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Apple isn't doing enough for new Shortcuts users — here's how they can fix it

Shorcuts on an Apple MacBook
(Image credit: Matthew Cassinelli )

When it comes Apple’s Shortcuts app, many new users are caught off guard. They hear about the potential, but the app is very complicated. When presented with a blank slate, many often don’t go further figuring it out.

For such an important app in Apple‘s ecosystem, the company needs to do a lot more to onboard first time Shortcuts users and get them familiar with the app and how to build in it. Here are three areas the company could improve on and why those matter for newbies.

Action descriptions

(Image credit: Future)

One piece of low-hanging fruit that Apple could grab onto to improve the onboarding experience is to do an overhaul of the quality of action descriptions in the app.

When you tap on the information icon for any action in the app, you will see a short description provided. However, the description often just re-states the title of the action in another sentence and doesn’t actually explain much more than what you can grasp from the title already — actions like "Open Tab Group" are explained by "Opens the selected Tab Group, for instance.

Another example is the Set Playback Destination action, which can be used to create multi-room speaker pairs for AirPlay devices. If you didn't play around with the action and test its parameters, you wouldn't know that capability was possible.

Apple should go through and update the documentation for every single action in the Shortcuts app and give it a detailed explanation about what it does, how it works, and how it can be used with other actions.

That way, users can actually learn about shortcuts in context while they are building them, and it doesn’t require a separate reading session or tutorial to understand the thing that’s right in front of them. We have a lot of Shortcuts tutorials here at iMore, but users shouldn't have to look those up as the first step.

Step-through debugging

(Image credit: Future)

Secondly, the flow of information throughout the Shortcuts app is still very confusing and not immediately obvious for new or even intermediate users.

Actions are connected through a thin gray line that represents information flowing from one to the next, but there’s no way to actually see the results of each action without adding in scripting actions to debug along the way.

Apple should implement a step-through mode like the one implemented in their Swift Playgrounds app, which allows users who are learning coding basics to see what’s happening in between each step. Then, they can move slowly from one step to the next so they can understand the progression along the way.

If implemented in Shortcuts, users would be able to understand the flow of their content much better, in turn letting them build much more confidently in Shortcuts and have those success moments that give real value to their lives.

Curation

(Image credit: Future)

Beyond those two things, giving more timely and relevant examples of how the app works would go a long way for explaining the best uses cases to people.

Many of the categories in the Shortcuts gallery haven’t been curated recently — I literally programmed them myself when I worked at Workflow — and there are many more examples including third-party apps from the App Store that could show people the power of Shortcuts beyond simple use cases.

Many people don’t understand the depths of the thousands of apps that are already supporting Shortcuts, and when more developers adopt it with Apple‘s new API‘s in the fall they will have even more.

The opportunity is there, but it needs to be discoverable for people to actually get the value from it.


Overall, Shortcuts’ new user experience hasn’t really moved past the initial growing pains that Apple overcame after acquiring the app as Workflow in 2018 and integrating it as a native app.

Shortcuts these days has a ton of Siri features, has expanded its capabilities dramatically, and even spread its wings to a whole new platform with our favorite Macs. But new users who discover the app have much of the same first-time experience they did when it was still called Workflow all that time ago.

In many ways, Shortcuts is “learning to code“ for the masses, and Shortcuts as a programming language should have the educational support, technical resources, and community development that Apple’s user base deserves. At least to match the quality and values the company imbues into all of its other products. 

I really hope Apple continues to invest in bringing its newest users into the Shortcuts fold, expanding the education and the guidance on how to use Shortcuts best. Breaking down that learning curve is necessary so that everyone can harness the power of personal automation in their own lives.

Matthew Cassinelli
Matthew Cassinelli

Matthew Cassinelli is a writer, podcaster, video producer, and Shortcuts creator. After working on the Workflow app before it was acquired by Apple and turned into Shortcuts, Matthew now shares about how to use Shortcuts and how to get things done with Apple technology.


On his personal website MatthewCassinelli.com, Matthew has shared hundreds & hundreds of shortcuts that anyone can download, plus runs a membership program for more advanced Shortcuts users. He also publishes a weekly newsletter called “What’s New in Shortcuts.”