Update (09/12/2015): Version 1.3 of Workflow has brought some very welcome additions to the app. There is a sweet, new widget that enables you to run workflows within Notification Center, and you can finally backup and sync your workflows!
iOS 8 and high-quality apps can be a potent, productivity combination. Shortly after I started focusing on iOS, a new app was released and some prominent iOS aficionados were ecstatic.
I read the reviews, watched the video demonstrations, and my interest was piqued. I have been using the app for several months, and even though I know that I have barely touched the surface of what it is capable of, I remain impressed.
There are already great reviews of the app, but I would like to give you my take on iOS's Workflow.
An Ode to Automation
Compared to Android, iOS has always gotten a bad rap when it comes to automation tools. There were awesome apps that could make up for this, but it always seemed like they had to fight the operating system to accomplish their incredible feats.
iOS 8 changed the game and the good apps became great apps. However, Apple's increasingly open attitude has created an opportunity for new apps to take things a step further. One of the first apps to take advantage of this is Workflow.
I was late to the automation game, but once I got a taste, I was hooked. I get it and I will never use a computer the same way again. My expectations have been elevated and I am continuously analyzing my routines to look for pain points that can be streamlined.
You might not know it, but OS X comes with a nice automation tool called Automator. Basically, it allows you to create customized actions that can be easily employed without having to utilize a programming or scripting language.
The program comes with a large library of actions that can be chained together to create powerful workflows. Even better, Automator can execute your automation masterpiece from a variety of places dispersed throughout the operating system.
For example, you can create a workflow as an Application, drop it in as a Service, create a Dictation Command, or even add it as a Print Plugin. It is a great tool, and I have dabbled with it throughout my Mac experience.
The mobile experience, particularly on iOS, is different. Each iteration of the hardware and software begs you to take better advantage of the powerful computer in your pocket. In addition, mobile operating systems are still limited when compared to the multi-tasking prowess of desktop and laptop computers.
Automation is one way around this limitation, and Workflow has taken this idea and beautifully ran with it. There is a caveat. Compared to iOS stalwarts like Drafts and Editorial, Workflow is the new kid on the block.
Yet, even in its inchoate form, it is still impressive and continues to improve with each update. I have no doubt that, with time, Workflow will become a pillar of iOS productivity.
In Workflow, an action takes an input and provides an output. To create a workflow, the actions are chained together in a vertical flow where one action runs, one after another, from beginning to end. The available actions are versatile and integrate well with iOS (e.g., they show native alerts and allow for text input boxes). You can even set variables that contain values, which can be used by different actions within your workflow.
There are many actions. They are searchable and deal with various forms of data. For example, actions can handle:
- Calendar events
- Webpage content
The user interface for constructing a workflow is simple. You name the workflow, select an icon to represent it, and determine if you want to build a normal workflow (a standalone app that can be saved to the home screen, like any other app) or an action extension (a workflow that will appear in iOS's share sheet; yes, with Workflow you can build YOUR OWN EXTENSIONS!).
After the app's initial configuration, you swipe to the right to access actions. These Suggested actions are broken down into categories, but you can also search for specific terms at the top. If you tap Actions at the top left corner of the screen, you will see all the action categories at the bottom, as well as the Suggested, Recently Added, and Favorites sections at the top.
These sections are self-explanatory, but the Favorites section is particularly noteworthy. After you become more familiar with the app, keep in mind that you can star individual actions. If you find that you frequently use the same core set of actions, favorite them for easy access.
If you are in the Workflow app, you can start a workflow by double tapping it. If the workflow is on your home screen or in the iOS share sheet, simply treat them like you would any app/extension.
Sharing Is Caring
The tutorial that initiates your first Workflow experience is appreciated, but to get a better understanding of what the app is capable of, you are better off examining the Workflow Gallery, a collection of pre-built workflows that cover the various categories that workflows are used for.
Every workflow can be shared via the Workflow app. A public URL is generated, and, once accessed in mobile Safari, you can download and import the workflow into your Workflows app. When you are just getting started, the Gallery workflows are a boon.
Even if one does not exactly meet your requirements, seeing how it is made will help you create your own workflows, and you can always customize the workflow to fit your needs. The Gallery is not as comprehensive or useful as Drafts' Action Directory, but it will help get you started and is continually improving.
I think most programmers would agree that their craft is not so much about memorizing a specific syntax, but knowing how to think and how to organize steps in a meaningful way, within the framework that their tools provide.
Creating workflows is like that. I can rant and rave about the app ad infinitum, but you will not get a good idea of what it is capable of unless you see it in action and, eventually, create your own workflows.
We will save that for Part 2.