the way, I will not be changing to the new versions of TextExpander requiring a monthly payment.

Not sure TextExpander will be best option here

By using Editorial I have the advantage of access to TextExpander as well as the built-in snippets capability. I am speeded up by being able to use the fields to fill in the data. I am slowed down by having to tap once to get the number keyboard. Sometimes I’m also slowed down by having to get the case of the trigger text correct. I have the TextExpander trigger set to be case insensitive. Despite this, Editorial which wants to give me a capital letter at the start of a line will stop the snippet from showing up. It is annoying having to tap the shift button on the keyboard and then re-type the trigger. It would be much better if I didn’t have to remember this every time.

Using Text Expander

Taskpaper in Editorial

The good thing about using Editorial is there is the Taskpaper option. This is a textbased syntax which gives me checkboxes. If I start a sentence with a hyphen followed by a space then I get a list with a checkbox. Taskpaper is a great option when you have tasks to complete and you can check them off when done. Now to find other iOS automation to use.

Editorial iOS automation tools

Using the TaskPaper syntax in Editorial

iOS automation tools in Editorial

In Editorial there are three options for iOS automation tools. The quick and easy one is to use the Snippets, but there are also workflows. Editorial is closely related to the application Pythonista which is for writing code in the Python language. So it’s not uprising that there should be more complicated iOS automation tools within Editorial. I have a workflow which is to send Markdown text to Ulysses. Just in case you’ve been writing in Markdown in Editorial rather than writing the Markdown in Ulysses and you want to get the text into your authors application. To get to these workflows, as they are called, you tap on the wrench icon in the top right corner. You’ll see a drop-down list of all the workflows you’ve installed and at the bottom there is a button to get more workflows. If you know what you’re doing you can make your own workflows. I have a workflow which will give me the statistics of a document, counting the characters, words and sentences. I have another workflow which will show the differences between the text in the document and the text in the clipboard. If you go searching for more of these workflows will see there’s a small selection to choose from initially. Follow other links to get to the documentation and other workflows in the workflow directory. All this functionality within what seems at first to be a mere text-editing application makes it powerful and useful. It is well worth spending the time to find out how to create your own workflows to help you get things done more efficiently. There is an interactive tutorial to help you get started. It shows you how to build workflows using the building blocks. You can tell the application to grab the selected text and then run it through a conditional block. This is where you tell the workflow to continue if something happens and to do something else if another thing happens. The workflow doesn’t have to just stay within the application, it can also go out to the web and look for information. For example you might want to find the meaning of the word from a dictionary site. These Editorial workflows are what did the job for me in the end. I can even start a workflow with a text trigger.

A Session of Insomnia Was Needed

For the life of me I couldn’t find out how to get the text I’d requested from text input fields and stored as variables, put into the document I was working on. I tried a number of different actions available within Editorial. When you’re trying to create your own workflows, whether it be in this application or in the Workflow app, It’s a good idea to have a look and see what other people have done already. I did this with three or four different workflows from Editorial before I found the workflow containing the information I needed. I’ve found that most of the workflows I looked at were far too complicated for what I wanted. I only wanted to make something very simple.

Eventually I got there, but it took a late night/early morning session of not being able to sleep and getting out of bed to entertain myself at my computer. If you live on your own you could just stay in bed and grab the iPhone or iPad off the charger. I have a lovely wife I didn’t wish to wake up and besides, getting up I could also make myself a cup of tea. Tea – otherwise known as coding juice.

So now I have created a workflow that does the job perfectly. I have the benefits of being able to input the data quicker by specifying the number keyboard is to be used. I don’t have to move the cursor to a specific point to add the information in the right place. The two fields I need to have filled in appear one after the other ready to take the data. The technology is going to help me work quicker to do what I need to do instead of slowing me down. The best part about this is that I have absolutely no need whatsoever for using pens and paper. Little bits of paper get lost far too easily. The next thing would be to persuade my work colleagues to use a system where the data I’ve collected can be accessed easily by them also. The only problem is I have colleagues who are more like Luddites and technophobes; which is a shame. There are services and applications such as Quip and Slack we could use. I have investigated these briefly and I’m not sure that they’re as simple to use as I’d like them to be. I wouldn’t have too much difficulty using them myself, but I do have to persuade other people to get on board.

iOS automation tools in Launch Center Pro

The thing about Launch Center Pro is you can set it up for actions rather than just opening up an application. You can basically set up a button which will open an app and do an action within it – Bam…. Job done! . I have a Launch Center Pro action which will append text to the bottom of a document in Drafts. This is okay if you don’t need to do any editing of the text you are appending. So what I’m going to try and do is to make an action in Launch Center Pro which will stop along the way to ask me for the data I need to add alongside the boilerplate text. I might have to combine the efforts of three applications to do that. I could maybe make a workflow in the Workflow App to be triggered in Launch Center Pro to put the data into the text application. This is a handy addition to the iOS automation tools for being organised and efficient. At the time of writing I am still figuring it out.

 

 

Using Lanch Center Pro

Using Lanch Center Pro

 

Running a Workflow from Launch Center Pro

Running a Workflow from Launch Center Pro

 

In Launch Center Pro it is possible to set up an action to run when you arrive in a place or when you leave a location. I’ve set one up to run when I get to work. I set the days it is supposed to run and I’m looking forward to see how well it works. I could use it for more useful automations that the selfie Workflow I’m testing it with.

