Siri Shortcuts Intro: Selecting, Editing & Creating Basic Shortcuts on an iPhone

At WWDC 2018, Apple made a big deal about Siri & Shortcuts during the keynote presentation. Shortcuts is based on the app Workflow, which Apple bought in 2017. In this article, we'll provide the basics to get you going with the Shortcuts gallery and the editor's screen. Now that Shortcuts is available for iOS 12, it seems that no one quite understands how the app works. Even Apple's official guide to Shortcuts fails to answer some important questions. Grab yourself a cup of a soothing herbal tea and let's dive into this mess together.

Before we get in depth with this article, I just want to let you know; the problem isn't you. I've been trying to understand the Shortcuts app for two weeks. Most of the good information I’ve gotten has come from group-think conversations on Reddit. I've watched tutorials on making basic shortcuts and read lengthy articles on the subject. The truth is, no one really knows how this app works. As far as I can tell, this is an app that should have been included in the developer's toolkit instead of the general release. But, since this is what we're working with, let's talk about how to unleash the power of Shortcuts.

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How to Get Shortcuts on Your iPhone & iPad

Frustratingly, Shortcuts does not come installed with iOS 12. The feature that connects the Shortcuts app to voice commands via Siri is what officially got rolled out with the iOS 12 release. To get the Shortcuts app, you'll need to visit the App Store

If you have Workflow installed, you should download and install Shortcuts from the iTunes store before you delete Workflow. Once you have Shortcuts installed, check the Library in Shortcuts to make sure the shortcuts from Workflow transferred into the new Shortcuts app. You might need to shut down and restart your phone to complete this process. Once the shortcuts have transferred to the Shortcuts library you should delete Workflow.

Since Shortcuts are synced to iCloud by default, if you have Shortcuts on two iOS devices, your shortcuts will appear on both as long as you're signed in to the same iCloud account on both. While the steps and customization will all be there, you will need to give Shortcuts access to contacts, music, location, etc. on each device in order for the shortcut to work on both devices. And if the apps that are used in a shortcut only work on the iPhone and not the iPad, you won't be able to use that shortcut on the iPad and vice versa.

Shortcuts Gallery & Library View

The first screen you'll see when you open Shortcuts is the Library. You can add shortcuts from other users to your Library using the Gallery. You can even look at the editor’s screen to see the steps those developers included in a given shortcut. In my research, I found that there’s usually more than one way to do the same thing, and the shorter your list of steps, the faster your iPhone processes the shortcut as a whole. It’s entirely possible to get lost in the process. I know I did! There are so many shortcuts to pick from in the Gallery, it can be easy to get lost in the weeds. For the purposes of this tutorial, we’ll look at a shortcut I’d tried (and failed) to create from scratch: Music Timer.

To get the Music Timer shortcut:

  • From the Library screen, tap Gallery on the bottom right.

  • Scroll right through the top row until you find Shortcuts for Music.

  • Scroll right through the Control Playback section to select Music Timer.

  • Tap Get Shortcut.

Now the Music Timer shortcut is available in your Library.

Setting Up Your Shortcut

Unlike apps, most shortcuts are installed with steps that require user input before the shortcut can operate properly. Some shortcuts are easier to edit than others. Understanding how to edit a shortcut is important whether you’re using an existing shortcut or want to learn to build your own. 

Shortcuts and Siri are integrated so that when you say “Hey, Siri” followed by your voice command, the shortcut will run hands-free. For Hey Siri to work with a shortcut, you’ll need to set up your voice command manually. Let’s turn that function on for our new Music Timer shortcut.
  • Go to your Shortcuts Library.
  • Navigate to the Music Timer shortcut. The position of the shortcut will depend on how many shortcuts you have in your library.
  • Tap the three dots in the right corner of the shortcut.

  • This is your edit screen, where you can see all the programming steps that make the shortcut operate. To enable "Hey Siri" tap the blue and white sliders on the top right.
  • Tap Add to Siri.

  • Now we’ll record your voice activation command. Don’t include “Hey Siri” when you record your voice command. Otherwise, when you want to activate your shortcut, you’ll have to say “Hey Siri” twice! 
  • I got frustrated with this part. First, you what to wait audio indication that Siri is listening, followed by a pause and then a single chime before you speak. Say your phrase, then wait. There is a red square on the bottom that, in iOS 12, you can tap to complete your recording. In iOS 12.1, there’s a bug that interrupts the recording process and puts you back to square one if you tap the red square. Instead, just wait quietly and the recording will time out and take you to the next step automatically.