Location Trigger in Launch Center Pro

Location Trigger in Launch Center Pro

 

Url Scheme in Launch Center Pro

Url Scheme in Launch Center Pro

iOS Automation Tools Options

During this process of exploration of the iOS automation tools I got what I wanted from the application Editorial. I did some fiddling around in the Workflow application. I looked at the possibilities of using Launch Center Pro. Neither of those have worked out for me yet, but I haven’t given up trying. I did manage to make a workflow that did a good job of creating a new entry in the application Day One. I got it to go into a specific journal entitled Work. It worked well, but in the end I’d have to export out of Day One. I’d rather use Editorial and have all of my entries created by the iOS automation tools in one single document from the start.

There is a option in Workflow to go to Editorial and run an action. I could put that workflow into Launch Centre Pro. It will just be a long way around to get the job done.

Workflow is the best of the iOS Automation Tools

Workflow works with a huge number of applications. This iOS automation tool has huge number of actions available in order to make powerful and useful automated workflows. To get the best from it you would need to know a little bit about programming, at least if you want to do more complicated automations. Even so, you can come up with useful stuff by dragging and dropping some of the basic actions into the workflow build area. I have downloaded loads of workflows built by people who seem to know what they are doing. It is a fantastic resource to help you learn.

Workflows in Workflow app

Ways of using Workflows

The workflows can be triggered in different ways. Double tap on a workflow in the app and it will run. Open the Workflow and tap on the run button. Add the workflow to your homescreen and it is just like having an iOS app. Run workflows from Launch Center Pro. Use workflows from the share menu in an app. Which one of these you use depends on the input – the data you start with and what you want to do with the data.

With great power comes great confusion – Maybe…

The learning curve with Workflow is even steeper than with launch Center Pro. Not surprising seeing as you can do so much with the app. Don’t try to run before you can walk and you’ll be OK. Most of the workflows I have downloaded ready made by other people and there are sites avaiable to help you find workflows. Often it is much easier to grab these and to alter them until they fit your purpose. Making your own only involves drag and drop, but it can get complicated quickly.

Diving in to Workflow and persevering

Using Workflow App

Using Workflow App

Late one evening, just before bedtime I got inspired within the Workflow app. I’d worked out it was going to be necessary to use variables to set up the iOS automation. I started off by adding the action called Choose from Menu. It’s extremely easy to add a question as a prompt and then add the list of items to choose from. For each of these choices I set the text as a variable with the action Set Variable.

I then used the action Ask for Input to ask another question which I could answer by using the number keyboard. Once again I set the answer as a variable. I repeated this with another question and setting of a variable.

The next step was to combine the text – There is an action called Text. In this action I placed the variables containing the answers from the previous questions. At the top of the keyboard there is an extra row, tap on the button Variable to choose which variables you wish to place into this section.

With this use of iOS automation tools, specifically Workflow I then added another action called Add to Draft. Within the draft application I had to find the Draft UUID. This information can be a bit difficult to find but I made it easy by using an action I downloaded specifically for the job within Draft. I was delighted when this iOS automation tools worked. When you run the automation from within Workflow you see a new dialogue box pop up at the bottom show you the output from the automation.

Getting there – But not quite there yet

While the application Workflow is fantastic and is definitely one of the iOS automation tools you should have on your iPad and iPhone, it didn’t feel quite right yet. The time spent working with Workflow was well spent. It got me thinking in a programming and coding sort of way. I found out how to ask for inputs, set variables, combined the text collected ready to put into an application. Workflow also helped me get it straight in my head how to choose from lists and to then use if – otherwise – End if coding. I started to see the logic of how it all worked like a flowchart so I could do more complicated programming with the iOS automation tools. After doing the simple stuff I found I wanted to add more and at the same time keep it easy to use. For this I would need to start using the programming available within the application Editorial.

Programming in Editorial

Within this application you have Workflows. It’s the same name and a similar type of thing as with the application Workflow, but in Editorial. I started off by adding an action called Request Text Input. I gave it a title so I would know what I needed to add to that text box that popped up. I chose the keyboard option of Numbers & Punctuation. It also possible to choose either a single line or multiple lines of text. I only needed to use a single line in this workflow. The next step is to set the variable. You give the variable and name and the value is the input from the previous action block.

 

 

Programming in Editorial

Action blocks in Editorial

 

I found out that by choosing Multiple Selection in the Select from List action I could add a check mark in a pop-up for all the items I wished to choose. It worked out as a quick way to tell me all the things I needed to check and add to the generated text. The output from this was sent to an action block called Generate Text.

iOS Tools automation

Choosing from a list and setting keyboard options

I then used another Generate Text and added more text and icons. The first line of the text I added a label which I’d set up for the TaskPaper type of document. This was so I could have a coloured line to show the start of a new entry. I could then add in the following lines lines for the information collected placed in there with the variables already set. Once I had all of this set up the way wanted I only needed to add one more action block called Replace Selected Text. This action had me confused at first because it wasn’t replacing any selected text. It took me a while to work out that it just takes the input of the previous action blocks and pastes it into the document you’re working with. Now I am totally happy with the way of been able to use iOS automation tools. I have a workflow which will take info I can add as the workflow runs. There is a list I can choose from to add other items and it even all looks very pretty. What more could I ask for?

Automatically adding a date

Automatically adding a date

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