  • If you’re like me, then Siri will have recorded a few different versions of the phrase. Select the correct phrase. In my case, “Music Timer.” 
  • Tap Done.

Now let’s finish setting up your shortcut. When you tapped Done after recording your voice command, you found yourself back in the edit view for your Music Time shortcut. To test your shortcut:

  • Tap the blue play button at the top.

  • If the shortcut is configured correctly, your iPhone will ask “How many minutes do you want to play music for?” I entered 60 and tapped OK.

  • If you haven’t added permissions yet for other Shortcuts to access other apps like Music or Calculator, then you may have to approve that access. Your iPhone might pause to ask you for permission. Just tap Allow to continue.

After a moment, your Music should start to shuffle for however many minutes you specified. If you are already playing an album, then Siri will shuffle that album instead of your entire library.

Now, any time you say "Hey, Siri. Music Timer," you're iPhone should begin the shortcut, prompt you to enter your unit of time, and then proceed with shuffling your albums in the Music app.

But How Do I Play a Specific Album?

So, heads up; this is about to get complicated. It’s absolutely possible to set up a shortcut to play a specific album instead of shuffling through your entire collection. I collect musicals, and I don’t want to hear a random 30-second reprise from Les Mis when I’m rocking out to Jack White. Instead, I made a playlist to listen to while I paint.
 
For this tip to work, you have to make the playlist first if you don't already have one. Go do that and then come back (I’ll wait!)

For the remainder of this tutorial, we’re going to start a shortcut from scratch. With the November 2018 Shortcuts update, a new timer function was introduced that makes creating this particular shortcut much easier. Shortcuts doesn't automatically update with iOS updates. To make sure Shortcuts is current, check the app store for updates.

To create our new Music Timer shortcut from scratch:

  • Go to the Shortcuts Library.
  • Tap the Create Shortcut tile.

  • In the search bar on the bottom, type Get Playlist.
  • Tap Get Playlist. This will add a step called Get Playlist to your edit screen.

  • If you only have one or two playlists, then you’ll see both listed alongside Get Playlist and will need to choose between the two playlists. If you have more than two playlists, then you’ll need to tap Choose to select your playlist.
  • Select your playlist. If you select a specific playlist now, then that playlist will always play when you run this shortcut. If you select Ask When Run (you'll find it at the bottom of the list of options) then you’ll be able to select your playlist manually when you run the shortcut.

  • Tap Search.
  • Type in “Play Music.”
  • Tap Play Music to add this step to your edit screen.
  • By default, this step will shuffle your playlist. If you don’t want your playlist shuffled, tap Off.
  • By default, this step repeats the current song. To toggle this off, tap None.

  • Tap search.
  • Type in “Start Timer.”
  • Tap Start Timer to add this step to your edit screen.
  • Pick your duration. I entered 2 hours. To change the time unit, tap the light blue Min (minutes). This provides a drop-down menu where you can select the time unit. Now tap the number 30 and enter the number of units. For example, 2 hours.

  • To test your shortcut, tap the blue play button on the top of the screen.
  • Now we need to name your shortcut. Tap the blue and white sliders on the top right.
  • Tap Name.

  • Delete the text and enter your shortcut’s name. I’m calling mine “Painting Playlist.”
  • Now tap Done.

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  • You can also change the icon. Tap Icon.

  • Select your color and glyph. I like to color coordinate my shortcuts. All my music-related shortcuts are blue. 

  • Tap Done.

  • To connect this shortcut to Siri, follow the instructions in the previous section. My activation phrase for this shortcut is “Painting Playlist.”

Now, say “Hey, Siri” and then say your activation code. Bravo! You’ve programed your first shortcut!

Just so you know, the Start Timer function means that, once the timer is up, not only will your music end, but your timer will go off. To change this, you'll need to adjust the tone that plays when your timer ends.

  • Open your Clock, then tap Timer.

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  • Tap When Timer Ends.

  • At the end of this list is the option Stop Playing. This will end your music without playing an alarm.

This does mean that any time you use the timer on your iPhone for anything other than the shortcut we just programmed that you'll need to turn your ringtone back on inside the Clock app. 

What Else Can Shortcuts Do?

Shortcuts can do a lot; but as we’ve seen here, all the different steps and how those steps interact is very complicated. The easiest way to use Shortcuts is to download and edit existing shortcuts from the Gallery. But if you want to get really fancy then check back with us next time when we’ll talk about what the different steps in Shortcuts do (and don’t do!) and how the steps interact with one another.

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Tamlin Day is a feature web writer at iPhone Life. He has a degree in Media and Communications from Maharishi University of Management and his work has been published in the Rio Review and Breathe Free Press.